Islands in the Steam

How to find Filipino restaurants in the East Bay: Navigate!

As I pocket my change, Lulu and I gingerly lift up trays overloaded with lumpia, pancit, and goat stew. The cashier thrusts a plastic-wrapped loaf of white bread at me. “No, no, that isn’t mine,” I tell her.

“It’s free,” she replies. “Special offer.”

I had peered through the windows of the Goldilocks bakery and Filipino cafeteria in the Pacific East Mall before but had never stopped in for a meal. But when I searched the Web for Filipino restaurants in the East Bay, I discovered that Goldilocks is just about the only one.

Despite the large and ever-growing Filipino community in the East Bay, especially in Union City and Fremont, we don’t have one sit-down, full-service Filipino restaurant. Most Filipinos head southwest to Daly City and South San Francisco to eat big. Instead, scattered throughout the Bay Area are little holes in the wall dishing up takeout food from steam tables. They’re the descendants of turo-turo joints. Turo-turo, which means “point-point,” in Tagalog, refers to the “I want some of that, then some of that” style of dining.

The Richmond Goldilocks is part of a bakery chain that started in the Philippines and expanded to the United States in the mid-1960s to serve the growing immigrant population. Along with the cakes, breads, pastries, and dried fish in its display cases Goldilocks offers three square meals a day. The long bank of steam tables contains a good twenty to thirty dishes, including five daily specials, that give a good introduction to the basic national cuisine.

You may not find regional Filipino restaurants for some time, since the Filipino-American community comes from all around the country. With thousands of islands and 172 officially counted dialects, the Philippines is a country of broad diversity. To that, add massive waves of immigration from China, 400 years of Spanish colonialism, and another 100 of American. Over the years Filipino cooking has become a glorious mishmash of ingredients, styles, and flavors.

As a cuisine, Filipino food is hearty and mildly spiced. Lulu, from the Pampanga region north of Manila, explains that the dishes on display at Goldilocks are mostly feast fare, much richer than the daily diet of rice or noodles, greens, and a little fish or meat.

And according to her, Goldilocks’ food has much improved since her last visit. We sample eight plates, and most get a qualified nod of approval. Each dish displays its heritage like a last name. China contributed heavily to the fresh lumpia, a thin crepe wrapped around a garlicky jumble of fresh lettuce, julienned carrots, tofu, and mushrooms; chopped peanuts and a too-syrupy soy glaze coat the outside of the roll. (Fried lumpia, tiny egg rolls, are even called “lumpiang Shanghai” on the menu.) A whole pampano fish, sweet and flaky, was simply steamed with ginger, scallions, tomatoes, and whole serrano chiles. It could have come straight from a Cantonese restaurant.

Spain contributed heavily to the kalderetang kambing, a rich and spicy tomato-based stew studded with tender chunks of goat, red and green bell peppers, onions, and green olives. But the oldest of the ethnic influences, the Malaysian-Indonesian, shone through in the heavy reliance on dried shrimp and coconut milk. Goldilocks’ ukoy, the Filipino version of a common Southeast Asian sweet-potato fritter topped with shrimp, substituted regular potato shreds studded with onions and carrots. The salty, funky flavor of dried shrimp was accentuated by a vinegar-fish sauce dip. Pungent shrimp paste dominated the coconut-milk sauce coating eggplant, okra, long beans, and winter squash in the pinakbet. “They made this one mild for American palates,” commented Lulu.

The excellent pancit palabok demonstrated just how thoroughly Filipino food has assimilated all its influences. Boiled Chinese rice noodles were sauced in a mild Malaysian shrimp-stock curry and sprinkled with Spanish fried pork rinds, scrambled eggs, and green onions.

My sole complaint was that even though most of the dishes came from steam tables, they spent a couple minutes in the microwaves before service. They should have caught a few more rays; most of our food cooled to lukewarm by the time we made it back from the cashier. Room-temperature okra in shrimp paste loses what little charm it might have held for me.

Several weeks earlier, three friends and I drove down to Hayward to visit the other East Bay Filipino restaurant that turned up in my searches. An outpost of cleanliness in a grungy strip mall, Manila Garden has successfully kept up its early-’80s aqua decor. At the front of the room was a small parquet stage area, surrounded by a Stonehenge of speakers, a mixing board, and spotlights. Large families and mixed-age groups packed around the first- and second-row tables. They had come for the Saturday-night seafood buffet and karaoke.

During the week, the new managers of the twelve-year-old restaurant are soon going to start serving à la carte, but the weekend buffet still draws the crowd. As buffets go, this one was quite a steal. For an amazing $11.95 a person, diners can have all the fresh seafood they can eat. Like many buffets, some of the dishes were good, some mediocre; some hot, some cold. None sported labels.

One-half of the buffet was devoted to seafood. Fish cheeks, tails, and whole butterflied sardines were coated with an addictive salty, sour seasoning mix — perhaps containing tamarind powder — and deep fried until brown and crisp. A mound of unshelled prawns that had been dipped in a light yellow batter and fried didn’t age as well under the heat lamps.

The shrimp and fish cheeks were piled next to a heap of boiled crab legs. One worker shucked massive fresh oysters as fast as she could. In front was a sixteen-inch-long barbecued cuttlefish stuffed with minced ground pork prominently flavored with shrimp paste. Some of us liked its sweet pungency, some of us didn’t.

I recognized a couple of dishes: Chicken adobo was stewed until tender and coated with tart, salty soy-and-vinegar marinade enriched with a pinch of sugar and infused with black pepper and bay leaves. Kare-kare, a stew of beef, tripe, green beans, and eggplant in a gloopy, rich peanut curry, lacked sass. A vegetable pancit made with thin rice noodles just lacked flavor.

Turo-turos, like pho parlors and pupuserias, are the most prominent restaurants serving recent immigrant communities because they are the places where first-generation Filipino, Vietnamese, and Salvadoran Americans actually dined out in their native countries. Parents, grandparents, uncles, and aunts prepared all the special meals.

But mom and dad may be far away now, and their grandkids may be searching for food from the home country. Replace the steam table with the white tablecloth, and curious diners of all stripes may flock in to join them.

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