Filipino cuisine, long the bastard child of Asian gastronomy, is finally having its moment after years of being relegated to the fringes while Chinese, Indian, Japanese, Thai and Malaysian restaurants hogged the spotlight. Oh, we've had Filipino restaurants in this town, quite a few of them – the escabeche I had at Café Mindanao almost 15 years ago is still etched in my memory – but you can't deny the influence young Filipino chefs like former MasterChef finalist Francis Biondi and the trio at Kadence (Jennifer Bañagale, Mark Berdin and Lordfer Lalicon) have had spreading the Pinoy food gospel. Kadence's annual kamayan – the communal, plate- and utensil-free feast of Filipino fare – has become legendary.
Then you have the Tung Brothers, Johnny and Jimmy, whose Bento Restaurant Group (since renamed the Omei Restaurant Group) has served as an incubator for some of the better Asian concepts in town, and Taglish, the Filipino food stall inside Lotte Plaza Market, is among them. It's run by Mike Collantes, who once served as the group's culinary director, and who has worked with such A-listers as Wolfgang Puck, Joël Robuchon, Eric Ripert and Masa Takayama.
That he runs a modest operation inside a grocery store food court is in no way suggestive of pre-made, assembly-line grub slapped onto a tray by a high-school kid. I saw four people in the kitchen – serious and dedicated culinarians – methodically prepping, sous-viding and plating onto disposable bowls with great care. A SoCal pal, bemoaning the lack of good sisig in Orlando, went gaga at the sight of Taglish's rendition ($10.95): the crispy shreds of seasoned pig face, the wobbly egg yolk, the garlic rice and drizzle of garlic mayo, all stippled with bits of scallion, tomato and chicharrones.
"Dude, this is legit," he said while chomping on a lumpia spring roll ($5.95) in one hand and squeezing calamansi over the sisig with the other. Things to do while you await a dish such as this to be meticulously crafted: 1) Sip on your ube horchata ($3.95) or mango calamansi ($2.70); 2) Take in the full weight of those heavy scents first detected in the parking lot because they are glorious; 3) Learn some Taglish, a mix of Tagalog and English. Like, Gusto ko ng adobo chicken!
And if you really do love adobo chicken, then get it here in burrito form ($8.95). Seasoned potatoes and stewed mung beans substantiate the hefty roll. There are other handhelds: a longaniza burger ($8.95) served on a Hawaiian bun will make a moaner out of you. The patty is fashioned from a house-made sweet pork sausage, topped with a grilled pineapple and garnished with a pickled papaya salad called atchara. Sweet and meaty indeed. Corn on a stick ($4.50) had many of the same trimmings as the sisig (garlic mayo, crushed chicharrones, pickled jalapeños, fresh calamansi) but the corn itself left much to be desired. I'd order this during the spring sweet corn season without hesitation.
If Collantes offers kare kare ($11.95) as a special, get it. Oxtail and short rib loll in a luxuriant peanut stew that's hearty without being thick. Diced eggplant, bok choy and long bean add to the dish's sleepy picture of peasantry, which made it all the more amusing when a dab of shrimp paste startled my senses from their stupor, like smelling salts to an unconscious boxer. The funky flavor was ultimately neutralized by heaping spoonfuls of halo halo ($7), a dessert of jackfruit, red beans and coconut strips mixed with flan then avalanched with shaved ice and condensed milk. It's an invigorating sleet of an ending which we weathered like champs and looked forward to sampling again because the forecast, we both agreed, called for repeated visits.