3645 Park Boulevard, Hillcrest
"What d'ya call people from Guam?" asked my old friend, actor-singer-songwriter George Gerdes, in his coffeehouse performances years ago. His audience would shout out tongue-twisting wild guesses. Then George would shake his head, lean into the microphone, and whisper: "Americans!" (Some of you may remember Gerdes playing the title role in Cobb at the Old Globe.)
Guam is an American territory in the South Pacific, about two-thirds of the way between Hawaii and the Philippines, and whether you call its people Americans, Guamanians, or Chamorros (the natives' name for themselves), the cuisine is distinctive. The islanders have taken snippets of cookery from other cultures, added spice, and made it nice.
San Diego is home to not one but two restaurants serving authentic Guamanian fare, Islander Grill and Yokozuna's (to be reviewed later). As far as I can tell, these might be the sole Guamanian restaurants in the Western U.S. (There's a rumor of a place in Las Vegas. Beyond that, who knows?)
The largest local communities of Guamanians are in National City, Mira Mesa, and Oceanside, so the last place you'd expect to find a Chamorro barbecue would be in Hillcrest, on a condo-lined stretch of Park Boulevard. On the front patio of the Embassy Hotel, a cook bastes meats and chicken on a propane-fueled oil-drum barbecue grill. Step through the restaurant's front door, and you enter a casual enchantment -- a tropical island. Pale blue wallpaper with darker splashes looks like a surfer's-eye-view of a wave from inside the tube. Bamboo fences divide the dining room, and a bamboo-and-grass "shack" covers the kitchen door. Native craft objects, posters, and a map of "Guam USA" hang on the walls. You order at the counter, then choose a table. Everything is delivered in polystyrene takeout containers, even if you're eating in the dining room.
The restaurant is owned by four courteous Chamorro cousins and cousins-in-law (some Guam-born, some U.S.-born), who take turns cooking and serving. When we arrived on a Sunday afternoon, we found 15 visiting teenage Chamorro boys at one long table (several smaller tables pushed together), all drinking bottled King Car iced tea and waiting for their lunch. It seemed a sign of authenticity, even if it meant a longer wait for our food. Every time the counterperson brought out one of their orders, the group would cheer. None began eating before all were served. Then they said grace in unison and dug in.
Guamanians have a unique tropical cuisine that combines local specialties with flavors from several nations' worth of occupiers and immigrants. You'll find dishes that originated in Spain and Mexico (corn tortillas, for instance, brought by Spanish ships sailing between Manila and Acapulco), along with tastes of the Philippines, Japan, and Hawaii -- all filtered through the spicy Chamorro palate.
An appetizer of chicken empanadas was our first sampling. Unlike versions from Spain and Latin America, the three gigantic turnovers consisted of corn tortilla wraps -- done up Guam-style. Thick house-made masa dough is turned orange with achiote (the pulverized coral-colored seeds of the annatto tree) and cooked until semicrisp. The filling is a deeper shade of orange, a spicy colloid of puréed onions and rice porridge, with cumin, hot chiles, and salt -- plus cubes of soy-marinated barbecued chicken. The first bite seemed highly exotic. My partner and I weren't sure how we felt about our new discovery. By the fifth bite, we were hooked.
We fell in love with the coconut shrimp, available as a main course (with a complement of garnishes) or solo as a side. Either way, you get six medium tiger shrimp in an airy, coconutty batter -- not tempura, but close. The red dipping sauce, speckled with hot pepper seeds, is sweet-spicy with a fruity undertone (from pineapple juice?). Shrimp patties, however, are another "acquired taste." They're fritters filled with frozen peas, corn, and carrots, and bits of shrimp. Islander's version is a little doughy and a lot salty. The frozen vegetables reflect the culinary legacy of the American military bases on the island.
My partner's daughter, married to a Navy man, spent years in both Guam and the Philippines, so there's no questioning the authenticity of Islander's lumpia: It's exactly the recipe she sent home to Dad. Guam borrowed the dish from the Philippines and scarcely altered it. Rather than the elaborate concoctions made for festivals, celebrations, and office birthday parties, the restaurant serves a plainer version that Filipinos (and evidently Chamorros, too) cook at home. About the size of a Havana cigar, the deep-fried spring-roll wrappers are filled with a dense mixture of ground beef and frozen peas and carrots. The cylinders come with a red, sweet-sour-spicy dipping sauce (the flavors are simpler than in the sauce for the shrimp). Pancit (served as a side dish for $3) is another of Guam's Filipino borrowings -- a basic rendition of stir-fried cellophane noodles decorated with carrot, celery, and onion slivers, teriyaki beef bits, and a soy-sauce dressing. (A full-out, festive version would add shrimp, chicken, bean sprouts, etc.)
Entrée salads are a natural in the tropics, and Guam's "national dish" is a salad called kelaguen (pronounced KELL-ah-gwen), a combination of any meat, fish, or fowl, plus onions or scallions, lemon juice or vinegar, and (optional but usual) crushed red pepper. It's Guam's twist on ceviche, and on the island it's often tucked into a plain corn tortilla (not an orange-colored one) for a portable lunch. Islander Grill's kelaguen features tender white-meat chicken and lemon juice and lots of "optional" hot pepper. It's a winner.
"Islander Combo" entrées come with a mound of refreshing cabbage salad in a light vinaigrette, plus two scoops of rice. You have a choice of white Japanese-style rice or red rice. "Red rice -- that's our rice," said Lori Torres, one of the owners, who was taking her turn at the counter. Red rice is sticky, medium-short grain Calrose rice, colored orange with achiote and mixed with sautéed onions and garlic. Alongside, you get several little plastic containers of Guam's national sauce, called finadene (pronounced fin-ah-DAY-nay), a mixture of soy sauce, lemon juice, scallions, and hot pepper. You'll want to mix some of that into your rice -- it's customary, it's tasty, and it lightens up the starch.