"Thai" seafood cakes with mango sauce were edible but unfocused, with a loose texture. (Was this an attempt at tod mun? You'd never guess it.) And five-spice beef kebabs were not so much overcooked as tough ab ovo -- a cheap cut of cheap beef, if our teeth were any guide. When we tried to cut the meat with the standard restaurant knives provided, our thumbs tired out before the beef surrendered.
By then, we were starting to think in Dante-esque terms: "Ye who enter here forsake all hope of a good dinner." The entrées clarified what was going wrong. The problem generally lay in the kitchen's hasty, careless execution.
Starting with the best again, Pampanga Sisig offers pork liver and cheeks in tiny dice, the fattiness of the cheeks balanced by a tangy sauce dominated by vinegar -- sour, yes, but not too sour, with a subtle touch of hot pepper. We noticed that a pretty young woman among a Filipino quartet (which arrived as we were finishing) had also chosen this dish.
Bangus (milkfish) is a pond-raised whitefish, high in good fish fats and beloved in the islands but rarely available in the U.S. (and always in frozen form). At Ben's, the whole fish is split open and the skeleton lifted out. It's salted heavily, the flesh side browned, and served with a topping of mango salsa. Nice idea but impatient execution. The head was deliciously crunchy (it was among the kitty-bag leftovers, so I could chomp it privately and not shock my friends), but most of the flesh was parched dry, except for a mysterious center-seam featuring sweet flesh of almost gooey tenderness. If that center is what milkfish tastes like when cooked more carefully, little wonder that Filipinos are so fond of it.
Binagoongan Sa Gata has inch-by-two-inch chunks of pork belly (unsmoked bacon) fried to hard-crisp the surfaces, coated with a thick sauce based on shrimp paste and coconut milk, and topped by a stack of three-inch lengths of Chinese long beans. The surfaces of the meat were overcrisped to something like leather, which also overcooked the cubes' interiors way past optimum unctuousness. Our knives failed us again -- only Spanish swords of Toledo steel might cut through them, and we'd forgotten to bring ours. As for the long beans, they're always chewy (unless you cook them to death), but these were also a bit dry and withered. You'd hope that a restaurant could get fresher produce than the retail customer, but no -- not here anyway, or maybe they'd put in too much fridge time. The sauce was smooth but bland, which is hardly what you expect at a Filipino table, with the texture but not the taste of coconut milk. We couldn't pick up even a hint of normally powerful shrimp paste. Maybe the cook decided to skimp on the shrimp for the gringo table.
The last dish was a heartbreaker. On the fusion-y section of the menu, Chicken Pandan is described as "boneless chicken wrapped in pandan leaves, marinated in coconut milk with kaffir [lime], lemongrass, and sesame." The food blog that praised the restaurant had singled the dish out for the moist tenderness of the chicken. What we got, however, were four desiccated, chicken-thigh mummies, their leafy wrappers dried out and shredding from the heat of cooking. Like all plated entrées here, the chicken arrived with a perfect Egyptian pyramid of white rice at the center of the dish. This apt juxtaposition brought to mind late-night movies -- Boris Karloff in a fez hovering over a swooning heroine, chanting, "Ankhnaten Amon." Rename this dish "Chicken Cheops" -- it tastes as if it died a few thousand years ago.
Maybe the food was better for the young Filipino foursome who'd just sat down as we finished. Maybe the cook took more care for them. We looked over the dessert menu. The interesting stuff I'd seen on the old menu was gone, or currently unavailable. So we were gone, too.
The second part of the opening question: Why write about it? There's no point to reviewing ethnic "mom 'n' pops" that don't make the grade. (Big-money restaurants with bad food are another story.) But I was looking for something affordable and offbeat after last week's French restaurant splurge. Meanwhile, a friend had treated me to a late lunch at a hot newish Mexican restaurant. Her red sauce and meat were fine, my verde or shrimp was probably the source of the food poisoning, which pretty much disqualified that restaurant for review purposes. (Restaurant reviewing is such a glamorous job.) So it was a bad food week, a choice of toxic microbes or overcooking. At least with Ben's you won't get sick (and hey, if you do, there's a doctor next door). Dr. Ben probably opened the restaurant with some idealism, in hopes of exposing wonderful Filipino food to a wider public -- as it fully deserves. Now, maybe the good doctor, with his several enterprises laid out along the strip-mall, will realize that he needs to refocus on his next-door restaurant's kitchen (and not just the new location) to revitalize the dream.
CORRECTION: Quite some time ago I reviewed Heaven Sent Desserts in North Park. Upon sampling many pastries and noticing no butter flavor, I thought that some of them might be made with shortening (i.e., Crisco or Spry), and I called to ask what fats were used. I identified myself merely as "a customer with health problems," since I've learned from experience that restaurant personnel do not always tell known reviewers the absolute truth. The counterperson who answered connected me with someone he identified as "one of the bakers." This rather gruff and suspicious (male) person (who seemed concerned that I might be from a rival bakery trying to steal their recipes) stated that some pastries included shortening. This seems to be untrue. The owners of Heaven Sent aver, first, that none of their bakers are male, and more important, they emphatically deny that any of their pastries include shortening. (Perhaps the person I spoke with was a disgruntled counterman only pretending to be a baker.) In any event, please do not keep asking Heaven Sent about shortening or worrying about it. The owners swear they use no such thing.
[2009 Editor's Note: Ben's 1616 has since closed.]