525 Telegraph Canyon Road, Chula Vista
“This is what, again?” asks Carla. Her fingers rustle suspiciously through the pile of fried smelt sitting stiff, gold, and cold next to the crispy, deep-fried chicken skins and the pot of vinegar.
“These,” I say, pointing to the smelt, “are Filipino french fries.”
“So, how come they have eyes that look up at me?”
I was on the way home from Otay when I told her (via the new cell phone!) that I was picking up something from “Bert’s Grill.” I know she was thinking chops, steaks, burgers, and fries.
Me, too. Worked hard all morning (it’s around 2:00 now), and the first thing I see in the window is a notice: “Bert’s Breakfast, Served All Day! Only $5.75.” Great! Except the seven pictured choices had names such as “TinapSiLog,” “LongSiLog,” and “SpamSiLog” — not your typical grill menu. Okay. Filipino. But “SpamSiLog”?
Whatever, in I go, to this bright little space. Mix of yellow walls, white walls, varnished-slat park benches. And bright-green-topped Formica tables. Hanging lamps with red-and-yellow shades. One whole wall that’s solid mirrors. The other side’s got shelves of merchandise from the Philippines. Floor’s light brown mosaic tile, ceiling’s blue and white acoustic tiles. They have a big brick-surrounded rotisserie oven up front but don’t seem to be using it. At the back, the red counter and rows of chafing dishes with meats, stews, soups, fishes, and marinated green beans. After all this, though, what grabs my attention is a large doll above it all on a little stand — almost an altar — dressed in gold and in a robe with a green lining that shines against the bright yellow wall. He wears a curly dark wig down to the shoulders like a colonial Spanish VIP.
“It’s the green Santo Niño,” says a dapper gent. Turns out to be Bert himself. “Green’s the color we use in business. It is for good luck and prosperity. And we also have the Buddha.”
The gold Buddha sits on the cash register. “Hello,” says Jackie, the lady behind it. She points out that you can get a two-item combo plate with rice for $5.75 or a one-item combo for $4.75. I mean, super-reasonable. “Bert’s Special Plates,” such as the half roasted chicken ($5.50) or the pork or chicken barbecue skewers ($5.50) don’t go above $7 (the priciest plate is tilapia, plus one more item from the chafing dishes, $6.99). Those chafing dishes are full of good stuff — Filipino-style menudo, pork stew with spuds, tomatoes, and juices bubbling away. Or the chicken adobo. Skinless, Bert says. Something he pioneers. “It makes it less greasy.” Thursdays only (today) they have this green jackfruit in coconut milk. Lordy. Such choice. Tocino — sweetened pork — longaniza sweet sausages, about three inches long; long, Filipino-style green beans; crispy pata — pork lechón leg…
But, of course, I still want breakfast.
“What’s with this ‘SpamSiLog’ and ‘BangSiLog,’ ” I ask.
“We Filipinos always use a lot of word contractions,” Bert says. “So, like ‘BangSiLog’ is bangus — the milk fish, and pretty much our national symbol — plus sinangag — fried rice — and itlog — which is egg.”
Bert retired from 24 years as a cook in the Navy, so he can grill hot dogs and burgers and steaks till the carriers come home, but not here. This is his place. He’s Filipino and so’s his food.
Okay. Decision time. Spam wins. I know Bert must do something interesting with it.
What comes out is this polystyrene plate loaded with half a dozen slices of grilled Spam, one longaniza sweet sausage, two over-easy eggs, three piles of fried rice with garlic and onions, and — didn’t expect this — a bowl of sour soup with a chunk of pork and pechay leaves in it, which Fred says is like bok choy but tougher.
Man! It’s a mountain. The Spam is marinated in something truly delish, and the eggs mess in nicel. The soup is a beautiful mouth-cleaner. But when I spritz some fish sauce into the soup and banana sauce onto the Spam, we have ignition, and…blast off!
The drink I find in the cooler helps. For $1.50, I get this bottle-packet of soursop soda. Called “Guyabano” in the PI. Basically, it’s jackfruit juice that tastes... I’m thinking strawberries, pineapple, but, no: guavas! That’s what we have here...flavorwise, at least. Maybe a little more biting, but great. Really clears the palate.
Long and short, when I wobble out, I’m loaded down with crispy dilis (the deep-fried smelt), the Filipino french fries (“except you dunk them in vinegar, not ketchup,” says Bert, tossing in a little pot of golden vinegar), some of the crispy-fried chicken skins with their own kind of vinegar dip (together, $2.12; they’re sold by weight), and the green jackfruit and coconut milk ($2.75).
Result, Carla and me curled up in front of the TV, dunking, dipping, and crunching so loud we miss whodunit on American Greed. And, okay, it takes a bit, learning to love the jackfruit, which is green and chewy in a thick pink coconutty sludge. Problem? I’m not sure if we should heat it or not. But it’s all good.
I meant to bring home some of Bert’s Shanghai (ground beef) lumpia (egg rolls) too but ran out of do re mi. Oh, well. There’s always next time. I reach for one more handful of dilis.
“Hey! Porky! You’ve eaten already,” Carla says.
“Just think of me as tocino,” I say. “A pig, but sweeter.”
The Place: Bert’s Grill, 525 Telegraph Canyon Road, Chula Vista, 619-656-0665
Type of Food: Filipino
Prices: Breakfasts (served all day) include SpamSiLog (Spam, eggs, rice, salad, soup), $5.75; longaniza sausage, bangus fish, same sides, all $5.75; “Bert’s Special Plates,” e.g. half a roasted chicken, $5.50; pork or chicken barbecue skewers, $5.50; tilapia, one more item, $6.99; two-item combo plate with rice, $5.75; one-item combo, $4.75; chafing-dish choices include Filipino-style menudo (pork stew), skinless chicken adobo, green jackfruit and coconut milk, tocino-sweetened pork, longaniza sweet sausages, crispy pata (pork lechón leg)
Hours: 10:00 a.m.–8:00 p.m., Monday–Saturday, till 6:00 p.m., Sunday
Nearest Bus Stop: Oleander at Telegraph Canyon Road