Russell, Russell. This was your idea. Now I’m here, but you’re not.
Russ died last month, you may have read. Pretty young. He was the Reader’s chief proofreader, which means he was a cross between truth enforcer and confessional priest. Oh, man. Those midnight calls, when you had the wrong name, the wrong address... He must’ve been offered more “please don’t tear my ear off” bribes than the bouncers at the Bellagio.
But he also had two hang-ups that made us fellow conspirators. One, he loved a meal that’s a deal, places where you feel you’re paying for the food, not the frou-frou. And, two, he loved El Cajon. It’s where he lived. Hated how it was always getting dissed. So, every now and then he’d leave a message. “Ever eaten at…?” He knew El Cajon’s Chaldean and other Iraqi places before they were cool. He knew where the best pies were, the best happy hours.
This time, he said his girlfriend had told him about a Filipino place outside National City, actually, in the Valley. I was hoping we could eat there together.
When Russ died, I swore I’d go anyway. So, here I am, Russell, fresh off the 874. The place is just what I’d expect. No big trumpets. On one window it says “Filipino Food, Take Out.” And that’s about it. Inside, it’s basically a store for Filipino and Asian imported foods: shrimp paste; Sky Flakes, a kind of Filipino cracker; Patis, the Filipino fermented fish sauce. Two little black tables squish up against each other among the shelves. Two ladies sit at one with accounts and calculators.
“Can I get food to eat here?” I ask.
“Of course,” says a lady wearing a red blouse. The other, in white, gets up and leads me through the shelves to a glass-fronted counter. She starts taking metal lids off half a dozen warming dishes. One has a pile of fried fish, one has rice, another has noodles (“Pancit,” says the gal, Arlene). The rest are loaded with stewlike piles of meat or vegetables in different gravies.
It’s heading for 5:00 in the evening and I’m hungry. This’ll be breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea.
“Are they all the same price?” I ask.
Arlene nods. She points to a big sign on the wall behind her. It’s pretty simple. “Combination plate: 2 entrées, $6.50, 1 entrée, $5.50.” The plates come with steamed rice. You pay a dollar more if you want pancit or fried rice.
Arlene runs through the warming trays, checking with “Auntie” Joanna, the other lady, to make sure the names are right. “This is the pancit,” she says, “and this is the pork adobo. We have apritada — a chicken stew; a ginataang gulag; calabasa [squash] in coconut milk; a beef goulash; and a pork sinigang, soup with big chunks of eggplant, okra, bok choy, daikan — white radish — and tamarind to make it sour.”
So, really flying blind here. I go for the $6.50 two-entrée deal with pancit, pick the beef goulash and calabasa-squash dishes. Then I crack. I can’t resist adding one of those nine-inch fried fish ($2.50...brown scad, Joanna says), and heck, the sinigang sour soup, too ($2.99 for the small size), as extras. Figure Carla and I can turn the leftovers into a feast later tonight.
I take my polystyrene box and pot of soup and sit down at the only other table, right next to where Joanna’s doing her banking. This is her place. I see a basket on the table with a bunch of home-labeled sauces to squirt on your food. The Patis fish sauce, banana sauce, lumpia sauce, soy, a vinegar sauce…quite a lineup.
The fish sauce helps the pancit with its flavor. (Turns out “pancit” is Hokkien Chinese for “fast-food noodle.”) The beef goulash is fine, and the fish is good and salty. But the prize has to go to the other two: the sinigang soup and the ginataang gulag, the squash and coconut and beans and pork. Oh, man. The squash gives it all a sweet pumpkinish flavor. Plus, is that something fishy I taste in the sauce?
“It’s my secret,” says Joanna when I ask. “But, yes, I do have shrimp paste in there. That’s part of it, anyway.” I have to ask about the sinigang soup, too. It’s got a seductive sourness. The tamarind? “Partly that,” Joanna says mysteriously. “Good balance today. I don’t measure anything. It depends on the day. It’s just as I remember from my mom and grandma.”
Joanna says she originally came from Malaysia, from Borneo, Sabah, the town of Sandakan. Sandakan! How romantic does that sound? “My dad was British-Malaysian,” she says. “He was an engineer. He built roads, towns out of the jungle. I miss it. I went back recently, and it has changed, but even now, you go just five miles out of town, and you see little monkeys holding their mother’s hands, crossing roads, just like kids crossing roads with their mothers. People have a good relationship with nature. It’s beautiful.”
I’m packing up. Totally ordered too much. But Carla and I will gorge tonight.
“It’s a pity you didn’t come yesterday,” says Joanna. “I made a dinuguan. Pork-blood stew.”
She says it’s a garlicky, vinegary, chili-laden blood pudding, with pork parts like stomach, intestines, ears, heart. “I usually make it just with basic meat, because this is the dish Americans have most difficulty with. But it’s delicious.”
I suddenly remember the reason I came. Russ. I take one last spoonful of sinigang. Raise it like a toast, to him. Mmm…bitter-sweet. What a find. Russ was right. As usual. ■
- The Place: Philippines on Broadway, 1174 Broadway, Suite 101, El Cajon, 619-749-4362
- Type of Food: Filipino
- Prices: Combination plate: rice with one entrée, $5.50; with two entrées, $6.50 (one dollar extra for pancit or fried rice); dishes include deep-fried sardine, pork adobo, chicken stew, squash with beans and pork in coconut milk; beef goulash; pork tamarind soup
- Hours: 9:00 a.m.–6:00 p.m., Monday–Saturday
- Buses: 848, 874, 875
- Nearest Bus Stop: Broadway, at Oro