3421 E. Plaza Boulevard, National City
Actually, I was trying to go to Tita's Kitchenette, a cramped, cafeteria-style Filipino food counter on Plaza Boulevard in National City. But I passed right by without noticing. I might have driven another five minutes before I realized the error, except two minutes down the road I came upon Tita's II — a spacious, cafeteria-style Filipino food counter, also on Plaza Boulevard in National City.
I guess the expansion was necessary, as I've heard reports of long lines and lack of parking at Tita's original location. Good enough — I can only assume it's the same recipes, similar clientele, etc.
This place has planet of room, with dozens of tables, a dancefloor, and a stage for weekend live performances and karaoke events. It looks like a nice-enough sit-down restaurant crossed with a youth center — well-appointed tables in a large, unfinished room with dark walls and corners.
And that cafeteria counter. With no menu in sight, this at least gave me a chance to wander back and forth and get an eye on dishes I might like. I grew up with a fondness for homemade lumpia brought to school potlucks by classmates, so I immediately ordered the egg-roll–like appetizer. But aside from the occasional chicken adobo, I really have little experience eating food from this culture.
A lot of it didn't look great. Sitting in a heating tray in the middle of the afternoon, how could it? I asked the girl behind the counter for pointers, and she said a lot of words I didn't quite catch as she spooned each corresponding tray full of stewed or stir-fried meats in turn.
I settled on sisig, a sour, salt-and-vinegar pork dish. At least, I did hear the word pork, just not exactly which part of the pig.
No matter. She heaped a giant portion of crusty white rice into a Styrofoam container, followed by an equally enormous portion of sisig. On a separate Styrofoam tray she added a pile of lumpia, and then ladled some pork and tamarind soup — possibly sinigang — into yet another piece of Styrofoam.
Basically, I was looking at a trayful of pork, Styrofoam, and two-hour old rice. What kind of drink pairs well with that? Who knows? Ever daring, I asked for a mysterious can behind the counter, labeled Sarsi. Sarsaparilla, it turns out.
The sisig tasted pretty amazing — bright, acidic, fruity — a strange assortment of flavors I never saw coming. So what if the crispy pork-rind like skin made it into some bites? I was enjoying myself.
For a couple of mouthfuls, at least. Then the greasiness started to seep in, the heaviness. The rice cut into it a little bit, but the rice had its own problems to worry about.
I turned to the lumpia for nostalgic salvation. Now we're talking, I thought, just before biting into a dense log of chewy shredded pork. Spiced all right, but more heaviness. The tamarind soup might have tasted wonderful, but at this point I just couldn't. Instead I walked out of there with the heaviest $8 worth of food I've ever partially eaten.
Next time, I'll try to get it right and will go to the too-busy-to-let-food-sit-around Kitchenette down the street. But I'll maybe see how the chicken adobo looks.