3645 Park Boulevard, 2, San Diego
"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.
The numbered "combos" are barbecue platters of grilled meats. Combo #1 offers two barbecued meats and a scoop of kelaguen, Combo #2 has two meats, no kelaguen, and Combo #3 has one meat. The choice of grilled proteins includes chicken, pork ribs, sliced beef, or vertically sliced short ribs (cut in the Korean manner).
Our favorite of these meats was the barbecued chicken, tender chunks of thigh with a light soy-based glaze and a jolt of hot pepper in the marinade and/or "mopping sauce." (The barbecue dishes are "secret recipes.") The red meats taste more like teriyaki -- sweeter than the Japanese versions, less sweet than the Hawaiian. Even better than the barbecue items, to my taste, are the stews. There's one called "pot roast," but don't expect anything like your mom's version (unless she's Chamorro). The menu describes it as pork "simmered in soy sauce, vinegar, onions, and garlic." That led me to expect something like Filipino adobo. Wrong again. Tender chunks of pork come in a thick, dark, sweet sauce that defies analysis; the flavors are so blended you can't take them apart. If you're in the mood for something spicy, try kadon pika, stewed chicken leg quarters. The menu description substitutes lemon juice for the pot roast's vinegar, with red pepper added -- but the sauce is lighter, with a touch of coconut milk, and it's hot-hot-hot. Estafao manok is similar, but without the hot pepper.
Anywhere in the Pacific, a "bowl" means a bowl of rice with a topping. Here, the toppings include your choice of chicken, beef, kelaguen, or a generous portion of that Pacific Island favorite, Spam (to which you can add an optional egg). When it's on special, you get half a can of Spam on top for under $4 -- a good deal, if you love Spam.
There are no desserts, perhaps since most of Guam's tropical fruits can't be imported here (insects, etc.). You probably won't notice the lack, because the entrée portions are gigantic and the flavors are hot, sweet, and sharp enough to satisfy your hunger for sensation. Moreover, the bill is so low that in good conscience I should have handed over this discovery to the Tin Fork. But it's my special island -- I found it first.
About Guam and its Cuisine
Nicknamed "The Gateway to Micronesia," Guam is the largest and southernmost of the Mariana Islands chain, located two-thirds of the way between Hawaii and the Philippines. The island is about three times the size of Washington, DC, with a population of approximately 166,000.
Guam (derived from a word that means "we have it") was settled between 3000 and 1500 B.C. by the Chamorros, tall and sturdy Indo-Malayan people speaking a language related to Indonesian. The odd stone constructions on Islander Grill's menu and in its decor are Latte stones, the pillars of ancient Chamorro houses, and the symbol and signature of the island. Ancient Chamorros and their possessions were customarily buried beneath them, and any vandals or archeologists who mess with these sacred stones may find themselves facing angry taotaomoa -- spirits of the ancestors.
Chamorros lived by fishing and communal farming and were experts in basketry and canoe-building. (Their single-sail fishing canoe is called a proa, that favorite word of crossword puzzle-writers.) The foodstuffs the Chamorros found on or brought to Guam included wild boar, fruit bats (a local favorite, now severely endangered), coconuts, tropical fruits (papayas, guavas, bananas, soursop, star apples, etc.), breadfruit, starchy roots similar to taro, and sweet potatoes, plus all the fish in the South Pacific. In place of an after-dinner cognac, they fermented sap from young coconut palms or chewed betel nuts (called pugua) wrapped in a pepper leaf with a little powdered lime. In South Pacific (the book, musical, and movie), the crimson stain that betel nuts impart to users' teeth and saliva gave "Bloody Mary" her nickname. (The U.S. government has outlawed pugua -- but the stuff grows on trees!)
Much of today's Guamanian cuisine derives from outside influences. In the late 17th Century, Spain conquered Guam, finding it an ideal mid-Pacific provisioning stop for its ships' travels between Manila and Mexico. The Spaniards forcibly converted the Chamorros to Catholicism, massacring thousands of them in the process. Yet the Spanish also contributed domesticated pigs, chickens, perhaps rice, and (from its Mexican possessions) corn, hot peppers, and possibly achiote. As a consequence of the Spanish-American War, the island was ceded to the United States (which behaved more gently). During World War II, the Japanese seized the island; a brutal occupation included concentration camps and beheadings. The U.S. regained Guam via an aerial bombardment that destroyed the capital city of Agana (now Hag'tña, following Chamorro dialect) and killed thousands of Chamorros as well as Japanese. Currently, only about 40 percent of Guam's population is Chamorro or part Chamorro. Immigrants and their descendants from Japan, the Philippines, Hawaii, and mainland America fill out most of the remainder of the population. All have contributed to the Guamanian cooking pot.
Still, Guam has maintained its Chamorro roots -- perhaps because the islanders had a secret. The peaceful, communal Chamorro culture was matrilineal and matriarchal, with its folkways and culture passed on through the female line. None of Guam's occupiers realized the crucial role of women in maintaining the island's way of life and thought. By now, American influence may have eroded the special position of women -- but at least both sexes still share the cooking!