505 E. 8th Street, National City
The big room with its tree of artificial jungle growth
Stop me if I’ve blurted this before, but I’ve always had a good feeling about the Philippines since I came across the Mangyan people. They live on the island of Occidental Mindoro, south of Manila. Get this: the Mangyan solve their disputes by...singing. The side that sings their argument the best wins. Are these the most civilized people in the world or what?
Thinking of them tonight as I amble through National City around 8th and D. Heading into the maw of Little Manila. Don’t expect no Mangyan eatery, but maybe a little lechón?
And just beyond D Avenue, I peep through the crack in the front doors of some nameless place and see a whole bunch of people in a woody room with what looks like a jungle tree sprouting up the middle.
Huh. I open the door and kinda creep in apologetically.
“Welcome, sir! I’ll help you find a table.”
Looks like you don’t get to creep in to this place.
Neighbor’s Beef Bulalo — beef with bone vegetable soup
Turns out this is Zarlitos. Famous. It’s big. Paintings of Filipino country scenes on the white walls. The center “tree” is actually a column of plastic greenery and tropical flowers. The waitress, Lisa, leads me to a table in a raised section protected by balustrades. Cool. She’s solid, smiling, moves like she’s in this for the long haul.
“We’re open late,” she says. “Till three in the morning on Fridays and Saturdays. People from the bars and nightclubs come here.”
She hands me a large plastic menu. Turns out she’s one of the Zarlitos family. They started this place in 1991.
Hmm... First thing you notice is they have a bottle of banana ketchup instead of tomato ketchup sitting on the table. Next thing: Everybody’s sharing plates of food. And everybody’s talking.
The cheapest dishes seem to be “Filipino Delights,” at $6.75. These are plates of meat or fish with rice and two eggs over-easy. Oh. I get it. Breakfast dishes.
Painting of Filipino jitney scene
Wall painting of Filipino dancers
Wall painting of Filipino islands and volcanoes
They’re also little lessons in Tagalog, the main Filipino language. “Served with garlic fried rice (SI-nangag), and two eggs (it-LOG).” So, beef and egg is tapsilog. Sweet pork, eggs is tosilog. Sweet pork sausage and eggs is longsilog. And Spamsilog is, Spam and eggs. And a smoke-flavored fried bangus (the Philippines’ national fish, aka milkfish) with eggs is called tinapsilog. Oh, and menusilog is Filipino stew menudo (not the Mexican tripe and chili soup) with eggs. And, fried chicken and egg? Chicksilog.
“Which dishes are the most popular?” I ask Lisa.
“For sure, kare kare, oxtail and veggies cooked in peanut butter sauce. And pork adobo. Also sinigang, meat or seafood in a sour broth. And, of course, crispy pata, deep-fried pig’s leg and hoof.”
Wow. Hoof for dinner? But she says the combination platters give you the biggest bang for your buck. I check the menu. They go from $8.25 to $10. “Combination platters are served with pancit bihon (thin rice noodles), garlic fried rice, and lumpia Shanghai,” it says.
Lumpia are spring rolls, of course. And, turns out these are ancient-ancient. The Chinese have been making spring rolls — yes, to celebrate the arrival of spring — for maybe 3000 years.
Top of the list of combination platters: pork adobo.
“Pork adobo is the popular one!” Lisa says. “‘Adobo’ means ‘marinated.’ Soy sauce, vinegar, garlic. Our national dish.”
So, I go for that.
And, ten minutes later, here it comes, loaded. The pork is interspersed with well-marinated chunks of fat. Wicked, luscious. Soy and garlic help turn this into a savory stew. Spring rolls are fine, and the pancit noodles with their carrots, celery, and cabbage make a meal in themselves. And actually, so does the garlic-fried rice. And spreading some of this Jufran banana ketchup over it all adds a fruity sweetness — and heat — to the meat.
Ho, boy. Sit back, let things settle. ’Course, that’s when I start thinking about that last item Lisa mentioned. The crispy pata.
“Crispy fried pork hock with feet,” says the menu when I check. Pig’s ankle and trotter. The hoof. Ooh. Seriously tempted. Main item’s $16.75, but the mini goes for $7.75. Perfect for Carla! Promised to bring her something back.
Uh, not a good move. Two hours later, She Who Will Be Obeyed looks at me. With snake eyes. Meaning, unblinking. Not amused. Between us this polystyrene box sits flipped open. Slightly goat-like smell wafts out. Two islands of meat around chunks of bone stick through the sea of rice. The hocks. Pads at the bottom could be the actual little hooves that trotted along, once.
Pata, pig's hoof dish
“Bedford! You know I never eat anything I can recognize. These are trotters. Impossible!”
Sigh. Half an hour later she’s jawing a cheeseburger I went and got. I’m facing my two hocks alone. The crispy skin is totally wicked, and the little padded patas...well, it’s a lot of work, but with the green herby sauce they supply, the sweet vinegary sauce, and the marinated pork skin and garlicky rice, it’s worth the fight. I’m starting to realize: Filipino cooking has a big love affair going with vinegar and garlic. My kind of cuisine!
But the second pata and most of the rice sit there, looking up at me. I’m stuffed.
If we’d been Mangyans, Carla and I would have had a singing contest, I would have won (Carla can’t sing to save herself) and she would have been learning to love pig patas right now, too. Heh-heh. Just so long as she didn’t mention Babe, the movie.
That would ruin it for both of us.
Prices: Tapsilog (beef and 2-egg breakfast, with garlic fried rice, $6.75; tosilog (sweet pork and eggs), $6.75; longsilog (sweet pork sausage and eggs), $6.75; Spamsilog (Spam and eggs), $6.75; chicksilog (fried chicken and egg), $6.75; tortang hipon (Filipino-style shrimp omelette, veggies), $8.75; daeng na bangus (marinated milk fish) $8.75; dinuguan (pork in beef-blood-based stew), $8.75; crispy pata (pork hock with feet), $16.75 (large), $7.75 (mini); pork adobo comination platter (with pancit, lumpia, garlic fried rice), $8.25
Hours: 8:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m., Sunday–Thursday; 8:00 a.m.–3:00 a.m. (Friday, Saturday)
Buses: 929, 955, 967, 968
Nearest bus stop: 8th and D
Trolley: Blue Line
Nearest Trolley Stop: 8th Street, National City