MY OLD FRIEND STEVE, who married into a Filipino family, called me recently to ask if I'd like to try a local restaurant specializing in native dishes from the Philippines. "What's the story, then?" I asked. "Spam? Fishy fish? An inscrutable nonagenarian sitting benevolently in the corner?"
"They have this dessert called halo halo. It has beans and candy in it."
"Sounds unfocused. Let's go." I hung up like in the movies. An image search revealed halo halo to be a fearsome assemblage, not unlike a sundae designed by a deeply stoned Todd Oldham. I was intrigued.
We met at Tambayan, an unassuming, sparely-but-lovingly decorated restaurant on a visually bland strip of SE Foster. Though roughly finished, it is spacious, and the child-friendly buffer between its sturdy utilitarian tables is a bit of a luxury. As we swanned—infant in tow—to our seats, I noted with satisfaction the subtly approving gaze of a benevolent nonagenarian.
Our guide Tina, a native of Manila, greeted the cheery waitress in Tagalog, and I settled back like a pampered traveler, asking only that we sample a baseline of traditional dishes with no care for stateside comfort zones. Soon they arrived: crispy pata, bobis, pancit bihon, and sinigang na baboy. Steve assured me that the halo halo would not be forgotten, and we began sharing.
The first dish, the pata ($8.99, or $5.50 during happy hour, which runs Wednesday through Friday, 4-6 pm) is a braised and deep-fried pork hock (the structurally complex and un-sexy knuckle above the ankle and below the ham). It became a favorite item over subsequent visits. The pata features a moist, salty interior encased in a chicharrón-style crisped mahogany skin, with rich, caramelized edges on the exposed flesh. The accompanying soy-based dipping sauce completes this palate-invigorating shared starter. Also along these lines is the tokwa't baboy ($5.99, one of the menu's better values), deep-fried cubes of firm but yielding pork belly and custardy tofu, and thirsty for the sauce's sweet soy bath.
The sinigang na baboy ($7.99)—a light tamarind-broth soup generously strewn with firm, meaty eggplant, tender pork shoulder, and string beans—is pleasantly sweet and citrus sour, reminiscent of lemongrass. The more exciting paksiw na lechon ($6.99) is a soup of deep-fried pork belly chunks in a tamarind-liver broth. It has a richer viscosity, an intensified sweet-sour flavor, and is deeply infused with dried bay leaf and black peppercorn, although the flavor of liver is—to the relief of some— not obvious.
Unhurried and attended to with a transparent facility, our party relaxed into the calm pace of this low-on-the-hog feast. Despite the promise of the mythical halo halo, I couldn't help but keep hacking away at the pata bone.
The kare-kare ($8.99), stewed beef in a rich peanut sauce with eggplant, bok choy, and green beans, is served slightly under-seasoned so that bagoong—the intense fermented shrimp paste common to this pantry—can be stirred in to taste. This presents a problem: Those not inured to the flavor of bagoong may find it not unlike an explosive mouthful of angry poultry feces. Approach this condiment with extreme caution, or perhaps just opt for table salt.
Bobis ($6.99), which is described as braised pork entrails sautéed with red and green peppers in a vinegared soy sauce, is confirmed to be pork heart. It is a coarse, meaty mince with the tender texture of a crumbled pâté, served hot. The braise mellows the organ's flavor, making it approachable even for those with a basal aversion to offal. A similarly surprising offering is the ginataang langka ($5.99), green jackfruit and bay shrimp in a rich, salty coconut cream the consistency of yogurt. It is colored bright pink with our old friend bagoong, which thankfully is added by an expert hand in the kitchen and disappears into the flavor like any good, respectful fish sauce or anchovy.
Pancit bihon ($6.99), rice noodles sautéed with pork and mixed vegetables, is a perfectly balanced and seasoned hot side dish, generous again with the meat. The pancit palabok ($7.99), rice noodles with diced pork, tofu, chicharrón, julienned egg, scallions, and fried garlic, is a less interesting option that never attains its gestalt. Another also-ran is the squid adobo ($6.99, fully intact, which I was assured is authentic to the cuisine), overcooked and inert on the tongue, and rather aquatic tasting.
Finally, as I sat happily picking through the savory debris like a holiday child in a pile of wrapping paper, the halo halo ($4, Tagalog for "mix mix") arrives. A counterintuitive laundry list of flan, coconut ice cream, shaved ice, coconut gels, coconut string, earthy mung beans, palm fruit, and evaporated milk, it's sweet, light, and refreshing after the unrelenting parade of pork. Tina beams with pride that this son of Albion has charged enthusiastically through a broad assortment of her homeland's cuisine, and even the nonagenarian's thousand-yard stare seems to fall upon me with approval.
Six adults ate full and well for $60, a great value for the money. Individual combo meals, at $6.99 with garlic rice and an over-easy egg, are large and served all day.
Tambayan, the only Filipino restaurant in our grid, is worth checking off your international bucket list; stray not far from the pig and coconut path for a solid, novel, and affordable initial foray.