The question caught us by surprise: “How do you like our food?”
Actually, it wasn’t the question itself, some variation of which is common enough coming from a server or manager at a restaurant. It was the source. The person doing the asking was a woman seated at a neighboring table, and by “our food” she meant the food of her native Philippines. When my wife and I both emphatically replied that we liked it very much indeed, the woman went on to explain that she and her family regularly make the hourlong drive from Fayetteville just to eat at Filipino Cuisine.
They’re not alone. According to Joel Cernusak, who owns the restaurant and the adjoining Bitter Melon Asian Market with his Filipina wife, Angela, customers come from Winston-Salem and Wilmington. Plenty come from the Triangle, too, for the authentic homestyle fare that Angela and two friends – Tita and Nellie, also natives of the Philippines – cook from scratch.
There’s no guarantee that a table will be available. The restaurant is tiny, with just eight tables (plus another one or two for spillover in the adjoining market), and they don’t take reservations.
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It’s clearly a risk many are willing to take. And, judging by the smiles on practically every face in the place, nobody seems to mind the shoestring-budget decor, or the paper plates and plastic utensils. Or the fact that you order at the counter, grab a drink from the cooler (where you’ll find several exotic alternatives, though the only beer is San Miguel from the Philippines) and wait for food to be brought to your table.
Once it arrives – it won’t take long – you’ll understand the smiles. The menu is built around a relatively constant core of a dozen or so Filipino standards, supplemented by a changing selection of one or two specials that showcase more exotic dishes such as patatim (pork knuckle simmered with banana blossoms in a thick sweet sauce) and laing (taro leaves cooked in coconut milk with Thai chiles).
The combination plate offers a fine introduction to the cuisine with a generous sampling of lumpia (Philippine-style fried spring rolls); pancit bihon (a homespun stir-fry of rice noodles and vegetables); and a bamboo skewer loaded with luscious nuggets of grilled pork whose unlikely-sounding marinade – lime, soy, vinegar, garlic, banana sauce and 7 Up – is a distillate of the Philippines’ multicultural history.
Vinegar, soy and garlic are common threads throughout much of the cuisine, and they come together in deeply savory harmony in Angela Cernusak’s classic rendition of chicken and pork adobo. Daing na bangus features a whole milkfish (whose sweet white flesh and belly fat are prized in the Philippines) marinated in vinegar, garlic and pepper, then pan-fried. The flesh is tasty, but if that’s all you eat – as I did at first – one of the owners or friendly staffers will gently point out as they’re making the rounds that you can eat everything but the tail. You’ll thank them as you nibble on the surprisingly delicate potato-chip crispness of the head.
If you’re an adventurous eater, that is. If not, you’ll be thankful that menu descriptions alert you to ingredients such as the pork blood in dinuguan and tripe in kare kare. You’ll be comforted by the knowledge that tamarind is the most exotic ingredient in sinigang na baboy, a soul-warming entree soup of pork ribs, daikon, bok choy and green beans in a clear savory broth – though you probably shouldn’t bite into that innocuous-looking long green pepper unless you like things spicy.
Adventurous or not, don’t let the description of “deep-fried pork leg” – or the picture of what obviously is a pork knuckle – deter you from ordering “crispy pata.” Simmered on the bone until tender, then dried and deep-fried to a blistery turn, the knuckle (or ham hock, if that strikes you as more palatable) is served with a serrated knife. Use this to cut off chunks of crackling-skinned porky goodness, which you dip into a chile-spiced soy-vinegar sauce and pop into your mouth.
Go ahead, use your fingers. That’s the traditional way, and it’s in keeping with the spirit of Filipino Cuisine, a little hidden gem in Angier where the convivial vibe quickly makes you feel at home, regardless of where you come from.