Pushing the envelope

A marinated beef steak dish at Cafe de Manila, prepared with onions, garlic and citrus soy sauce.

A marinated beef steak dish at Cafe de Manila, prepared with onions, garlic and citrus soy sauce.

Photo/Allison Young

For more information, visit www.cafemanilareno.com.

With its combination of Polynesian, Spanish, American, Chinese and other Asian influences, Filipino food can be a challenge to the uninitiated. My wife and I recently joined a group of perhaps 30 for dinner at Cafe de Manila, providing a great opportunity to try a variety of flavors. Although it took a while to get the first orders out, the friendly staff did a pretty good job under the circumstances.

First up, lumpia ($7.95), thin and crispy pork egg rolls served with a spicy-sweet chili sauce. I’ve enjoyed lumpia many times, and these did not disappoint. Following was tokwa’t baboy ($9.95), bite-sized pork belly and tofu chunks stacked together and deep-fried, served with a mixture of soy sauce and vinegar. If you love both bacon and Asian food, you’ll want this for breakfast. And lunch. And, well, you get the idea.

Next was something I just couldn’t abide, mangga at bagoong ($5.95), a paste of mashed mango and salted, fermented shrimp. No, no, no. Even the smell was bad enough that I had to move that bowl to an adjacent, empty table. An acquired taste, I presume.

Thankfully, the next item was laing ($7.95), a delicious mess of shredded taro leaves cooked with coconut milk and ginger, akin to Indian saag. The leaves were a little tougher than most cooked greens, but the dish was one I’d order again. Even better was chicken adobo ($8.95), featuring chunks of chicken cooked in soy sauce, vinegar, bay leaf, garlic and whole peppercorns. My wife and I probably enjoyed this stew the best of all items sampled.

The menu described pork menudo ($8.95) as pork meat stew with liver cubes, chickpeas, potatoes and tomato sauce. My wife took the leftovers for lunch and reported that it was similar in flavor to the adobo, though she couldn’t detect any liver. Under bright office lighting, the meat actually appeared to be chunks of hot dog, and there were raisins as well, very different from the menu’s description. Maybe they weren’t prepared for our large group and had to improvise.

Pancit (noodle) dishes are a mainstay, and pancit palabok ($7.95) sounded amazing, with rice noodles, prawn, smoked fish flake, shrimp, sliced hard-boiled egg, crunchy chicharon and orange sauce. Yet, I couldn’t detect much—if any—shrimp or prawn, though there was plenty of fish flake, egg, chicharon (fried pork rind) and orange sauce. Not something I’d want every day, or week, but good enough that I’d like to try it from a different restaurant for comparison.

Kare kare ($10.95), a stew of oxtail with mixed vegetables cooked in peanut sauce is something I’ve had better tastes of in the past. The texture of the veggies was odd, and the peanut sauce seemed “off.” Not terrible, but just not as good as I know it can be. Last of the entrees, dinuguan ($8.95), the pork meat stew basted in pork blood and serrano chiles colloquially known as “chocolate meat.” My wife found this to be “tasty, but rich. A few bites is enough, more would be too much.” To my eyes it looked like chunky, dark chocolate pudding, hence the nickname, with a livery smell. Folks who like organ meats enjoyed it, but I can’t say I’m a fan.

Finally dessert, beginning with Ube Halaya ($4.99), a cake of mashed ube root (purple yam) cooked with brown sugar, and condensed/evaporated milks. My wife and I agreed it’s a pretty shade of purple, but it looks like Play-Doh and doesn’t taste much better. However, the Leche Flan ($4.99) was really outstanding. As with the Mexican variety, this custard is made of egg yolks and milk topped with caramel syrup, but we found Cafe de Manila’s rendition to be superior in both flavor and texture. A perfect end to this gastronomic adventure.