Cultural immersion

Manila Restaurant

6157 Mack Rd.
Sacramento, CA 95823

(916) 399-1298

“I’m just realizing that I don’t know very much about the Philippines,” my husband said quietly, peering over a long menu of almost totally unfamiliar food names at Manila Restaurant. I had to admit I was in the same situation. A few stray facts, along the lines of “Apocalypse Now was filmed there” and “Imelda had lots of shoes,” had lodged themselves in my brain, but I was pretty much clueless. I also have a geographical blind spot that seems to lead me to think, erroneously, that the archipelago is farther north and east than it actually is. (I checked the atlas when I got home and it turns out the Philippines are way down by Borneo. So much for my education.)

Perhaps the same ignorance, translated to Sacramento’s sprawl, is why it took me so long to find Manila here. It’s a lot farther south than I generally look for restaurants, at the back of a big shopping center near Highway 99 and Mack Road. The center also has a Filipino chain restaurant and what looks like a Filipino supermarket and bakery, plus several more run-of-the-mill stores.

I was intrigued, the more so when we walked into Manila, which from the outside looked vaguely dingy. We found a modest but nonetheless surprisingly elegant space with brick-red and butter-yellow walls, a fountain in the corner and—most unusual of all—a gift shop of sorts in the corner. It sold an array of Filipino music, tchotchkes, and books, including cookbooks, which I leafed through briefly. I was particularly entranced with a color cookbook of Filipino desserts, which appear to skew toward fruit-filled custard cakes, puddings that are high in tapioca content, and colorful drinks that look like ice-cream sodas on drugs.

A couple of ladies at a nearby table were enjoying one of the latter, so we took a chance from the drinks and desserts menu and ordered something called sago gulaman: tapioca pearls and gelatin topped with ice and caramel syrup. It wasn’t creamy or colorful, but it definitely was attention-grabbing; warm on the bottom with chewy pearls, and icy on top with the sweet, thin, translucent caramel syrup throughout.

The rest of the menu was not much easier to parse. Or rather, the Filipino part of it wasn’t. There’s also a long section of Chinese-American dishes that for the most part sound utterly run-of-the-mill (think sweet-and-sour pork and egg foo yong) despite the presence of such curiously named items as “explosive beef.”

Not enticed, we skipped ahead to the Filipino section, where I was almost totally at sea and had to rely on sometimes-cryptic menu descriptions and vague memories of having read about a few dishes. Lumpia, slender spring rolls, were a must-order. They were about the width of a finger, with a fine wrapper enclosing savory pork filling. A clear, viscous yellow dipping sauce was too sweet for my taste. I would have preferred something spicy and vinegary.

I also wanted to try out adobo, a homey meat stew that’s characteristic of Filipino cooking. I hesitated, though, between that and one of the several deep-fried pork dishes. I could see that some of our fellow diners were pulling shreds of crisp-tender pork off the bone. It looked fantastic, like an improbably enormous version of carnitas. In the end, though, we went with the adobo, which had both meltingly tender pork and dark-meat chicken, both on the bone. With garlic and vinegar, the adobo’s thin, dark, complexly flavored sauce bore a distinct Spanish influence. I was surprised by the mildness of all the dishes, having expected perhaps a bit more spice, but I loved the bite of the small, soft, whole peppercorns in the adobo sauce.

My husband looked to the soup portion of the menu and spotted something called bouillabaisse, which included unbelievable tender calamari, mussels in the shell, and shrimp. The latter came with heads, tails, and all, but it was worth picking at them to get at the deliciously sweet, fresh meat. I was perplexed by the creamy, bright-yellow base, which thickened as the soup cooled, but it had a pleasant flavor and contrasted prettily with the soup’s slices of red and green pepper.

As if all this weren’t enough, we also ordered a noodle dish, pancit lo mein—thick noodles with vegetables and bits of several kinds of meat. In its noodle dishes, Filipino food shows a debt to Chinese cooking. I loved the thick, chewy wheat-based noodles. Next time, I want to try one of the pancit dishes that mixes rice- and wheat-flour noodles.

That’s if I have room after trying that deep-fried pork, or perhaps the mysterious dinuguan. (It’s listed under the pork menu and described as “chocolate meat,” but a Google search revealed it to be a stew made of pork blood. We’ll see.) There also were vegetable dishes, noodle, and other soups, and inexpensive buns with meat filling, called siopao, that I would have liked to try. As it was, we took home about half of what we ordered. The only thing we finished were the irresistibly crisp lumpia, and that was only out of sheer gluttony. We still don’t know much about the Philippines, and only a tiny bit about its food, but we’re hoping we can learn more soon.