Fried ham hocks and white tablecloths
South Villa Restaurant7223 55th St.
Sacramento, CA 95823
There aren’t a lot of Filipino restaurants in Sacramento. That’s not a revelation. But South Villa seems to be the only one advocating a leisurely meal with white tablecloths.
The restaurant opened in 1993. Kenneth Cu runs the front of the house (his father is the cook) and I reluctantly bombarded him with questions about his family business. His father, Ben Cu, is Chinese and his mother, Linda, is Filipino. His father moved from the Philippines in the 1970s, leaving his family behind to set up a life in the United States. It wasn’t until years later that he sent for the rest of his family, not an uncommon story.
In 1998, I spent every day basking in South Villa’s mango shake ($3.95) with a high school friend turned foe. We practically lived off those shakes—an unfiltered tropical sunset in a clear plastic takeout cup that was juicy, sweet, tart and velvety on the tongue. Although South Villa still has the mango shake on the menu, it just doesn’t taste the same. I suspect they now add a little coconut milk to it.
Flip through the mostly Chinese menu to find “authentic Filipino food” toward the back. My dining companion and I ordered the Adobo Manok ($8.95), Pancit Bihon, tender noodles that could definitely use more of a flavor boost ($8.25) and crunchy and uniform Shanghai Lumpia ($7.95).
But the winners were the Honey Fried Chicken ($11.95) and fried Crispy Pata ($15). The aromatic fried chicken is like the “brandy” chicken of any ’90s baby’s hot-wok childhood, with an airy batter that seems substantial, but surrenders like gossamer upon contact.
I reached out to a few of my Filipino friends and inquired how to describe the cut of meat in Crispy Pata. The responses were mixed: deep-fried trotter, deep-fried knuckle, deep-fried shank. The only thing they agreed on was that it was deep-fried. You might recognize it as a deep-fried ham hock. The hock is simmered in water with bay leaf, peppercorn, vinegar, soy sauce and other seasonings. It’s removed from the simmering water, patted dry, lowered into its deep-fry solitary confinement and rises moments later as your crackling savior.
Fresh Lumpia ($6.95) is a menu item that doesn’t make an appearance very often. The vegetable filling is wrapped in a crepe-esque egg roll wrapper, covered in a sweet soy sauce and topped with crushed peanuts. Some people make their lumpia wrapper from scratch, using simple ingredients consisting of flour, water and eggs.
Even though South Villa looks exactly the same as it did when I used to come in for my after-school mango shake, some of the menu items don’t taste the same. Maybe it’s like those scenarios when a croissant tastes so much better with a view of the Eiffel Tower and seafood tastes so much better when you’re seaside. It’s possible that the spoiled memories of that friendship changed my perception of the sweetness and purity of that mango shake.