Clearly, I have starch on the brain because when I saw that headline I immediately thought, yeah, because they eat shitloads of rice and it’s totally unhealthy. But no, the article isn’t about Filipinos’ ravenous appetites for rice, it’s all about rising food costs (which I still can’t muster interest in—I’ll get back to you when I’m subsisting on tap water and shriveled potatoes).
My teenage-era best friend, who was yes, Filipino, would complain that rice servings were never large enough. She’d frequently order seconds. I witnessed this exact thing at Ihawan on Easter Sunday.
The place was packed and we did a good deal of waiting before eventually getting shuttled into this weirdo back room with a threesome and a big party (that brought their own plastic jugs of Ocean Spray cranberry juice, which seemed like a strange thing to byob). Everyone gets a big generous blob of rice, at least one cup’s worth, but the threesome asked for refills before meal’s end. I conscientiously nibbled at a third of my scoop and survived just fine.
Twelve lumpias sounds like a lot, but they’re tiny things fried and filled with ground pork. The orange sauce is sweet and a little too gloppy but that’s the way it is. Sometimes you’re just in the mood for a spring roll even if you know it will be merely adequate. I’ve always been partial to cha gio, but you can’t get pork cracklings at Vietnamese restaurants so there’s a trade off.
Ihawan is meaty---their slogan is “the best bbq in town”--so I knew better than to delve into any of the soupier classics like chicken adobo or even touch the pancit. Plus, you can find those practically anywhere in a two-block radius.
I don’t think you need me to tell you that this isn’t ribs and brisket barbecue. No mop sauces and spice rubs. It’s grilled meat, in this instance pork and chicken, that’s spent time soaking in sweet and garlicky liquid. The rice-crazed friend’s family used Dr. Pepper in their marinade. The end result is sticky, sugary, a little salty, and completely amazing with charred edges caramelized just so. It really kind of is made for rice.
You need the vinegary, pickled green papaya condiment, achara, to take the sweet edge off. But there are other things floating around in the little dish, too. I’ve always found the addition of raisins in Filipino food to be a fun Spanish appropriation that you just don’t see in the rest of Southeast Asia. The plumped dried grapes mix with shredded carrot and lots of minced garlic.
Lechon is a must always. I tend to order mine kawali, chopped up with good portions of meat, fat and crispy skin in each chunk. I’ve noticed on the blogs you see more pata, the whole foot, which is practically German and also a huge treat. Maybe I’m just dainty. Either way, it will slowly kill you.
The pork also calls for its own condiment, the simply named lechon sauce, which is savory, slightly tart and completely impossible to discern the individual ingredients from. I’m still surprised that the flavor comes from liver, vinegar and breadcrumbs. That’s ingenious.
Ok, at least one vegetable was in order. No one said it had to be a healthy vegetable. This is laing, which is akin to creamed spinach but uses taro leaves and coconut milk instead. A couple head-on shrimp get tossed in for good measure.
I’d read and saw ads for a new Ihawan branch in Long Island City that will serve sushi. This is bizarre, for one, because I don’t think of the slowly gentrifying barely-a-neighborhood demanding Filipino food (I honestly don’t think the average citizen has much knowledge about Pinoy cuisine, period) and two, sushi? But heck, if Lucky Mojo, also new in LIC, can serve Cajun, Tex-Mex, bbq and raw fish, why not Ihawan? Barbecue and sushi will be huge by mid-2008, or at least in a tiny sliver of western Queens. (3/23/08)
Meat, meat, meat. So far I've stuck with grilled pork and chicken and the dangerously good lechon. But that's only the tip of the meatberg--lungs, ears, hearts, blood stew--it's all there for the chomping. (5/24/04)
It's pork galore in this smoky (food smoky, not cigarette smoky, duh, there's a ban now, right?) upstairs family favorite . I love crispy, fatty, meaty pork bits more than just about anything, and I wouldn't hesitate to suggest that Filipinos have the corner on that porcine market. It must be that Spanish-Asian mish mash that makes everything so er, unique, i.e. fatty and sugary just the way I like it. Lechon seems to be the big weekend thing around this Woodside enclave, but Ihawan stands out for barbecue. It was only recently that I discovered "lechon sauce" is pretty much liver, breadcrumbs and vinegar. That sounds vaguely heinous, but it's completely addictive. And if you think lechon sauce is oddness, don't even begin pondering banana ketchup (they eat it on spaghetti). (4/13/03)
Ihawan * 40-06 70th St., Woodside, NY