Shovel Time: Tito Rad’s
Much like the real world, the food world can be a confusing place. A quick skim through Twitter (well, my Twitter feed) will often mention the same subject framed multiple ways, interpreting ingredients or dishes as a new trend or old hat depending on the source. And this really only stands out to me when the disparity involves a pet interest of mine, like, say, Filipino food (I’ve always been a champion of this chronic underdog cuisine and swore it was going to blow up in NYC around 2012 when Maharlika, Talde, and Pig & Khao were fresh on the scene) which intersects with my blue/purple food mania, and then I get antsy.
In the same few weeks, I attended a Queens Dinner Club event at Tito Rad’s (awesome name and logo) where ube ice cream seemed like a novelty for people who love trying new food enough to come from all parts of NYC and beyond to Sunnyside on a weeknight and Mic, one of countless millennial-focused sites that seems no different from any other site, posted an article titled LOL “Everything you need to know about ube — the purple yam that’s more than a hipster trend.” (In the past few months, other headlines, blessedly hipster-free, read like: “What You Need to Know About Ube, the Filipino Ingredient Invading the Dessert World,” “Is Ube Filipino America’s Breakout Food?” “Why ube is our new yam.” )
So, is the Filipino purple yam hot shit Instagram-bait or an exotic tuber that you’ve never heard of?
Tell me it doesn’t matter. It’s ok. I was going to “Barely Blog” this but now I’ve gone on too long to lump Tito Rad’s in with anyone else.
As with Thai food, there are a few irresistible Filipino staples that I order over and over (lechon kawali, sisig, pinakbet, grilled meat skewers) limiting my exposure to discoveries (I’ve had my share of adobo, pancit, and lumpia but those often feel too basic) so this 14-dish parade was perfect for forcing me out of my comfort zone and into digestive despair. There were some surprise hits. Some dishes get lost in the fray. And this wasn’t one of those off-the-menu showcases–I’m fairly certain everything served is available regularly, which is why I’m talking about it all (limited editions seem more Instagram than blog).
You cant go wrong with lumpiang Shanghai, the classic ground pork and shrimp stuffed egg rolls, ukoy, shrimp and bean sprout fritters, or a mango salad to start. Don’t forget the importance of dips: sweet and sour, garlic-spiked vinegar, and salty shrimp paste, otherwise known as bagoong, that all exemplify the funky, tart flavors of this cuisine. Sinigang baboy, a soup I’ve always avoided because brothy dishes always seem boring (even though I once was baffled by a friend who didn’t like soup because it was too wet) taught me a lesson. The tamarind base swimming with pork ribs, lots of greens, and vegetables like green beans and eggplant, managed to be both rich and refreshing and was one of the best things I tasted all night.
Just yesterday, an Epicurious email appeared with the subject, “Get Cozy With This Southeast Asian Pork Stew” and it worked on me because I was picturing something autumnal and massaman-ish, so I clicked and saw this. Oh snap, that’s sinagang. Why? What? Oh right, the Pork, Vegetable, and Tamarind Stew is adapted from Bad Saint, a D.C. restaurant on Bon Appétit’s “Hot 10, America’s Best New Restaurants 2016.”
As if to counter the prettiness of ube, a lot of dishes are swampy yet delicious in inverse proportion to their looks. I love pinakebet (bottom right) even though the mess of vegetables (lots of squash) and pork (there’s almost always pork) is filled with earwax-tasting bitter gourd. There’s also a shrimp paste, like what’s served with fresh mango, you can add for an extra blast of brine. Despite buying a tiny can of laing years ago and moving it to multiple apartments instead of eating it, I’d never had the stewed taro leaves before and didn’t expect the green mash to be spicy or have an uncanny flavor resemblance to saag paneer, thick with coconut milk, but with shrimp and pork bits instead of cheese. I’ll definitely try this again. There were two pancits, the breakfast-appropriate palabok with carbonara leanings, rice noodles heavy with eggs and bacon (and shrimp, of course) and pancit bam-i (no photo) combining rice and egg noodles with the winning pork-shrimp combo plus slices of sweet Chinese sausage. Tortang dilis, a silverfish omelet got overshadowed.
The pork belly, which I expected to be a highlight, didn’t stand out. It was presented nicely, thinly sliced rather than chunky or bone-in, but the appeal of lechon is the crackly skin and fatty meat, made even meatier with a dip in vinegary liver sauce. I don’t even remember eating the bistek, which along with the chicken adobo, got de-prioritized due to overload, plus, kare kare is pretty filling with oxtails and hidden tripe beneath the surface of its stiff peanut sauce (I snagged leftovers for lunch the next day).
There’s that ube, served with jackfruit and plantain-stuffed turon a.k.a sweet spring rolls. Like taro, ube doesn’t really have a distinct flavor, the root is more starchy and a little chalky, sweet but not yam sweet. If you closed your eyes and were fed a bite of an ube-flavored treat, it would not taste purple. And it definitely wouldn’t taste hip.
Tito Rad’s * 49-10 Queens Blvd., Sunnyside, NY