“We should go to Ihawan” is a phrase so rarely spoken in my household that I must take advantage when I hear it. Easter has become the one time of year when James seems to embrace his sliver of Filipino heritage and Catholic upbringing. Ham? Who needs it. Lechon is porky perfection.
Lechon, this is it, the ultimate fatty slices of striated pork capped by shell of skin so crackly that it can withstand a night in the refrigerator and microwaving. The tangy, sour dipping sauce is brilliant, even more so when you discover that it’s make from liver and breadcrumbs. Filipino food is ingenious like that.
Ihawan also excels at sweet, charred barbecued meat. Normally, I’m eh on grilled chicken but there is nothing dry or bland about their version. It doesn’t even rely on crispy skin, poultry’s easy way out. Unfortunately, I didn’t take a photo because this dish never arrived until we asked what had happened when ready to pay the bill. Apparently, someone called in an order for 100 and ours got lost in the shuffle. Customer service isn’t exactly Ihawan’s strength. No one will check on you after your food has been brought and you might get bossed for no apparent reason into ordering something like the calamansi juice when you asked for the buko (coconut juice). I just go with it. We got our chicken to go, the only casualty was the shredded papaya raisin relish that didn’t make it from table to bag.
Meat is Ihawan’s strength. I actually prefer Engeline’s for other dishes like pinakbet, one less-than-healthy way to get vegetables into your meal. Ihawan adds the bagoong into the mix while Engeline’s serves the salty shrimp paste on the side. I happen to like all fermented shrimp condiments, including this funky maroon one. Beware if you don’t.
Pinaket is a mix of vegetables, here cubes of starchy squash, beans, both long and green, eggplant and bitter gourd mixed with shrimp and chunks of pink roast pork. Filipino cuisine really plays up the bitter and sour, not my natural go to flavor profile. I hate the phrase acquired taste, but bitter gourd takes some intellectualizing for me.
In high school my best friend was Filipina and I’d get myself invited to as many family parties as possible to gorge on fun food like pancit and lumpia. I rarely experienced workhorse meals, nor did my teenage friend. Her parents would cook their own dinner for themselves. Once her mother offered me some of what they were eating. Lema defended, “Krista doesn’t want to eat that.” But I did, I’ll try anything. All I recall was a thick, deep brown stew sitting on the stovetop, fishy with eggplants and a dirty earwax flavor that I now know is bitter gourd. I wasn’t crazy about it but kept mum since it seemed like I was being let in on something.
Sisig. Here the pig’s ears and liver are minced fine almost like ground beef, mixed with chopped onions like you’d find on a White Castle slider, and served on a sizzling platter (I slightly prefer Engeline’s version with chunkier meat and a freshly cracked egg that diners mix in). Just a little spicy and sour, the chewy, sticky cartilaginous bits with a caramelized bottom have become an unlikely favorite. Traditionally, you might find brains, cheeks and everything from a pig’s head used. I have never encountered this, though.
One thing Ihawan has that Engeline’s doesn’t is the Burnstown Dam font on their specials menu. I used it for my old personal journal, spied it on a restaurant in Oaxaca in November and just last month on a bar in Bangkok. I love you, goofy plywood font.
Too full for any halo halo, I was determined to track down a slice of ube cake for later. I love fake greens and purples and Easter is the one time a year when lavender food is fitting. Newish Red Ribbon Bakery near Sripraphai primarily sells whole cakes with only three variations available by the slice per day. The pale green pandan did catch my attention but I really wanted ube, only available by whole cake or jelly roll. I couldn’t justify buying a family-sized dessert, it’s too counterproductive to have around the house and I’m not one of those office ladies who brings treats to work to share.
The Fil-Am Mart across the street from Ihawan had all sorts of tempting goodies like puto, steamed muffin-y rice cakes, flan and saipan sapin a gelatinous dessert of colorful strata, royal purple on top. But no ube cake. Krystal’s (I noticed Friday night that their East Village location has moved to Seventh St. and had a Lent menu on the blackboard out front) on the next block, had what I was looking for—finally—ube jelly roll filled with sweet ube halaya, the whole log frosted in more violet goodness.
Previously on Ihawan.
Ihawan 40-06 70th St., Woodside, NY