Filipino dishes almost feel like comfort food, but that's silly since I'm
not Filipino. Growing up I had two good Filipino friends, and I'd tag along
to odd parties and what not at the Phil-Am (I'm not sure if that was the
real title, if it was some official society or what. The Phil-Am was this
small random building in SE Portland where they'd hold dances and parties)
just to eat the food. I was impressed by the sheer quantity–piles and piles
of pancit, whole pigs (never forgot the pig head), marinades using Dr.
Pepper as a secret ingredient and gummy gray-purple desserts. This was
living. Never mind that I was the only white girl there, and never danced
when I think you were supposed to dance (I was taller than all the guys
anyway), I was there to ogle the spread.
It never really struck me as restaurant food, and as far as I know,
Portland didn't have any Filipino restaurants. I rarely tried many main
dishes, i.e. the soupy stuff Lema's parents and grandparents ate. It's not
that I wouldn't, but they told me I wouldn't like it and I do recall a
sample of something eerily bitter (eggplant or okra perhaps) and tinged with
fish sauce that didn't have me coming back for more. I stuck with bbq,
lumpia, pancit and those gelatinous desserts in pans.
We used to call the purple, gummy stuff, Grimace, not so much because it
made you smile but because it shared its hue with the large peculiar McDonald's
character that I think at one point was associated with milkshakes.
Living in NYC I have Filipino food at my fingertips, yet I always eschew
it in favor of other Asian options like Thai or Vietnamese. I guess it
is different–meatier, stewier, blander or something. James has some
mental block with the food, probably due to his (half-Filipino) mother's
disdain for the cuisine. I think in her eyes it represents who knows what,
but definitely not something refined.
Elegant dining experiences have their place, but pointing and picking
can be good too. James only lives two blocks from Elvie's, yet it wasn't
until I was out alone one afternoon that I stopped in for the first time.
I'm always a bit intimidated by the pointing and choosing. I don't want to
look dumb by not knowing what something is, and I also hate asking
questions. It's a dilemma, but it's also a bit of fun to just rely on your
eyes and go by instinct.
At Elvie's I felt like I was still at a family party, ready for
unabashed gorging. Of course money was to exchange hands so I had to keep my
eagerness under control and opted for a bbq beef skewer, pancit and chicken
adobo. I couldn't pass up the ube (purple yam) goodies, gooey strips of
brilliant purple chewiness coated with sugar and coconut flakes. As a kid, I
always thought they artificially dyed the dessert, especially since I
noticed intense food color, neon pinks and greens that couldn't possibly be
natural, in friends' cupboards. I've since learned that ube is truly purple,
and nothing makes me happier than unreal colored food that's real. (8/4/01)
Elvie's Turo-Turo * 214 First Ave., New York, NY