I was introduced to Filipino cuisine at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant in Reno, Nev., about a decade ago. The food was amazing, full of savory flavors, although the service was horrendous. I once asked the woman working the counter about a fish dish on display, and she refused to tell me about it. I kept asking, and she finally let out an exasperated laugh and exclaimed: "That not for you. You white boy."
Tucson has a restaurant that reminds me a lot of that Reno eatery. Pinoy Fast Food is a bit of a hole-in-the-wall joint, too, tucked into a strip mall at Kolb Road and Broadway Boulevard. It's also a counter-service joint--your entrée choices consist of whatever is on the steam table that day. The folks at Pinoy are much more pleasant than the people at that place in Reno; unfortunately, the food's not as consistently good--although if you follow three simple tips, I can promise a delicious, unique meal.
Tip No. 1: Be adventurous while ordering, but know your limits. Here's how Pinoy works: You go to the counter and pick either two (for lunch, $6.50) or three (for dinner, $8) entrées; the meal also comes with noodles and either ginger or garlic rice. (Get the garlic rice. It's fantastic.) Rolls are also promised on the menu, but we weren't offered any on either of our two visits. If you want to eat light and just get soup and either rice or noodles, that's $3. You'll have about a dozen entrée choices, some with more of a Western appeal ... and some that may look rather strange to Americans. Do not just go with the gringo food; during a dinner visit, Garrett and I found the best dishes were the ones that were the most uniquely Filipino.
If you have a sensitive stomach, sit down before you read this next sentence: Garrett's favorite dish was the dinoguan, which, according to the menu, includes pork strips, tripe, blood, ginger, lemongrass, garlic and peppers. Yes: Blood is an ingredient. The dark-brown dish had a tart, yet hearty flavor, and when he mixed it with the garlic rice, Garrett was in taste-bud heaven. I enjoyed the milkfish soup--although there was not very much milkfish in it. (The woman working the counter apologized and said that the only meat left that she could offer was the fish's head. We declined.) Instead, we got a ton of vegetables (including seaweed, bok choy, carrots, green beans and eggplant) in a murky broth. It was somewhat similar to the fish paksiw, which had a whole galongong fish in it; this dish unsettled Garrett, because he felt there were "scales and eyes staring" at him.
The chicken adobo--which included chicken legs in a soy sauce/bay leaf sauce that also mixed splendidly with the rice--tasted delicious, but I can't say the other two Western-friendly dishes did a thing for us. The calderita beef stew (with potatoes, peppers, peas and other vegetables) tasted a lot like canned beef stew, and the chicken curry was awful. It was served at room temperature--the steam table must have been malfunctioning--and the temperature killed the flavors. We each ate one bite and stopped for obvious reasons. And this illustrates Tip No. 2: Pinoy lets you try the dishes before ordering. Take advantage of it.
Connie Tuttle did just that when she joined me for my lunch visit. I ordered the tocino, a fantastic pork dish with slices of meat marinated in a sweet sauce and then pan-fried. It was probably the best dish I tried on either of my visits. I also ordered the hot wings, which were peppery and enjoyable. While I liked my lunch, Connie was not initially impressed. She got the chicken adobo, which she thought was bland, and the chicken with beans, which she also thought was bland. Finally, she felt the accompanying noodles were--guess what?--a bit bland. During our dinner visit, the helpful woman behind the counter explained that the thin noodles, including some cabbage and carrot slices, are cooked in a simple oyster sauce, and are best when enhanced with the condiments (vinegar, soy sauce, etc.) at the table. I passed this advice on to Connie ... and sure enough, after tinkering a bit, she was enjoying the adobo and noodles more than before. Hence, Tip No. 3: Condiments, if used properly, can enhance, complement and draw out flavors. Use them. At counter-service restaurants with steam tables, you're not getting cooked-to-order food; you're getting food for the masses. The condiments are there to help you adjust the food to your tastes.
Pinoy is clean, with mirrors, palm fronds and kitschy instructional posters (topics include "fruits," "root groups" "Philippine birds" and "Philippine folk dances") on the walls. An aquarium that could have used a good cleaning sat in a corner next to some karaoke gear that's apparently trotted out after 6 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays. This isn't fancy dining, but it's comfortable and casual.
If Pinoy Fast Foods were almost any other kind of restaurant, I would not recommend it; the food's way too hit and miss. But places in Tucson where you can get Filipino cuisine are few and far between--and if you follow my three tips, I promise you can enjoy an unusual and delicious meal at Pinoy. Even if you're a white boy like me.