Eating a Filipino meal is like breaking into the jars in science lab and ingesting the contents--only to discover that the results of your experiment in eating can be downright delicious.
That's what we concluded after our visits to Nipa Hut, the area's only Filipino restaurant. Why it's our sole purveyor of this Southeast Asian cuisine is not hard to determine, especially since several of the main dishes--pig's ears, beef tails, ham hocks--sound more like the remains of a demonstration on vivisection than they do the featured components of a menu. Despite these exotically earthy ingredients, compared to the cuisines of the countries that influenced the islands' cooking--most obviously Spain, China and Japan--much of Filipino food is simple, unsophisticated and sparsely seasoned.
Owners Gil and Rita Asuncion, two natives of the Philippines, opened Nipa Hut four months ago to introduce their home cooking to Denver. "We thought it was time for people to try our food," says Rita. "And this is what we have at home." Apparently, "this" can be anything from stews and stir-fries to deep-fried and broiled fish--each unique and interesting. Consuming them would have been even more interesting if we had used authentic Filipino techniques: They eat with their hands. But for some reason, the Asuncions are under the impression that in this country, health departments don't allow restaurants to let customers use their fingers as utensils--which probably comes as a big surprise to those serving hamburgers, chicken wings and Ethiopian food. "In California, some people we know were told that they couldn't have people eating with their hands," says manager Rick Cortez, a Filipino who, along with his wife, Rita, works with the Asuncions. "We don't want to cause any trouble and get trouble from the health department."
A spokeswoman for the state health department confirmed that there are no such restrictions, however. "You can't force people to eat with their hands," she said. "You have to provide utensils. But there's nothing wrong with them letting customers know that that is the way it's done in their country and giving them that option." And it's a good thing the Nipa Hut staff didn't try to stop us from using our fingers: We needed them for the sisig na baboy ($7.95), an appetizer of chopped pig's ears. Anyone who's eaten pig's ears knows that stabbing a fork through the cartilage is like trying to spear linoleum--which is one reason this delicacy is not especially popular. Nipa Hut's version, though, should be: It was filled with garlic and jalapenos that had been slow-cooked in a vinegary sauce, and while our jaws got tired of hacking at the rubbery parts, we were rewarded by little bits of crisp-cooked meat here and there.
The pusit ($5.95), on the other hand, was as un-chewy as squid can be. Whole bodies had been brushed with a thin batter and deep-fried until they glistened with oil and the batter had turned into a crunchy shell. A bowl of garlic and ginger in vinegar was just enough of a dip to add flavor without taking away from the taste of the squid. Our next venture was a serving of kare-kare ($4.95), one of the best-known Filipino foods. This dish featured two huge beef tails (the meat used to be oxtail, and often it's still referred to that way, but there simply aren't many oxen around these days) coated with a sauce thickened by roasted peanuts and colored red with annatto. And as there's not much meat on the tail end of these things, we again used our fingers to hoist up the rock-sized chunks and gnawed at the bones. The meat had been braised for ages, which gave it a tenderness hard to come by since the tails often come from older, tougher animals. We could have lived without the accompanying dried shrimp paste, which smelled--and must taste like--the brine shrimp you throw into an aquarium.
The squid and beef tail were just two examples of the uncomplicated way Filipinos have with meats and fish. Another was the mixed adobo, a Spanish-influenced recipe in which the meat is crisply sauteed in a vinegar-spiked coconut milk. It's one of those foods that varies from island to island, with each family creating its own style--think Italians and minestrone or Chinese and egg rolls. Nipa Hut's adobo contained green beans that had been cooked along with the pork and chicken until everything had nearly disintegrated, but the flavor of the beans remained dominant. The meat stood out more in the paksiw na lechon ($5.45), a mound of pork so tender the chunks were starting to fall apart into strings. Garlic and the slightest touch of tamarind added depth to the ever-present vinegar.
Filipinos are known for their fondness of sour flavors. Nowhere was that more apparent than in the sinigang ($5.45), a sour soup filled with milkfish, which is pretty much the Philippines' national fish. Earlier we had been warned against getting the stuffed milkfish because, as Rita put it, "It's filled with bones." We were stunned by the concept of a restaurateur steering a customer away from the most expensive thing on the menu. (Rita later explained that the milkfish is there for Filipinos who are used to it and for Denverites who have tried other, better items on the menu and are looking for more adventure.) We ordered the soup anyway, and quickly learned that "filled with bones" was an understatement. The shame of it is that milkfish is incredibly flavorful, fishy in a good way, and rich. That richness proved to be the key element of the soup, which contained tamarind and several vegetables, as well as the lemon that gave it its tartness.
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We also were encouraged to try the sotanghon guisado ($6.45), a noodle stir-fry that Rita, who was our waitress, said was better than the other stir-fries we'd been considering. "Those are boring," she explained. "Those are like your peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches." They must have been really boring, because the one she recommended was bland: a mishmash of noodles and vegetables with tiny bits of pork and no distinguishable spices. But we followed it up with a stunning eggplant omelette ($3.95), a whole eggplant that had been salted and squeezed of any bitterness before being roasted and then folded into an omelette so thin it was more like a crepe.
The intensity of that dish, though, paled beside the potato cake ($2.50), made from purple--we're talking the bright purple of grape Kool-Aid--tubers and sweetened condensed milk. The cake had the consistency of just-cooked fudge and was only slightly less sweet. The leche flan ($1.95) was more conventional, a custard heavier on the milk and thus denser and more textured than the usual flan. It had been flavored with coconut, one of the most popular dessert contents in the Philippines. It figured heavily in the rice cake ($1.95), too, a sticky square of rice mixed with sugar and topped with a roof of toasted coconut.
We found several coconut-based items in the little store within Nipa Hut, where rows of jars displayed the Asian ingredients used throughout our meal. Rita answered questions and passed along a bottle of the Filipino answer to Coca-Cola, Sarsi, an artificially flavored drink based on the no-longer-used sarsaparilla. The children hanging around Nipa Hut, obviously relatives of the owners, all had bottles of it hanging from their mouths, and we quickly discovered why: It had an infectious sweetness and an appealing strangeness.
The same could be said of Nipa Hut. Eating there is an experiment in good taste.