My exposure to the cuisine of the Philippines has definitely been limited here in Denver, primarily consisting of visits to a couple of food trucks: Orange Crunch and A Taste of the Philippines, which both serve great food but have small menus. But then ChowSun opened last November in east Aurora, where it offers an array of dishes (including a handful of Thai noodle bowls) that go far beyond more familiar chicken adobo and deep-fried lumpia.
ChowSun is set up as a fast-casual eatery with a big menu board above an order counter where energetic servers keep the line moving. If Filipino cuisine is as new to you as it is to me, that menu board doesn't help much with the ordering process. Instead, it's better to grab a printed menu and read through the descriptions before you place an order. And then you can find a table and look over the menu a little more, noticing all the details you missed the first time through while waiting for your number to be called.
Amid diners digging into tortang talong (a whole splayed eggplant with its stem sticking out from an omelet-like coating), tinapang bangus (whole smoke fish) and pancit canton with thick egg noodles, I sat wondering if I should have delved deeper into the menu rather than sticking to more familiar appetizers and pork dishes.
But there's nothing wrong with gravitating toward the familiar, especially when those familiar dishes are done well. ChowSun's chicken lumpia came rolled tight like cigarillos and densely stuffed with spiced shredded chicken. Each crunchy bite balanced phyllo-like layers of wonton wrapper with moist and tender meat.
For combo meals, Amy and I ended up with what might be labeled "pork belly two ways" in a high-end restaurant. Her triple pork adobo featured supple cubes of pork belly, more meat than fat, stewed in a thin but savory sauce of vinegar, soy and other seasonings, some — like black pepper and bay leaf — visible among the chunks of meat. A side of rice studded with golden-brown garlic made an excellent sponge for the adobo sauce. My lechon kawali was also built from nuggets of pork belly, deep-fried rather than stewed to give a crunchy, chewy texture similar to that of chicharrones. The lechon came with a dipping sauce called Mang Tomas, a sweet and tangy Filipino condiment designed specifically for the pork dish.
Like any other cuisine, that of the Philippines comes with its own set of condiments that can be confusing to first-timers. ChowSun stocks banana ketchup — one of my favorites for its unlikely combination of tropical fruit and tangy tomato — and spiced vinegar in addition to the ubiquitous sriracha sauce. I filled mini-cups with banana ketchup and spicy vinegar and tried them in different combinations. Although the Mang Tomas was intended for the lechon kawali, I liked the acidic kick the spicy vinegar gave to the fatty cubes of pork. And the banana ketchup, a more fiery brand than I'd had before, seemed to pair well with the lumpia. (Experts will no doubt tell me I was doing it wrong.)
The counter clerk was kind enough to hold my order of halo halo until we were ready for dessert. When he brought it out to us, he said, "It's best when you mix everything together — but you probably already know that."
Despite his assumption (or politeness), I didn't have a clue what to do with the frozen concoction, so I followed his instructions (and the technique of other guests) and mixed the purple yam ice cream and other ingredients into a single colorful slurry. In addition to the ice cream, ChowSun's version of the dessert came with a dollop of custard, shaved ice soaked in condensed milk, green and red lozenges of fruit jelly, shreds of bright-orange fruit (papaya, perhaps?), and sweet red beans. There may have been other things lurking in the layered cup, but all of it contributed to the sweet, nutty, creamy melange punctuated by a swirl of textures. Presented in a tall plastic cup, it wasn't far from a Vietnamese boba smoothie, only with a more complex range of flavors.
From my west Denver neighborhood, ChowSun seems almost as far a journey as the Philippines, as far east as you can go in the metro area before you hit the flat prairies of the eastern plains. Still, the Aurora neighborhood around Buckley Road near Alameda Avenue sports many established housing developments and condo complexes, and I'm a little jealous of the area's longtime residents who can frequently bask in the glow of ChowSun.
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In Ethniche, Mark Antonation explores the cuisine of a different culture, region or country every month, visiting four or five eateries for an overview of how that cuisine fits into the Denver dining scene. His explorations have ranged from a deep dive into Salvadorean pupusas to a cross-section of traditional Chinese New Year specialties to a look into the state of Southern barbecue along the Front Range. For the month of July, he's offering a potpourri of cultures with little restaurant representation in town — ethnic cuisines that might otherwise be overlooked. This month's other Ethniche restaurants:
The Sudan Cafe
Makan Malaysian Cafe
The Jamaican Grill