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Of all Asian cuisines, one of the most difficult to find well represented in the U.S. -- to find at all, actually -- is that of the Philippines. Odd, considering how relatively accessible, compared to Japanese or Thai food, most Filipino dishes would be to diners, especially here in Miami, for the Philippines spent almost 400 years as a colony of Spain. It's easy to taste strong influences from other countries as well: soy sauce, egg-roll wrappers, noodles, and stir-fry from China; fermented fish and peanut sauces from Malaysia/Southeast Asia; plus assorted bits contributed by Indian and Arab traders, not to mention influences from 40 years of U.S. possession. (We're to thank for the canned fruit salad on Filipino dessert menus.)
But food historians estimate that 80 percent of Philippine cuisine has its roots in Spain and in the Hispanic New World, since the islands, named for the Spanish king Philip II, were actually governed through the viceroyalty of Mexico. It's hard to believe that most Cuban Americans wouldn't go bonkers over Filipino food, especially since both Pinoy and Cuban tastes don't tend toward the Mexican and Southeast Asian enthusiasm for hot peppers.
So why doesn't Miami have a myriad of Philippine restaurants? For one thing, many of the dishes' native Tagalog names don't make them sound as accessible as they are. Butse-butse? Surely a rare tropical disease or some kind of fruit fly. Dinuguan sounds like a creature one would find hopping over the plains of Australia. Pinkabet has gotta be a new Pokeman. And puto bumbong sounds like a specialty of an exotic whorehouse/opium den, not a restaurant offering. Additionally, many items are quite labor-intensive to prepare.
But Tatay's, a tiny Philippine restaurant/bakery/gift shop tucked behind a Burger King in an easily overlooked strip mall, takes the time to do it right -- and for the right price. The place's three combo plates -- featuring a choice of two entrées (from eight choices daily) plus a side of either rice, half rice and half pancit bihon (noodles with vegetables), or all pancit -- range from $5.25 to $6.95. Traditionally, Filipino meals are always eaten with rice. But unless plain white rice really floats your boat, blow the extra buck on a full order of pancit, skillfully seasoned thin rice sticks lightly stir-fried with cabbage and carrots. Alert to vegetarians: The menu describes this item as just noodles with veggies, but on one visit it also contained chicken.
Most foods are steam-tabled, but, being largely long-cooked stews, don't suffer. Many, in fact, seemed to develop flavors as they rested, like chicken adobo, tenderized by a long bath in its piquant vinegar marinade, or the similarly softened pork pieces in dinuguan. Dinuguan's sauce, described on the menu as "special Tatay's mix" and by the server as "brown," is actually pork blood-based, but no worries. It was intense but peppery and tangy rather than clotty, not nearly as intimidating as it sounds.
Not only do entrées change daily, but two menus (A and B) rotate weekly, with some overlapping. There's always an adobo, a pancit, a beef-stuffed egg roll, and, for dessert, a sweet plantain-stuffed egg roll (turon). But if you want lechon kawali (deep-fried pork), you'll have to hit week B. You'll want it. Though the preparation was more like paksiw na lechon, a sweetened soy/vinegar-sauced pork stew, than classic crisp-fried lechon kawali, whose garlic-vinegar dip comes on the side, it was delectable. On week A the crunchy pork special is crispy pata, one of Tatay's few custom-cooked dishes. This huge crackling-on hock -- advance slow-simmered till tender in a tangy marinade and then deep-fried upon order -- lost its crispness and its charm as it cooled, but right out of the kitchen was well worth the fifteen-minute wait. A garlicky mojo dip beautifully countered the fatty meat's richness. Also highly recommended: beef kare-kare, tender oxtail chunks, plus green beans and eggplant, in a subtle Thai-style thin peanut sauce.
Whatever you eat at Tatay's, there are some items in the side counter you might want to take home for later, among them some terrific housemade chicharones (pork or, better, chicken) or tasty yet healthy lumpia, raw vegetable wraps. But there's one easy-to-miss snack item, buried on a middle shelf, that's a must-not-miss: adobong mani. Sold in Philippine schoolyards by enterprising peer-group pushers, these mouthwatering, fresh garlic-roasted peanuts may not be as dangerous as hard drugs, but they're easily as addictive.