Downtown Filipino Buffet Isn't for the Faint of Heart

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Past a downtown convenience store's money-remittance window awaits a seemingly perfect hole in the wall. There, in a back room, sit about a half-dozen steamer trays packed with sour pork adobo, spicy sisig, and boiled baby squid plumped up with ground pork. The two fat, vivacious cockroaches scurrying across the floor were an unintended bonus on a recent weekend.

For the past decade, Jullah Feilding and Lisa Vlcek have set up shop on Third Avenue near Elwood's Gastropub and inside PortMiami's Seaman's Center, serving homestyle favorites to the legions of Filipino and southeast Asian cruise workers who flood the city each Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. 

At midday, they crowd around a trio of picnic tables to wolf down steamy, fragrant plates or snatch up overflowing Styrofoam containers and douse them with hot sauce and shrimp paste before heading back to the port.

"It's the closest I've gotten to home," says Luis Enrique, a 38-year-old cruise ship worker from Manila on his first eight-month gig. Crews also favor it over Bali Cafe, a nearby cash-only Indonesian joint that prepares dishes à la carte. 

"We're all in a hurry," Enrique says.

Fill a to-go box one time for $7 or grab a seat and fill up on all you can eat for $12. Just be wary of Vlcek, who shouts into her cell phone while swatting a broom at bugs.

Among the best options here are the bean sprouts, flash fried with chives and doused in sesame oil. The tender bitter melon crescents — wildly popular in southeast Asia and similar in flavor to drinking a very tannic red wine — are a rare find even in this tropical climate. They're cleaned of their seeds, salted, steamed, and then tossed with scrambled egg. 

The most common find is a trio of adobo, a common Filipino preparation of meat marinated in a piquant blend of vinegar, soy sauce, and garlic that's fried and then simmered down in the tangy concoction. Vlcek uses it on juicy hunks of pork shoulder. She spikes another batch with pig blood that adds a deep, mineral richness that isn't for the faint of heart. For the wary, it's probably an easier sell than the chicken liver and gizzard adobo.

The sisig, however, is a gentle introduction to what is usually a more daunting dish. Rather than use pig snout, cheek, and ears, like the first Filipinos who cooked the dish did after buying unused pig heads from American bases, Vlcek uses the same pig shoulder that goes into the adobo.

"We'll make it with the face if you call ahead," she says.

It's the spiciest of the offerings thanks to a handful of squat red peppers, but sweet calamansi juice and a hit of lemon help round it out.

It's a far easier introduction to the complexity of Filipino food than a similar version once served at North Miami's Lutong Pinoy, which pulled apart the pig's face and served it on a sizzling cast-iron platter.

The squeamish need not apply.

The Filipino Buffet is located a 122 NE Third Ave. Hours are Friday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

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