As Many Culinary Influences as Islands
Austin's Philippine 'turo-turo' uprising
There are currently about 10,000 Filipinos in the Austin area, and the number grows annually as more and more families especially those including Philippine nurses who arrive to help fill the shortage come to Austin to find work. Word gets out of a stable and growing Pinoy (a term of endearment used by Filipinos in referring to one another; Pinay is the feminine form) culture in the area, and Austin's cultural and culinary melting pot grows. Like any group, they need places to shop for their specialty-cooking ingredients, bakeries for their breads and desserts, and, naturally, restaurants in which to dine and commune.
For the uninformed, Filipino food is unique, based on centuries of trade and colonization, with influences from the Malaysians, Indians, Chinese, Spanish, Mexicans, and the Americans. As Americans, we should be proud of our culinary contributions: M&M's, chiffon cake, Spam, Vienna sausages ... I could go on. But imagine a cuisine that uses fish sauce and shrimp paste; olives and chiles; olive oil and tomatoes; bread; noodles and rice; sweet, baked tropical desserts; chorizo and longaniza; escabeche made with coconut or sugarcane vinegar; skewered barbecue; fresh spring rolls made with crepes; dishes with lemongrass and bay leaves; lots of seafood and pork; and tamales made with sticky rice. It's like someone combined a lot of my favorite things from different cuisines and mixed them all together into one huge, wonderful menu.
Presently there are four options in Austin for Pinoy dining: none formal; most combination import shop, travel agency, food store, restaurant, meeting spot; all limited in menu, instead featuring a minibuffet of sorts, offering a steam-table selection of between five and 10 dishes, paired with rice. This is referred to as a turo-turo place in the Philippine language. At most of them, they are more than happy to cook any dish you prefer, if they are given enough advance notice. They all make food to go, either from the buffet or menu, or from special requests. Most would be delighted to cater an event or, at the least, cook all of the food and have it ready to go.
2400 E. Oltorf Ste. 12-A, 443-2062
Tuesday-Saturday, 9am-7pm; Sunday, 10am-6pm
Located in a South Austin strip center along with Java Noodles is the granddaddy of Philippine spots in Austin. Elizabeth Sanchez's Jegimajo (longtime previous owner Gigi Hobson sold it not too long ago) is a friendly and welcoming family-run spot that creates masterful bubble teas. Their slushy, pale lavender taro milk tea is exquisite. Along with drinks, they offer other such refreshing dessert quasi-beverages as halo-halo (meaning "mix-mix," it's a traditional treat of shaved ice, tropical fruit, sweet colorful jellies made from agar-agar, the odd bean or two, mixed with exotic ice creams), and gulaman (grass jelly, coconut milk, and toasted rice flakes).
They also serve a limited selection of assorted Philippine foods, primarily appetizer-related dishes. Gigi and crew stock a wide variety of snacks, grocery items, magazines, movies, and gifts from the Philippines and Japan. Don't miss the intriguing imported ice creams, whose flavors include corn and cheese, pandan leaf, purple yam, jackfruit, and avocado.
Oriental Grocery & Bakery
707 E. Braker #105, 833-9420
Monday-Saturday, 7am-8:30pm; Sunday, 9am-7pm
It has a generic name, and it's hard to find unless you know where to look, but the food is good, the customers loyal, and the staff friendly. Rebecca Evangelista's busy little restaurant/store/bakery is located in a small, aged strip center. A steam-table buffet with six items sits on one side, opposite the two long rows of communal seating. Karaoke TV shows on the tube, with Pinoy actors singing in English. It brought back memories of every nice hotel lounge in Bangkok, each one with a Filipino combo singing synthesized American pop in shimmering cocktail dresses. Philippine singers have little to no accent since the two lingua francas are Tagalog and English.
Next to the steam table are the serve-yourself boxes of plastic forks, spoons, knives, and napkins, with the golden-brown goods of the bakery rack tempting from the cabinet against the wall. This establishment is more about the bakery and the buffet and less about the groceries (although they do carry all of the basics). Choices are quasi-democratic: Call in the day before, and suggest what you'd like to see on the buffet. If it's workable, you might just find it waiting for you. Rebecca tries to always have at least five options in her turo-turo; you fill your plate and add rice from the rice cooker at the end of the line for $5.99.
We dined on a very nice chicken adobo meltingly tender chicken in a vinegar, peppercorn, and garlic broth. Lechon kawali are pork slices that are seasoned, simmered, air-dried, and deep-fried. Great flavor, but a little on the bony side. There was a delicious beef caldereta stewed beef that was very tender, in a rich tomato-based sauce with garlic. Some stewed short ribs simmered in a clear and garlicky broth, again tender and appetizing. Lurking in the back were whole pompano in a ginger and scallion escabeche and fried milkfish.
The desserts cannot be ignored. Massive chunks of bibinka, cassava cake ($3.99) with a hint of buko (young coconut) demanded consumption. The top is golden brown, the texture almost custardy, the flavor tropical. Trays of puto reminded me of the khanom krok coconut custard cakes of Thailand. Puto ($1.99) are round, white, steamed minicakes of sweet rice flour and are subtly sweet with a toothsome texture.
The folks at the end of the table were munching on a massive slab of flan swimming in a dark caramelized sauce. I did not catch the price, but they assured me that it was superb. Trays of hot, yeasty "Spanish bread" were emerging from the ovens, filling their room with the fragrance of fresh-baked bread. Siopao buns were getting ready to hit the heat of the ovens; I don't know what they were stuffed with, but they sure looked tempting. Sadly, no savory empanadas were available that day, but with their baking skills, I'm sure they can make top-notch versions. Philippine baked goods enjoy a reputation of legend. We will be back for more.
2309 Parmer, 973-8745
Monday-Saturday, 8:30am-8:30pm; Sunday, 10am-8pm
Gammad opened two years ago by Eva and Henry Gammad, and it's located in a house on the south side of Parmer, just east of MoPac and Tomanet Trail. It is a mix of Philippine food store, buffet, cafe, and import shop. Of all four venues, Gammad has the largest and most complete selection of cooking supplies and ingredients, with an amazing variety of items packed into the numerous shelves, coolers, and freezers.
If you need frozen grated cassava, or ube (purple yam), frozen jute or bitter melon leaves, and young coconut meat (buko), this is your place. There is a large range of sausages and meat items like tocino and tapa, as well as a considerable assortment of fishes, especially the national fish of the Philippines: bangus, or milkfish. Shelves groan from the weight of the selection of sauces, vinegars, etc. You should allow extra time to peruse the crackers, cookies, and snack items. There are tasty treasures hiding within. I couldn't resist the spicy salted cubes of tamarind candy and a packet of dried mango. I was very tempted by a large bottle of sugarcane vinegar, loaded with whole red chiles and whole garlic cloves. They also carry a full range of ready-made sauces for the shortcut cooks.
They have four tables for those who choose to dine in, and we witnessed several groups coming in to get orders that were phoned-in, and one gentleman preordering a huge portion of menudo for that evening. (Pinoy menudo is made with diced pork, not tripe, as in Mexico.) Gammad tries to have at least six items per day in the steam table (the selection changes daily), and you get two dishes plus rice for $4.99. There was a steady stream of shoppers purchasing cooking supplies. A Philippine game/variety show was on the TV, sent around the world via satellite.
We settled on three items from the steam table. We chose a delightfully tart and rich bitter melon (ampalaya) and pork stew; the bitter melon stew was excellent, with the richness of the pork moderating the bitterness of the melon. We also selected a luscious beef stew cooked in the style of menudo (chunks of tender beef and potato in a dark sauce of tomato with fish sauce and garlic) and sotanghon (cellophane noodles) stir-fried with chicken, onion, cabbage, carrot, and garlic (12-ounce cup, $2.99, since we were getting three items instead of two).
We passed on the dinuguan, a luscious pork stew made with a pork-blood/vinegar base, and the small salt-cooked whole milkfish. I've never been one for eating a lot of blood; it is too metallic and salty and way too liverlike for my palate. Nothing against the fish: They actually looked delectable.
Gammad has a menu up on the wall with such dishes as pancit (rice stick noodles), egg noodle soup, pork roll stuffed with Vienna sausage and pickles, stuffed milkfish, crispy pata (boiled and fried pork shank) with prices that range from $6 to $11 (for a huge portion), but Eva can cook pretty much any Philippine dish if given a day's notice and the ingredients are available. What we ate was very tasty, and Eva and Henry could not have been nicer. It's the place to shop and a fantastic spot for takeout.
8863 Anderson Mill Rd., 249-0283 and 203-7319
Tuesday-Sunday: lunch, 11am-3pm; dinner, 3-9pm
Mang Dedoy is currently the only Pinoy option that actually has a printed menu, with some 47 different savory dishes, plus seven different desserts. They come in second in the cooking ingredient list and first in taste for the prepared foods.
Corazón and Candido Raygon opened in June with niece Gina running the stove. Corazón came here as a recruited RN in 1995 and then sent for the rest of the brood. Mang Dedoy is a pleasant spot, half-restaurant and half-grocery. They have a nice selection of culinary supplies. They have all of the requisite frozen leaves: bitter melon, jute, horseradish leaf, pepper leaf, etc. There are some great-looking frozen desserts from Goldilocks, a famous Pinoy bakery, and excellent-looking marinated and skewered barbecue chicken sticks among hundreds of other items.
The menu covers the Top 50 on the Philippine food scene: a really nice selection of favorites. I wish that you could come in and just order off of the menu like a sit-down restaurant, but with only one to two folks working in the kitchen at a time, two to three hours' advance notice is required. Still, you can order the dishes, and there is a published list to peruse, from which you can order. There was a fellow on the phone wanting a whole roasted piglet (lechon) while we were there.
As for dining, we sampled several dishes and found them all to be first-rate and served on actual plates, with silverware. From the turo-turo steam table, you can choose two dishes, which are served with rice and soup, for $5.50. Lechon kawali was room-temp crispy pork slices with banana ketchup for dipping. The vegetable that day was a wonderful combo of long beans, cabbage, and sweet potato in a thick coconut milk sauce: delicious. We had a nice plate of pancit rice noodles with chicken, whole cloves of garlic, and veggies. The beef steak with onions was rich and flavorful, well-balanced with soy and a slight sweet-sour edge, and peppery. There was a mixed adobo of chicken and pork, both meats exceedingly tender, flavorful, and tasty. A calamansi drink was selected from the cooler, it being the lime of the islands, but a lime with an edge to it.
All in all, the food was the best of the group, and the service the most accommodating. They apparently do a nice business with people who have previously gotten menus, who then call to place orders in the afternoon and pick it up on the way home from work. Not a bad idea, although you can also place an order in advance and just eat it there. Wherever you choose to dine, Mang Dedoy has excellent Pinoy cuisine served by very friendly folks.