If you are familiar with the episode in Season 7 of Parts Unknown in which Anthony Bourdain makes Manila his port of call, then you know the extent to which karaoke is a mainstay at any social gathering. But should you need a refresher, I recommend Kabayan (2305 S. State Hwy. 121, Ste. 165) one of our few Filipino restaurants, with a small storefront and a counter-order restaurant ensconced in a corner of a strip mall in Lewisville.
The word kabayan translates to “countryman” in Tagalog. There, on weekends, hired karaoke singers croon, accompanying a lunch hour that seems to extend indefinitely on good will and dishes ladled from a hot-dish buffet.
There is lechon—a torpedo of pork wrapped tight, with crackling skin and a thick layer of fat—which you can get by the pound, chopped into hunks and served on a round plate lined with banana leaf (as all the plates are). Its accompanying sauce features vinegar and pepper, a tangy accompaniment that balances the rich meat.
Filipino food is all about this balance of flavors. The holy base of Filipino cuisine: vinegar, garlic, and black pepper. Remember, this is a cuisine based on the vinegary notes of adobo. But also rice, coconut, and roast pig.
So, it’s important to order at least one length of the pork belly skewers that would be at every Filipino party—ubiquitous street food. The utterly addictive marinade involves coconut vinegar, soy, garlic, and banana ketchup (yes, banana; there are bottles of it on the store shelves; it’s also a mainstay for lumpia, fried egg rolls). The barbecue style is caramelized and sweet, like Korean bulgogi. It’s not the kalamansi version, often made with sugar, soy, black pepper, and citrus. If you ask around, someone’s mother or sisters might make it differently. But these are excellent.
The stews, which you can mound onto the combination plate, are served alongside garlic-flecked rice. There is Bicol Express (named for the train that ran from Manila to the Bicol region, known for its coconuts and spicy food), nuggets of pork stewed with long peppers and a touch of coconut milk, garlic, and onion into a creamy, spicy dish that’s comfort food par excellence. A goat stew in a rich gravy was mediocre and gamey. You’ll encounter tripe and liver in the infamous, dark-black dinuguan, with blood and offal bolstering a base of garlic, chiles, and vinegar that tastes more layered than it should, but isn’t to everyone’s liking, like a funky version of a Mexican mole. They also have sweet longaniza sausages, like breakfast links—garlicky and delicious. As far as vegetables, shrimp paste goes into the wok-fried mix of kabocha squash, green beans, Japanese eggplant, and bitter melon. (Filipino food has funk.) Bok choy comes out fresh and juicy. This, my Filipino friend will confirm, is the best casual Filipino food you can get outside of home for the spicing and seasoning. Though it’s best to get to the buffet early, before items dry out in the steam trays.
At some tables, couples have splurged on the $40 Bilao platter, piled extravagantly with rice, grilled shrimp, lechon, pork skewers, and a whole grilled pompano. You can also get separate bowls of the tamarind-sour soup sinigang.
For dessert, we tuck into a slice of cassava cake—grated cassava root and coconut milk, with a bruléed top. Also, the fluffy, steamed cakes that look like mini muffins, feel like sponge cakes, and are called puto. They taste of air and a bit of sweetness, and have a little slab of the processed cheese that is everywhere (including on the store’s shelves for a hefty, import-tax $11.49). Elsewhere are tubs of a dessert soup with tapioca balls, starchy roots, and a faint hint of what seems like fruit cocktail.
And finally, the halo halo, the dessert of crushed ice and evaporated milk that rivals adobo for national dish and is unquestionably a national obsession. The halo halo here is better than in some places. Its fanciful layers include leche flan, bits of bright red and green gems, which turn out to be slivers of syrup-soaked young coconut flesh and other fruits, as well as beans, red bean paste, and a scoop of ube (purple yam) ice cream. The whole thing topped with shaved ice and designed to cause your heart to skip a beat.
As we leave, the karaoke singer has finished the theme song from The Lion King and is beginning on Lana del Rey.