Inexpensive, real-deal, home-style Filipino cooking is available from a menu of classics and cafeteria-style, “turo turo” specials
Filipino cuisine will be the “next big thing” according to numerous food-trend forecasters, including celebrity chefs and eat-everything TV personalities such as Anthony Bourdain, Andrew Zimmern and April Bloomfield.
Those feedbag prognosticators are onto something. The latest U.S. census listed Filipinos as the second-largest group of Asian-American immigrants in the United States. These folks, plus countless chowhounds seeking fresh dining adventures — Filipino restaurants are still uncommon in most states — constitute an audience ripe for this new culinary splash.
Kuya Ian's Bistro, which opened on the Northeast side in May, is a notable ripple on the emergent wave. Unlike other local Filipino eateries such as snazzy Bonifacio and panini-leaning Red Velvet Cafe, Kuya Ian's Bistro is a no-training-wheels operation that takes the cuisine back to its home-cooking roots.
Its strip mall setting displays an equally down-to-basics aesthetic. The often-bustling, no-frills space offers two rooms, utilitarian tables, travelogue photographs, congenial counter service plus a station containing fetch-your-own plastic cutlery, styrofoam water glasses and condiments galore.
Kuya's inexpensive fare, which could believably be dubbed “Southeast-Asian soul food,” is available via made-to-order dishes from a menu of the cuisine's greatest hits and “turo turo”-type dining.
Translating to “point point” — as in point to what looks good today — turo turo is a cafeteria-style setup popularized by street-food vendors in the Philippines. At Kuya, $7 buys one such item served with steamed rice topped by toasted garlic; extra turo turo items (famished eaters should get two or three) are $3 more apiece.
Among menu classics, the crowd-pleasing Chicken Lumpia ($5) are three crisp-yet-flaky spring rolls filled with diced meat and veggies. For a lustier appetizer, the Pork BBQ Sticks ($5) — darkly seared, fatty kebabs slathered in a sweet-and-tangy sauce — are basically pig-meat lollipops.
Another Filipino mainstay, Pancit Bihon ($7), comes out as an enormous serving of thin rice noodles stir-fried with soy sauce and the occasional piece of cabbage, snow peapod, celery, carrot and onion. It's a compatible match for Chicken Adobo ($7), often called the national dish of the Philippines. Kuya's homey adobo is tender dark meat bound to roughly hacked, jagged bones stewed in a sweet, soy-and-vinegar sauce tweaked with onions.
Similar chicken pieces populated two good turo turo stews I tried: a pleasant curry spiked with ginger shards, and mildly sweet afritada — an appealing combo whose tomato sauce, potatoes, peppers and onions allude to the cuisine's Spanish roots.
If you like seared, fat and fatty little garlicky sausages that suggest sweetened Spanish chorizo stubs, look for Longanisa among the daily options. Another porky turo turo winner is the rare spicy Filipino dish, Bicol Express, a delicious stew of coconut milk, ginger, bell peppers, boneless meat and just enough chilies to tingle your tongue.
Two other specials I enjoyed are recommended for adventurous diners. Sinigang Na Bangus is milkfish (tasted a little like meaty catfish) in a light, delightfully sour broth brimming with vegetables such as bok choy, okra and green beans.
Dinuguan is an unusually tangy and compelling pork stew swamped in a rich and thick broth that looks like melted chocolate but is made with — there's no delicate way to put this — cow's blood. As a Filipino friend once told me, “Just forget about that part, and you'll like it.” He was right.
Self-induced amnesia isn't necessary to love Halo-Halo ($7). Kuya's authentic take on the beloved dessert is shaved ice lavishly garnished with tropical-style accompaniments that include jackfruit, sweet mung beans, coconut jelly cubes and ube (purple yam) ice cream. After cornflakes and condensed milk are added, diners mix everything together (“halo-halo” means “mix-mix”). The result tastes like leftover “cereal milk” deliciously flavored with the next big thing.