Regional dishes from the southern Philippines reward inquisitive diners


The cuisine of the Philippines, like so many nations in Southeast Asia, has evolved in conjunction with the encroachment and occupation of various colonialist powers, its dishes typically being marked by Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Middle Eastern and French influences. Culinarily speaking, such hegemony has always resulted in a windfall for gourmands and bons vivants, the effects of which have rippled down to this modest Filipino restaurant in east Orlando.

Even with Orlando's thriving Pinoy community, Filipino fare hasn't attained the sort of populist following that Thai and Indian food have. With less than a handful of Filipino restaurants in town, Pinoys have some way to go if they hope to propagate their cuisine onto mainstream palates.

That is precisely chef Elmer Balisado's mission. He's been operating Cafe Mindanao for two years and, unlike other Filipino restaurants in town, his showcases the regional culinary tradition of Mindanao ' the southernmost island of the Philippine archipelago and home to the country's Muslim populations. Dishes from the region take on a likeness to Malay, Indonesian and Thai cookery with liberal use of ginger, chilies, tamarind and coconut milk, but Balisado hasn't excluded delicacies from the northern islands of Luzon and Visayas either.

I was immediately drawn to the kare kare ($9.95). Though the name was suggestive of some suicidal rite practiced by sword-wielding Filipino warriors, it turned out to be oxtail stew slowly simmered in peanut sauce. Unfortunately, they were all out of this tantalizing dish, but our utterly charming, sarong-clad waitress was quick to suggest the beef nilaga ($7.50), a soup reminiscent of the consommés served in Chinese restaurants. Beef short ribs, not quite fall-off-the-bone tender, are cooked in a racy broth along with green beans, bok choy, corn on the cob and rectangular strips of ginger. The beef was chewy-chewy-good and the crunchy beans gave it a satisfying balance, but it was the ginger zing that gave my meal the proper kick-start.

Escabeche ($9.95) has its origins in Spain and is typically fried, then marinated overnight and served cold the next day. But Balisado's version is served hot and features a fleshy red snapper fillet fossilized in sweet-and-sour sauce that's, thankfully, not overly gelatinous. Even the alternating sweetness of pineapples and the bite of ginger shards seemed to work supplementary wonders on the palate. My only complaint was with the accompanying sticky rice ' it was properly glutinous, but had a grainy texture.

Chicken halang halang ($7.95), billed as one of Balisado's specialties, was disappointingly lacking in originality. Small morsels of chicken are simmered in a salty coconut sauce tinged with (what else?) ginger, but the overall flavor flatlined.

You'll find a nice selection of mass-appeal dishes of pork, seafood and chicken, but if a good old-fashioned pig roast makes you squeal, you'll want to head out on the second Saturday of every month for their lechon special. You'll get an egg roll, noodles, spit-fired pork and rice, all for $10.

Desserts integrate staple Mindanaoan crops like plantains and yams into the tangle, with the halo-halo ($5.50) proving to be one of the more exotic items offered. The large bowl of 'mix-mixâ?� has tropical fruits and vegetables such as jackfruit, pineapple, coconut, corn and beans of all colors mixed with a little flan then avalanched with shaved ice and topped with a dollop of purple yam ice cream. The idea is to mix all the contents in the bowl until the whole concoction resembles a clump of slush. The resulting sleet of sweet is invigorating.

A more predictable capper is the toron ($1.95), a fried pastry shell stuffed with sweet plantain and jackfruit, then drizzled with caramelized sugar, but the mixture was a little too dense to give it passing marks.

Thanks to a faded marquee, the restaurant is about as easy to locate as Imelda Marcos' shoes in a Manila monsoon. But if you keep on the lookout for the gaudy Boardwalk Bowl sign as you drive down East Colonial, you're sure to find it. Inside, the colorful square space is dominated by photographs and objets d'art of Balisado's homeland, and blue tie-dyed tablecloths are a tropical, if somewhat unexpected, touch. Then again, if you're an inquisitive foodie up to the task of driving to the city's fringe for a divergent dining experience, chances are you're already expecting the unexpected.


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