It seems every few years an Asian food is appropriated, elevated and catapulted into the spotlight as the next big food trend. Japanese food had its turn, as did Korean. Most recently, Filipino food has captivated the foodie world and the attention of food titans like Anthony Bourdain. Restaurants like New York City’s Jeepney and food trucks like Senor Sisig have won swooning reviews in the media.
Despite that, and a sizable Filipino population, Filipino food has not quite had its moment in Salinas. Fortunately, there is at least one place to find authentic and traditional Filipino foods straight out of the barrio, a cash-only establishment that shows a lot of love to the country’s unofficial national food – the pig.
Camalig – Filipino for the hut where farmers gather to eat (and the name of a city in the southern Philippines) – is located on East Laurel Drive, next to a Baskin Robbins. It’s run by Laurence Manio and his family, natives of Angeles City in the Philippines, who have been restaurant owners for three years.
The inside is small, with tables grouped to the right and a cafe-style counter to the left, next to a wall where a TV plays Filipino teleseryes (soap operas). The food sits hot and ready in buffet-style catering trays. The kitchen is next to the buffet, hidden only by a thin curtain.
The menu presents an agglomeration of colors, veggies, sauces and meats that features the familiar (lumpia or Filipino eggrolls) and the unfamiliar (dinuguan, pork blood stew) alike. Items are rotated in and out, making for a new combination of items daily that can be served with rice (with two entrees at $7.95), in single servings ($5) or as party platters ($35-$55).
I started off with the national dish, adobo. Named after but different than the Spanish cooking style adobado, Filipino adobo is meat simmered in soy sauce, vinegar (either sugar cane vinegar or coconut vinegar, depending on the recipe) and garlic. I chose the chicken adobo, which had a good salty kick with just a bit of tang as far as flavor. The chicken was on the drier side, but still managed to be soft and tender.
Feeling a bit more adventurous, I went for the dinuguan next, which is given the euphemism “chocolate meat” to introduce kids and unsuspecting foreigners to the dark brown stew of thinly sliced pig stomach and chewy bites of pig ear bathed in pork dugo (blood).
The blood sauce itself brings a rich pork flavor with a consistency similar to gravy. The pieces of stomach are virtually indistinguishable from other cuts of pork. At first, I thought it was either pork loin or pork chop, and had to ask for clarification. As for the ears, they’re soft and fatty, but not as chewy as steak fat, and offer a pleasant, contrasting texture.
Next up was my personal favorite, pigs feet adobo. Aside from the salty tang that is similar to the chicken adobo, it is characteristically sweeter with the addition of just enough brown sugar. The thick, fatty and soft skin sponges up all the sauce as it simmers; beneath that indulgent skin, firm bites of tendons can be found wrapped along the bone. Fortunately, the trotters were already separated at the joints into individual, bite-size pieces, saving me the work of having to do it by hand.
Either way, the work of the tearing and/or eating is rewarded when you find chunks of savory and tender pieces of meat hugging the bone. It’s traditional to finish up by digging deep into the bone for the marrow. No part of the pig is ever wasted.
Before the age of the conquistadors, the islands traded often with the Chinese, which helped give the Philippines a party favorite, pancit. This dish consists of thin vermicelli rice noodles that are stir-fried in a wok and mixed with green beans, cabbage and carrots. Those with carnivorous leanings can choose from the following meat options: shrimp, chicken, sweet Chinese sausage, beef or goat (kambing). First bite in, the soy sauce is prominent, giving the noodles a rich umami flavor. The vegetables are crisp and contrast nicely with the soft bites of chicken and the firm Chinese sausage.
For dessert, there is the colorful halo-halo (literally meaning “mix-mix”) which consists of shaved ice, evaporated milk, leche flan (caramel custard), ube (taro) ice cream, shredded coconut, white beans and tropical fruits like passion fruit and add-ons like boba.
Diners wanting a warmer option can opt for the turon, a combination of plantains, brown sugar and jackfruit, deep-fried in a lumpia wrapper.
Camalig offers authenticity rivaled by home-cooked meals. In so doing, they offer Filipino culture on a plate, and give the local ethnic food scene needed variety. They offer a place to introduce new eaters to the world of Filipino cuisine.
I’ll admit no one menu item really stood out to me, but I’m three-quarters Filipino and more familiar with the cuisine than many customers will be. More importantly, I am grateful to know that I don’t need to travel too far – or attend a family gathering or host one of my own – to dine Pinoy-style.