It's an official prediction.
After a decade or so of putting the world on a plate, so-called "fusion" cuisine is on its way "out," according to a recent article in Nation's Restaurant News. Fusion evolved from New American chefs' idea of cooking regional ingredients with French techniques. Then American chefs, being Americans, spiraled from that starting point out to other cultures, adopting ingredients and techniques and throwing them into the melting pot. Now the trend is moving the other way, concentrating on particular pure cuisines instead of stirring them all together in the world's wok.
This, of course, raises the issue of authenticity--for the critic and for other consumers. How do you know if it's good or not? If you've never been to Sardinia (for example) yourself and eaten (for example) Sardinian food, how do you know if this particular Sardinian food is actually good Sardinian food? By Sardinian standards. For example.
So when I was made aware by a recent fax that Dallas now has two restaurants focusing on Filipino foods (two almost constitutes a trend in itself here), I knew I was going to have to think before I ate. Of course, being a boom baby, I know several people who spent a number of years in the '40s in the Philippines (my dad, for instance), but most of them were eating MRE's. I've never been to the Philippines myself, and all I know about the islands' food I learned at Trader Vic's.
The philosophical question: Is good food absolutely good? Or should it be judged only according to its culture and context? Am I even qualified to tell good monkey brains from poorly prepared monkey brains? I think it's basically rationalism vs. empiricism, the kind of question that makes me reach for the mental remote and change channels. All I can really tell you about is what I ate.
Majella's used to be called Taos--a chicken-oriented cafe with Southwest flavors, painted adobe-pink inside. One side of the menu still features a lot of Santa Fe flavor. But the other features Filipino--which turns out to be a blend of Spanish with Asian flavors. Decoratively speaking, it was an easy transition from Southwest U.S. to Southeast Asia.
But that's not the only thing that makes you recognize--in 3-D--the far-flung influence of Imperial Spain. There are lots of words on Majella's menu that are familiar from Mexican restaurants--adobo, guiso, asado. What seems weird at first is that the ingredients in these dishes are ones we associate more with Chinese food--soy, water chestnuts, coconut milk. Then you realize Filipino cooking uses regional ingredients with imported techniques. Sound familiar?
Vegetable lumpia, or Filipino egg rolls, were rather bland, underfried, and filled with not much but cabbage; but the tiny lumpia Shanghai, little egg rolls the size of your pinkie filled with ground-beef sausage made with minced carrots, were rich, delicious mouthfuls, the delicate, flaky pastry contrasting with the fat filling. Pancit miki, a bowl of soft yellow noodles topped with mushrooms, celery, tender pork, chicken chunks, and slivered red, yellow, and green peppers, had the deceptive simplicity of a Chinese stir-fry, highlighting the complexity of tastes within the ingredients.
Chicken adobo a la monga (pronounce the soft "g" as an "h") was just as simple, a bowl of white rice with white chicken cooked to color in a broth of cinnamon, cloves, tomatoes, garlic, and canned pineapple chunks--all familiar flavors that became exotic in this context. Friendly little Majella's is also a "cakery": You can order your wedding cake here, and all the desserts are made on the premises. We tried the tart Key Lime pie, good but with too much whipped cream; and the orange-chiffon cake, layers of yellow cake sandwiching a marmaladelike filling and topped with whipped-cream rosettes.
Palayok, on Belt Line in Richardson, is a tiny, fluorescent-lit place furnished with the kind of white plastic chairs you can buy at Kmart; unlike Majella's, it's practically charmless.
We were tourists here. Palayok seems to be a center, a hang-out for Filipinos in Dallas. There are racks of Filipino videos and a community bulletin board. The main decoration is Philippine travel posters, and yet there are vases of alstromeria lilies on each laminated table, an indication of how much the owners care about their cafe.
The clientele was almost entirely Filipino, and though my inclination is to figure that they know everything I don't, and if they were eating here this must be good Filipino food, two things derail that train of so-called reasoning. One, they don't have much choice; two, with all the hamburgers there are available in the world, people still buy most of them from McDonald's. Actually, popularity means nothing in relation to quality. So, again, all I can honestly offer is my own impression of lumpia, halo halo, and mami--judged according to a palate educated on Western food. It may or may not be meaningful.
Next to the cash register at Palayok is a small steam table holding a variety of foods. You take a tray and order cafeteria-style. Unfortunately, by 7:15 on a Friday night, several of the bins were already empty, but beyond the pass-through window we could see the chef-owner cooking up something fresh in a big wok. And because we were obviously not regulars, the owners seemed especially anxious to fill our plates--coming out to the table with refills and extra tidbits, explaining how things were prepared and how to eat them.
So, our plates were piled with sticky rice from the big rice cooker, and again we started with lumpia--better here, with more kinds of vegetables shredded into the filling and a peanutty sauce for dipping. Over the rice were some stewed, stemmed greens and bite-sized curls of slightly chewy fried catfish. A bowl held a sour, lemony broth with a few bits of pork and vegetables floating in it. Then followed a pallid but delicious stew of chicken-breast chunks, with the fat goose-pimply skin curling away from the meat, simmered in a gently aromatic coconut broth.
We were still eating the chicken when we were brought some simply incredible mussels--the big, turquoise-edged shells cradling the plump pillows of meat, seasoned with whole black beans, bits of tomato, and celery. They were utterly fabulous, sweet and fresh, and there's not a restaurant in town that wouldn't be proud to put something like this on a plate.
We had scouted the outrageous-looking desserts on other tables--tall plastic glasses filled with a parfait-appearing concoction that could have come straight out of Archie's Sweet Shoppe. Here, though, instead of strawberry syrup or chocolate malt, it was a layering of sweet black beans, creamed corn, purple yams (and even Rice Krispies, according to our server), and sweetened milk over shaved ice, topped with a scoop of pineapple ice cream. The buku egg pie consisted of a wedge of yellow custard threaded with strands of chewy coconut throughout the soft, eggy cream; it was topped with vanilla ice cream, all cold and warm smoothness combined.
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Majella's, 6330 Gaston, 887-8696. Open for lunch Tuesday-Friday, 11 a.m.- 2:30 p.m.; for dinner, Tuesday- Friday, 6:30-10 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sunday brunch, 10 a.m.-3:30 p.m.
Palayok Restaurant, 940 E. Belt Line Rd. #148, Richardson, 235-6703. Open for lunch Tuesday-Friday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.; for dinner, 5-9 p.m.; Saturday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sunday, 10 a.m.-3 p.m.
Pancit Miki $5.95
Lumpia Shanghai $.99
Vegetable Egg Rolls $1.50
Chicken Adobo a la Monga $5.95
All You Can Eat Dinner $5.95 per person