When my friend, Rona, moved to Dallas, she asked me where she could find her native Filipino food. I had no idea. In my defense, when I asked my Manila-born boyfriend the same question, he didn't know of any restaurants in Dallas that served Filipino food either. Figuring as how I am surrounded by Filipinos, (my uncle, my cousins, my best friend, and my boyfriend,) I found it peculiar that no one knew of anything. After all, Filipinos are scattered throughout the metroplex, with a very pronounced community in Mesquite. Throughout the years, I had heard random mentions of a restaurant in Carrollton or an eatery in Mesquite, but nothing stuck, and there wasn't quite the same buzz as when I'd hear descriptions of the California and Vegas Filipino food scenes. However barren the discussion of Filipino restaurants in Dallas would be, there was always one constant, a restaurant synonymous with that cuisine.
Filipiniana Restaurant and Bakery is tucked away in Bedford. No, it's not technically Dallas, but ask any Filipino in Dallas, Irving, or Fort Worth who they call to get their parties catered with their native cuisine, and most times the answer will be Filipiniana. When the Filipino boxing phenomenon, Manny Pacquiao, was in town for his fight at Cowboy Stadium, he and his entourage took over the restaurant for an afternoon.
So, what does this culinary Mecca look like, and how much staff does it take to keep the highly successful organization running? The answer to the former would be "tiny and worn," and the answer to the latter would be "two." On the day that I visited, I saw only two women working both the dining room and the kitchen. One of the ladies was the owner, the sundress-clad Ms. June, who not only cooked in the kitchen, but served also as cashier, waitress, and hostess.
To say that Filipino food is unabashedly fatty would be a conservative assessment.
The restaurant, being so small, permeates with the scent of fat. Tables and chairs are sticky with greasy residue. The term "greasy spoon" could easily apply. However, one doesn't come to Filipiniana for its ambience, as I soon would discover.
My friend Cathy, also a Filipina, joined me for lunch to help me navigate through the menu. My exposure to Filipino food had been limited to out-of-town restaurants and family functions. Although I was spoiled with the caliber of homemade food I had eaten, I must be honest in saying...Filipino food wasn't really my jam. My favorite food, my soul food is Vietnamese. While Vietnamese food is heavy on the fish sauce, Filipino food leans toward soy sauce. The irony is many Filipino and Vietnamese dishes are almost exactly the same, save one or two slight alterations. Despite years of resistance on my part, everything changed a couple of years ago when I discovered Crispy pata. Crispy pata is a deep-fried pig's leg and knuckle, served with a soy-vinegar dipping sauce. (You can also ask for a sweet chili dipping sauce.) Filipiniana is notorious for taking this already drool-inducing dish, and unbelievably, making it even better. While the hunk of meat is normally boiled before frying, the restaurant's pata is so tender that Cathy and I suspected a pressure cooker's doing. Filipiniana's meat scrapes off the bone with a gentle nudge of the fork. But why am I wasting time talking about the meat? After all, with this dish, it is all about the skin. Picture yourself biting into a crackly crispy outer layer, followed by your teeth sinking into thick layers of gooey, "stick to your molars" pork fat.
Just when I thought it could not get any better, Cathy instructs me to try her favorite, the garlic rice. Maybe it was because I was expecting something different, something more subtle, but the garlic rice knocked me out of my seat. The steamed white rice is stir-fried with butter, salt, and tiny flecks of garlic, creating something so simple yet so obscenely flavorful. Even when I was stuffed at the end of the meal, I could not stop eating this rice.
With the rice, we ordered kare kare, a peanut sauce-based type stew with oxtail, tripe, eggplant, and green beans. The sauce, subtle and only slightly nutty, is perfect over rice. By far, the best part of the kare kare is the oxtail meat, which glides off the bone,
By now, the Filipino cuisine's meat-heavy leanings should be apparent. While I, as a vegetable lover, may have scoffed at that before, on this day I was very happy to continue on with the carnivore parade. What makes more sense after an order of fried pig's leg and oxtail than sausage?
Longanisa is a sweet sausage, similar to the Chinese sausage on which I was raised. While the flavors of the sweet and salty longanisa brought me back to my childhood, I was not a fan of how greasy the sausage at Filipiniana was. When I make Chinese sausage at home, I release excess grease by boiling the sausage first, or I drain out all the grease after frying. Maybe it was all the heavy courses before it, but I had hit my fat cap for the day.
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Well, maybe not entirely. Filipiniana is a bakery, too, and I couldn't leave the restaurant without taking home some ensaymadas, brioche rolls sprinkled with cheese and granular sugar. Fillings for the delicious pastry range from cheese to my favorite, ube, a taro-like yam.
Perhaps one reason why other Filipino restaurants never made it in this town is because of the dominance of this restaurant, a nucleus around which the area's Filipinos revolve. This could not be made more evident than by the diners eating along side us. Filipino doctors and businessmen in scrubs and suits conversed with us happily, all eating their favorite foods at what they called, "Their home away from home." A physician sitting at the next table told me of his love for both Vietnamese and his native Filipino food, as he described it with a hearty laugh, "Vietnamese food is known for being lean and using fresh vegetables, while this food will just clog your arteries."
Filipino food might never be as dear to my heart, palate, and waistline as Vietnamese, but there might just be room in my life for both, after all.
Filipiniana Restaurant & Bakery
209 Bedford Road, Ste. 120