Little Quiapo Arlington Forest Shopping Center 4807 N. First St., Arlington 528-3195 Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Prices: Soups and appetizers 95 cents to $3.95; entrees $3.80 to $6.95. Cards: MasterCard, Visa, Choice. No nonsmoking section.
Little Quiapo (key-AH-po), named for an area on the north side of Manila, is not only one of the few Philippine restaurants in the metropolitan area but also is one of the few places where you can rent a movie video in Tagalog.
This six-month-old family-run enterprise tucked into a corner of the Arlington Forest Shopping Center has a 10-year-old counterpart in Chicago run by other family members.
At Little Quiapo, the authentically prepared food is a bargain, with entrees mostly in the $5 to $6 range. Some of the dishes reflect Chinese and Spanish influences, but the basic seasonings are common to Southeast Asian cuisines: lemon juice, soy sauce, ginger and garlic. Nonetheless, there is a unique character to Philippine food partly revealed by the intriguing sounds of the Tagalog names such as kare-kare, bangus and inihaw na baboy.
The menu, which focuses on pork and seafood accompanied by fresh vegetables, rice and noodles, has English translations, and the friendly staff can provide more information when necessary.
Two of the soups are delicious and distinctive: a gingery chicken sotanghon with clear noodles, and a heartier goto, with rice and tender strips of tripe spiced warmly but without fire. In contrast, a third soup, the mami with chicken and a fettuccine-like noodle, tasted bland.
Lumpia Shanghai is a terrific appetizer, consisting of bite-sized pieces of ground pork rolled and fried in homemade wrappers. I also recommend the que kiam, a larger roll of ground pork and shrimp, reminiscent of moist meat loaf, wrapped in a thin sheet of bean curd. Bigger yet, but not better, is the lumpia sariwa. The generous portion of fresh vegetables flavored with pork and ground peanuts proved to be too much for the soft homemade wrapper, which tore apart like an overloaded grocery bag.
One of the best dishes was an entree-size soup, singigang na bangus. Bangus, a silvery herring-like sea fish, is gently cooked in a bright, lemony broth alongside fresh green beans, wedges of eggplant, chunks of green peppers and mustard greens. In another dish, the fish is fried and especially good when dipped in a vinegary sauce. Two good choices requiring a minimum of cultural stretching are the robustly seasoned, stew-like pork and chicken adobo, and the faintly sweet slices of pork barbecue.
If you like liver, I recommend a couple of delicious stews with liver-rich gravies. In the lechon paksiw, the gravy, infused with lemon and garlic, is poured over tasty cubes of roast pork. And in my favorite, menudo, raisins and a tomato sauce complement tender chunks of beef and pork with potatoes and green peppers.
Kare-kare, the standard Philippine dish of ox tails and tripe in peanut sauce, was surprisingly bland until we added the staple Philippine condiment, bagoong. You don't need much of this powerful mixture of tiny salted shrimp, ginger, jalapenos, tomatoes, lemon juice and onions. You can choose the milder pink or the more pungent charcoal gray.
If you want a dessert that will amuse as well as refresh, try a halo-halo. This concoction of shaved ice and sweetened evaporated milk is chock full of conversation pieces: nuggets of preserved tropical fruits as well as the jelly-like fruit of the kaong palm, kernels of canned corn, a special Philippine rice toasted and puffed, and slivers of unripe coconut.
Except for a satisfying, rich leche flan, the other homemade desserts are usually some variety of rice cake such as the round babingka, dense and spongey and baked on a banana leaf.
Although kare-kare, bangus and halo-halo might not yet be part of your culinary lexicon, Little Quiapo makes learning the language of Philippine food easy and worthwhile.