Non-Pinoys aren’t so fond of pancit palabok, the woman at Manila Mart told me as she prepared a fresh batch of the Filipino comfort food. They tend to recoil, like vampires, from all the garlic, she said.
Okay, she didn’t drop the vampire reference, but she did emphasize the dish also includes smoked fish flakes called tinapa, which non-natives apparently fear more than death, clowns and Guy Fieri’s donkey sauce. Well, she didn’t say anything about circus performers or equine-named gravies, either, but she did offer to prepare a sample, so I wouldn’t waste my money and, by extension, her labors.
What she handed me was not a tiny Dixie-cup sample, but a decent-sized Styrofoam bowl that would have sold for $15 on 14th Street NW. Manila Mart’s pancit palabok starts with a tangle of rice noodles coated in a shrimp sauce, garnished with slices of hard-boiled egg, curls of cooked shrimp, scallions and a breadcrumb-like crust of tinapa, crushed pork rinds and fried garlic crumbles. The richness, the funk, the crunch, the pungency, the fishiness: Your palate won’t know which way to turn.
To prove that non-Pinoys can be fanboys of pancit palabok, I walked back to the prep area to show the employee my Styrofoam bowl, all but licked clean. “So you like it?” she asked. Not only do I like it, but pancit palabok has become the new romance in my life.
Filipino food is enjoying a moment in Washington. It’s been dragged from the shadows by such chefs as Katsuya Fukushima (whose izakaya brunch at Daikaya includes a sisig pork hash) and Cathal Armstrong (who features refined Pinoy dishes at Restaurant Eve as a nod to his Filipino-American wife and partner, Meshelle), as well as restaurateurs Nick Pimentel and Genevieve Villamora (whose recent Bad Saint pop-up had a line of people waiting to try it).
But for every chef-driven Filipino plate, there must be three home-style Pinoy restaurants laboring in some suburban black hole without media scrutiny and the instant hipster cachet such attention generates. Take, for example, Manila Mart, which is crammed into a strip-center storefront in Beltsville with security bars covering its windows. The facade all but screams: Eat pavement and go elsewhere.
Don’t be fooled: Owned by Filipino natives Antonio and Emma Bioc, Manila Mart may lack atmosphere, but it radiates kindness. Their cafe, with its small clutch of tables, sits in back of the market. From Wednesday through Sunday, the Biocs and team prepare a rotating menu of Filipino favorites, some of which are not displayed on the steam table where all business is conducted. Emma and/or her daughter, Kate Magno, will happily explain every dish available that day, providing samples as needed to sate your curiosity, if not your appetite.
It’s easy to understand why chefs have latched onto umami-rich Filipino cuisine. Its cooking borrows from cultures near and far, from China to Mexico, and its blunt flavors are as subtle as Imelda Marcos’s shoe closet. Besides, Filipinos love pork more than David Chang and Sean Brock on a weekend bender in North Carolina. Start with Manila Mart’s pork skewers, which are marinated and grilled, the char darting in and around the sweet-soy flavors. The meat’s tenderness is derived from the same source as its sweetness: the Sprite in the marinade.
The skewers are available every day the cafe is open for business. Same for some other plates, including lechon kawali, a slab of boiled-and-fried pork belly, which sounds like a State Fair dare until you bite into it. The crackly exterior quickly gives way to a lush, fatty interior, as yielding as corn pudding. You will eat more than any doctor would advise. The simmered pork in the dinuguan may be an acquired taste: Known as “chocolate meat,” because of the pork’s cocoa-liquor-like sauce, the dish assaults the nostrils with its barnyard aromas and then moves to the palate with its minerally and sour flavors. Dinuguan owes its funkiness to such hardcore ingredients as pig’s blood and palm vinegar.
Filipino cuisine, of course, is not an immutable, impermeable object, identical on every one of the 7,107 islands in the archipelago. Emma Bioc, for example, hails from the Bulacan province, famous for its sweets (some of which, such as puto, these tiny muffin-poppers split at the top and exploding with cheddar cheese, can be found pre-packaged on the counter). But she ventures into other areas, such as Bicol, a major Filipino coconut-producing region and the spiritual home of Bicol express, a stew of semi-spicy pork simmered in coconut milk. In Bioc’s hands, the dish expertly balances sweet with heat.
The sheer diversity of dishes at Manila Mart is jaw-dropping for such a small operation. The signature sourness in the tender beef steak, or bistek as it’s known in the Philippines, may taste like lemon juice, but it’s actually the liquid from the Filipino counterpart, this tart little orb called calamansi. The bone-in oxtail in the kare-kare luxuriates in a peanut sauce enriched with the drippings from that long-braised meat. The dense collardlike taro leaves in the house-made laing dish, another Bicol specialty, add a bitter, earthy element to the coconut milk infused with shrimp paste. And the slices of bitter melon in the ginisang ampalaya are no joke: They’d curl the tongue of an amari-aholic.
But no matter what you order, here’s the thing to remember about Manila Mart: The Biocs want to ease you into Filipino cooking. So they dial down the pungent and pepper qualities that may make non-Pinoys nervous, allowing diners to customize their meal at the table. It may be a courtesy to American customers, but it doesn’t taste like a cheat to Filipino cooking.
5023 Garrett Ave., Beltsville.
Hours: Wednesday-Saturday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Sunday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Nearest Metro station: Greenbelt, with a four-mile trip to the restaurant.