My dad grew up in the Philippines, that great culinary intersection of indigenous, Chinese, Spanish, Indo-Malay, and many other great cuisines. But one of the most significant influences on modern Filipino cuisine is American food. When the Philippines became a commonwealth of the US in 1934, there were already a lot of Americans living on the islands, and the influence of these residents reached into the kitchens of the Filipinos of every class.
Hot dogs, bistek (literally thin slices of beef steak cooked with onions and peppers), and a variety of other foods became more and more popular the longer the Americans stayed. And what else did they bring to the table? Fried chicken, my friends. Fried. Chicken.
While fried chicken in the States is something we all grew up eating, Filipino fried chicken is a whole other animal – crispy, golden brown skin covering meat that’s been brined in more than the usual sugar-salt-water mixture. There’s a savory-sweet balance that happens in your first bite that has nothing to do with sauce.
Max’s Restaurant is an institution in the Philippines, a chain known throughout as “the house that chicken built.” And while I rarely have the time to travel to my parents’ homeland, I make time whenever I can to travel to Glendale for a taste of home.
But it’s not just chicken I’m going for. Max’s is known for having Filipino food that’s friendly to the American palate, and when I last went with my friends, we had some non-Pinoys with us who were experiencing our cuisine for the first time. To that end, we enjoyed a variety of food. Our dinner, chronicled below, is what happens when you let me order my favorite dishes…
I’ve talked about lumpia before, but this version above is old school. Minced pork and vegetables are seasoned lightly, then wrapped in a paper-thin wrapper and deep fried. Served with sweet and sour sauce, this is definitely the gateway drug to Filipino food.
When I was little and we went to smaller Filipino restaurants that smelled of fried fish and vinegar, this dish didn’t appeal to me. Maybe it was the mix of aromas and flavors. But now, after having had Max’s, I am sold. Kare-kare, above, is a rich stew made of a peanut sauce, oxtail, beef shank, and vegetables. The veggies keep their color and crunch, while the meat turns extra tender.
Because this was a Filipino dinner, pork had to be featured prominently. This showstopper is called crispy pata: pork hock marinated and then cooked in secret spices (everyone who makes this has their own mixture), then deep fried and garnished with spicy minced peppers. Served with pickled veggies on the side to cut through all the unctuously incredible fat.
For dessert, we had halo halo. Now, before you go thinking that this is some crazy looking Taiwanese shaved ice or Korean binsoo, let me tell you a story.
My paternal grandmother was really, really into storytelling. She used to tell me fairy tales where she was a princess-type person and our family was made of tons of different ethnicities of people. None of us can truly attest to the veracity of all her stories, but one thing she told me is that we’re a little mixed in our gene pool. Since halo halo literally means “mixed together,” it became my favorite dessert. This wild combination of jellied beans and fruits (yes, beans), flan, evaporated milk, shaved ice, crisped rice, and ube ice cream (that’s purple yam, and not at all like what you expect) has been gaining traction since Season 4 of Top Chef’s avocado-mango-kiwi-nuts extravaganza, but I prefer the old school madness above.
One day, I’ll get around to making halo halo on my own, but until then, I’ll be at Max’s the next time it’s boiling hot outside!