Promptly after this Saturday’s 17 mile run I showered and hustled off for a date with some of my favorite adventurous foodies – Jess, Elise, Dan, and Valerie! All four of these folks have been on hand for several adventures, including chowing down on such delicacies as grasshopper and pig’s feet, so I knew I could count on them for the first true adventure of 2010 – Filipino food at JnJ Turo Turo!
The adventure begins with getting there, because JnJ is out in Quincy, the farthest reaches of the Red Line. Luckily, Valerie generously provided the use of her car, and after a bit of trouble with the GPS we were well under way.
JnJ is tiny – just two six-tops and three tall bar tables that are meant for two, but around which four people could squeeze, if they were determined. Luckily we were able to snag one of the six-tops fairly quickly. The restaurant is family-run and very informal; orders are made by going up to the register and finding out what’s available. The young man behind the counter was great – he asked if we’d ever had Filipino food before, then helpfully told us what was in every dish without trying to discourage us if it had something in it that was not to traditional American tastes. We ordered nearly everything on the menu between the five of us, deciding to eat family style.
Before I go into what we had, a few notes on the cuisine of the Philippines. As the restaurant itself says, Filipino food is truly fusion – the influences range from its own Malayo-Polynesian origins to Spanish, Chinese, Thai, and American. What’s amazing is how well everything works together – unlike many fusion cuisines where the parts still feel disparate (ooh, the coconut milk is Thai, the spices are Spanish) everything here melded into a unique cuisine.
Everything came largely at the same time, so here’s the breakdown by what’s roughly appetizer-like, what seemed to be an entree, and our final and delicious dessert. Warning: large amounts of pork product ahead!
First up are the barbecue pork sticks. These were what satay wishes it could be – sweet, a little smoky, and amazingly tender:
In another take on pork belly, the lechong kawali is fried and served with banana ketchup. This is like the plumpest, meatiest pork rind you’ve had in your life, and the sweet ketchup only makes it better.
The Lumpiang Shanghai is similar to the spring rolls it’s based off of – thin dough wrapped around meat and vegetables. The main difference was in the thickness of the meat – it was almost as if it were filled with pork meatballs – and the chili dipping sauce they came with.
For main dishes, we were all excited to try the Sisig, a mixture of finely diced pork, pig ears, and liver, seasoned with hot pepper, ginger, and lemon and topped with something amazingly crispy that I could only guess was chopped peanuts. The textural contrasts were fun – soft liver, chewier ear and tender pork bound together with the slight sourness of the lemon.
We did order the pinakbet, a lovely vegetable stew filled with okra, eggplant, squash, and string beans, so do not be concerned that this was an all-meat meal. Alas, I somehow neglected to take a picture of it. Be assured that the vegetables were cooked to perfection.
That said, we ate more meat still! The Bicol Express was another pork dish, a stew of coconut milk, shrimp paste, and green beans. The pork was extremely tender and the combination of coconut and the fishiness of the shrimp paste was unlike anything I’d ever had before – I’m so used to Thai coconut curries that the shrimp was pleasantly surprising.
The shrimp paste came into play again in the kare kare, a stew of beef (ha, NOT pork!), beef tripe, and bok choy in an incredibly thick peanut sauce, with the shrimp paste on the side to stir in as you please. While I’m normally not a fan of tripe – I find it slightly chewy and pointless – in the peanut sauce it was just exceptionally tender, a good counterpoint to the beef. To be honest, though, I think you could have coated my shoe with that peanut sauce and I would have told you it was amazing.
My favorite entree of the evening, however, was the item I came to Quincy specifically to try – the dinuguan. This another stew, filled with bits of pork – traditionally snout, ears, and other entrails, served in a savory sauce of garlic, chili, vinegar and blood. I know that the more squeamish of you are probably a bit skeptical of my enjoyment, but seriously, this stuff is amazing. The meat is really secondary to that sauce – salty and garlicky, with the vinegar providing enough acid to cut through the richness of the blood. The big bowl of steamed rice they provided us was a perfect bed for it.
After all of that, you’d think we’d be finished, but dessert was calling our names. Specifically, we were determined to try the halo-halo, a mixture (halo means mix in Tagalog) of crushed ice, milk, sweet beans and fruit. I’d had it once before, but JnJ adds a secret ingredient that blows the other kinds I’d had out of the water – purple taro ice cream.
In addition to how visually stunning that purple is, the ice cream oddly reduces the sweetness a bit – the other ingredients have a syrupy quality that can be overwhelming, and the creaminess of the ice cream tones it down appealingly.
All in all this was a tremendous experience – the family who runs the restaurant was incredibly friendly and helpful, and the prices are very reasonable. It’s well worth the trip out to the ends of the earth – a good thing, as it’s the only Filipino restaurant in the Boston area! After we all went on an Asian market adventure, but that’s a story for another time. In the meantime, be sure to check out Elise’s blog for her take on our trip!