Foods of the Philippines

The concept at Adobo Island is great—but the execution is lacking

The Philippines have been influenced by multiple nations and cultures. The Chinese were said to have arrived there as early as 500 B.C. The Japanese followed, as did the Spanish. India and Malaysia traded with the people of the Philippines. And, of course, the United States made its mark, most prominently during and after World War II.

The country's food reflects all of these influences both in name and in style. The Filipinos put their own spin on things, but today, you can find such "borrowed" foods as paella, rellenos, egg rolls and adobo.

Around here, we think of adobo as a hot, chile-based sauce or a stew. In the Philippines, adobo is both the method of cooking—meat marinated in vinegar, spices, garlic, soy sauce and perhaps coconut milk—and the dish that is the result. In fact, adobo is considered by some to be the national dish of the Philippines. So when a restaurant is named Adobo Island, you would think that the adobo served there would be a prime example of this dish.

Unfortunately, we were disappointed in what we ate at this tiny eastside eatery.

The menu is rather limited. Adobo comes in three ways: with beef, chicken or pork. The pancit, a noodle dish, also comes with those three choices. There are also three burgers, three or so salads, a club sandwich and some melts. Filipino egg rolls, called lumpia, are also on the menu. And that's it.

On our dinner visit, we sampled the beef adobo ($6.25), the chicken pancit ($6.25) and the lumpia ($4.75). At lunch, we had the club sandwich ($6.95) and "Mel's special burger" ($7.50). We also tried the halo-halo ($6.75), a Filipino fruit drink.

Adobo Island seems to be operating on a shoestring, and perhaps that's why so few items are on the menu. Short staffing was another issue: On one attempted visit, we arrived to find the place closed, with a sign on the door that said the restaurant would be open the next day.

Minimalism is also apparent in the décor, which consists of brightly colored walls (except for one lined with simple mirrors), a faux bamboo hut (which sometimes serves as a steam table), the menu board and some fans. At dinner, we were the only people in the place. At lunch, there were two other couples (and one pair seemed to know the owner.)

Service was low-key, but very friendly. However, we had to ask for menus, silverware and napkins, and remind the server about our drink. It wasn't bad service, but our server just didn't seem with it. Granted, she was pulling double-duty, also working in the adjoining Mabuhay Filipino Food Store. But the store wasn't much busier than the restaurant.

The lumpia were pretty good. The wrap was crispy, and the finely chopped beef and veggies inside were nicely cooked and seasoned.

The halo-halo was interesting; it came with a scoop of mashed wild plum. It reminded me of a raspado, but without the milk.

We were disappointed in both the adobo and the pancit. The adobo, which was served with rice, was bland, with no hint of the marinade flavorings. The pancit had plenty of cubed meat, but the vermicelli noodles were drenched in a soy-heavy sauce that reminded me of the packaged chow mein I ate as a kid.

The menu said "Mel's burger" came with American and Swiss cheese, mushrooms, onions, lettuce and tomatoes. The burger was a good-sized and nicely cooked serving of ground beef. All of the toppings (the tomato and lettuce were served on the side) made the whole thing nice and juicy. However, there were also sliced jalapeños—and plenty of them—in the mix. An oversight on the menu? The chef getting creative in the kitchen? Who knows? In any case, the presence of jalapeños should've been noted beforehand.

The club sandwich was nothing special, although it had American cheese on it, something I've never seen before.

Our lunches came with a choice of onion rings or seasoned french fries. We got one order of each, and like the sandwich, they were pretty basic. We asked for ketchup for our fries, and instead of a bottle or some packets, the ketchup was served in a bowl. There was easily a half-cup of ketchup, which was way more than we could've used.

My first experience with Filipino food was many, many years ago. We were celebrating the end of a student-teaching experience, and one of my fellow future teachers, a Filipino woman whose name I cannot recall, made Filipino paella. I remember her dish to this day; it was heavenly, revelatory. The fact that I still remember it so vividly tells you how good it was. That dish proved that fabulous Filipino food is possible.

Filipino food is a unique niche. There is potential for Adobo Island to help bring a great new cuisine to our fair city, but to lead the way, Adobo Island will have to kick up the package a notch or two. The people at this restaurant have good intentions, but a little bit of professional guidance would go a long way toward ensuring their success.

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