USA: In Southern California, Filipino restaurants crowd the strip malls

KAREN GIVEN FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE. Treats from Filipino Desserts Plus.

NATIONAL CITY, California. — Last summer, Travel Channel host Andrew Zimmern predicted Filipino food would be the "next big thing" and that the Filipino food revolution would come from San Diego. But he got at least one detail wrong. Although thousands of Filipinos have come to this country through Naval Base San Diego, they have since settled in the suburbs.

Filipino restaurants and markets crowd low-lying strip malls on both sides of Plaza Boulevard in National City, a few miles south of downtown San Diego. They have names like Villa Manila, Jolibee, and Pinoy Ranch. Tita's Kitchenette is one of the most popular. On weekdays at lunch time, the line files out the door and down the sidewalk, as no-nonsense servers pile food high on Styrofoam take-out dishes and deftly encase side orders in plastic wrap. While some patrons find space in Tita's humble dining room, most are ordering to go.

The food, set out in a dizzying array of chafing dishes, is not labeled. Nor does the menu on the wall offer much help. At first glance, the choices are simple: a combo meal with rice or pancit (Filipino cut noodles) plus a few side items like lumpia (Filipino spring rolls) and barbecue skewers. For payment, the options are even more limited. "Cash only" reads a bold sign under the menu.

When faced with more than a dozen choices, none of which are familiar, and a crush of hungry locals waiting to be served, ordering can be difficult. The servers at Tita's don't like to be kept waiting, but they're not the least bit offended by newbies who don't call the dishes by their proper names. Tita's is known as a "turo, turo" restaurant, which translates to "point, point."

On a relatively quiet Saturday afternoon, less than half of Tita's green and yellow cafe chairs are filled, but the line still trails out the door. Our group, led by a second generation Filipino-American, "point, points" to two combos, one with rice and one with pancit, and to what seems to be a well-balanced selection of barbecue skewers, fish, and vegetable side dishes. The bounty, enough to feed four with leftovers for days, comes to just under $30, drinks included.

Our most daring choice, pusit (squid) prepared in vinegar, is neither as fishy nor as vinegary as expected. The dish is mild, flavorful, and slightly sweet . . . if a little chewy. The eggplant, on the other hand, tastes strongly of fish. The kitchen is apparently not stingy with the fish sauce in that dish.

For a sure bet, ask for the adobo, meat cooked in vinegar. On this day, beef is the only choice, but adobo is often made with chicken or pork. Sometimes considered the national dish of the Philippines, adobo draws on the island nation's geography and history, marrying soy sauce from China and a vinegar cooking method that some say predates three centuries of Spanish rule.

The barbecue is also delicious. It's grilled behind a large plexiglass shield in the main restaurant so the aromas tempt diners waiting to place their orders. The pork and chicken skewers are crispy on the outside and juicy inside, and like many Filipino offerings, the marinade is salty and slightly sweet.

Tita's has a few bakery items for sale, but there's a larger selection next door at Valerio's Family Bake Shop. Bags of pandesal are piled high on shiny metal racks. Super soft and, again, slightly sweet, these Filipino dinner rolls make a satisfying breakfast warmed and served with a little butter and honey. We buy a couple of bags, but the desserts are not what our guide had in mind. So we head back down Plaza Boulevard to a place called Filipino Desserts Plus.

KAREN GIVEN FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE. Pandesal rolls at Valerio's Family Bake Shop.

Desserts Plus isn't fancy, but every type of Filipino sweet seems to be crammed into the small space. We choose brightly colored packages of traditional two-bite treats. They include puto, soft and billowy steamed rice cakes, and kutsinta, orange-colored disks that are sticky and slightly chewy. There are even some rich-hued desserts made with ube, a purple yam.

By the end of the afternoon, our stomachs are full, our recommended daily allowance of sodium has been far exceeded, and our guide's kitchen is packed with leftovers. But if a trip to National City isn't in the cards, do like the 3.4 million Filipino-Americans do. Make something like adobo at home.

The Boston Globe

Written by: Karen Given can be reached at kgiven@hotmail.com.

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Filipino Desserts Plus

2220 East Plaza Blvd., 619-479-6748

Tita's Kitchenette

2720 East Plaza Blvd., National City, Calif., 619-472-5801

Valerio's Family Bake Shop

2720 East Plaza Blvd., 619-470-3742

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