Perched on the lip of the BQE’s subterranean maw and gloomed by the elevated Flushing line, Ihawan immodestly bills itself as the “Home of the Best Barbecue in Town.” Maybe they don’t realize Pearson’s Texas Barbecue is only three blocks away, or maybe they mean theirs is the best Philippine ‘cue in town—a proposition I’m willing to test. Accordingly, we proceed single-file up the narrow carpeted stairway from the bustling kitchen to the spacious dining rooms upstairs, where every Filipino family in town is finishing up their dinner on Sunday at 7 p.m.
According to a Filipino friend, barbecue was first brought to Manila by American soldiers in the 1940s and soon became a national obsession. At Ihawan, pork is the most popular, hacked into big floppy pieces and hoisted on wooden brochettes ($2 each). The meat has been brushed with a thick sweet syrup, and—though no charcoal is involved—there’s a faint smoky taste and a nice char. If the folks at your table have a sweet tooth, a heaping plate will disappear tout de suite. Also made from boneless pieces, the chicken is nearly as good, and steaks and pork chops flame-grilled the same way provide bigger hunks of meat.
But despite the boast, barbecue is only a fraction of a menu bulging with the Philippines’ unique cuisine, including Spanish, Chinese, Malay, and Mexican influences. (Spain administered the colony via Mexico for four centuries.) Unfortunately, the long menu and small kitchen guarantee that some dishes are cooked haphazardly. That was the case one evening with kare kare ($4.50), a stew of oxtail in a peanut sauce that was curiously bland, given a recipe that includes bay leaves, garlic, and whole black peppercorns. Based on a Mexican model, the national dish of chicken adobo was diminished by a similarly blah gravy—not tart enough and way too thin for this usually long-cooked classic.
But we instantly fell in love with the wildly alliterative “sizzling sisig” ($7), an oblong aluminum tray heaped with finely cubed liver and pig ears sautéed with modest quantities of onion and chile pepper and plainly tasting of its raw materials. A squeeze of lemon made it damn near perfect. Several visits convinced us that Filipinos shame even the French and Taiwanese in their admiration for variety meats, as a succession of powerfully flavored offerings demonstrate: bopis (pork lungs and liver); bulalo (marrow bone soup); batchoy (“pork internal parts in ginger soup”); papaitan (tripe and heart soup); dinuguan (pork in blood gravy); and menudo, made with beef cubes and liver, rather than the tripe used in most Spanish-speaking countries.
Another standout is laing, a loose and creamy dish of fresh taro leaves simmered in coconut milk, with a big shrimp preening on top. The dish has a mild oxalic tang and an appealing brininess. But most popular with the families surrounding us was pata ($7.50), a massive pork shank fried till the skin is crisp and blistered. There’s a gulf of gooey fat between skin and tender meat, and the amount of white fat left on the plate is an acid test of just how Filipino you really are.