Anyone who propelled at night up Ravenswood’s main drag of 21st Street would have seen it: a life-size gondola outlined in Christmas lights perched atop Rizzo’s Italian Village. A shadowy figure stood upright in the boat, a broad-brimmed hat pulled down over his eyes. As if that weren’t enough to scare children, the gondolier was motorized so that it twitched like a guy in his death throes as he poled the boat. Wow! The gondolier made Freddy Krueger look like a Sunday-school teacher, and he’d terrorized this stark neighborhood of auto-body shops, strip shopping centers, and housing projects for 40 years.
Not long ago, the gondola and gondolier disappeared; in fact, so did the entire building. In its stead rose a modern structure. While Rizzo’s was windowless, a real dungeon for doomed daters, the new place was all plate-glass windows, which opened onto the sidewalk on two sides. Into this space moved Philippu Lounge Y Restaurante, a name oddly incorporating Spanish, English, and Greek; paradoxically, the name betokened a new Philippine restaurant, a real rarity in this neighborhood—though three miles to the southeast, Woodside swarms with them.
Adobo is the national dish of the Philippines, a dish with a pedigree as strange as the gondolier. Since the island archipelago was the sole Spanish colony in Asia, Spain administered it via Mexico, its closest colonial possession. The recipe for adobo originated in Mexico, though it was extensively adapted for Philippine tastes. Black peppercorns, indigenous to Southeast Asia, replaced dried red chilies in the sauce, and white vinegar, bay leaves, and soy sauce were incorporated—the first two representing Spanish improvements; the last, evidence of Chinese influence. At Philippu, you can get an unusual squid adobo boasting a dense silken gravy with a purplish hue, but the lighter and more vinegary chicken adobo ($7.98) is far more scrumptious.
In fact, partly as a result of Spanish influences, Filipinos are crazy for sourness, and dishes often contain combinations of white vinegar, tamarind, and lime juice. At Philippu, the tamarind soup called sinigang na baboy ($7.98)—a pale broth with big chunks of pork, long, slender okra, green beans, and hefty pieces of Asian eggplant that absorb the flavors like a sponge—is only slightly sour, and you’ll wish there was more tamarind in it. (You can goose up the acidity with the slammin’ chile vinegar available on the cadenza in the middle of the room.)
There’s a reason for the relative lack of sourness in Philippu’s food: Since there are few Filipinos in the neighborhood, it needs to attract diners of many ethnicities. As a result, the menu emphasizes Philippine dishes that resemble those found in other former Spanish colonies. A case in point is lechon kawali ($7.98), pork belly fried deep-brown and cut into juicy segments. It’s a dead ringer for Dominican chicharron de cerdo, though Dominicans wouldn’t recognize the sweet brown dipping sauce served on the side. (“It contains liver,” cautioned the waitress, though she might better have warned us how sweet it was.) Another good example is the shrimp rebosado, an overflowing plate of battered and fried shrimp with a sweet chile sauce that could belong to a half-dozen cuisines. The entrée comes with smashed, double-fried green plantains, which the menu identifies by their Dominican name of tostones.
Elsewhere, the menu pulls its pungency punches: The shrimp paste that belongs on the steamed-vegetable mélange pinkabet ($6.98) is served on the side—which is fine, since the fetid paste of garlic, tomatoes, sugar, and fermented krill is not for everyone. But many of our favorite dishes at Philippu remain unreconstructed from their archipelagic originals, and kare kare ($7.98) is one of them. Though it sounds like a method of ritual suicide, this hearty stew of oxtail in peanut sauce is mild and mellow, with a taste that might remind you of your mom’s peanut-butter sandwich—if mom had slipped some meat in there, too. Reflecting the Philippine love of organ meats, the mom in Philippu’s kitchen also managed to add bovine stomach tripe to the stew; for me, it was a welcome addition.
Despite the staff at Philippu being pleasant and helpful and the food being consistently excellent, the restaurant (open a couple months already) hasn’t succeeded in attracting the volume of diners it probably needs to stay alive. Maybe the neighborhoodies, who are slowly discovering how good Filipino food can be, fear that somewhere deep in the basement of the new building, the nightmare gondolier is still twitching, swinging his pole.