What better way to celebrate the Filipino Restaurant Week: in Philly memorably, and at Perla Filipino Restaurant gastronomically.
By Marivir R. Montebon
New York – I figured that a food trip to historic Philadelphia (or brotherly love in Greek) for the Filipino Restaurant Week this year would be my ‘reward to self’ after a gruelling Spring semester of my MA program. It was to feed on my curiosity about Perla, a one-year-old Filipino restaurant whose reputation of ‘always fully booked’ reached New York like wild fire. Plus of course, there’s that element of relevance in going to Philly, the city where the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were signed, in celebration of the Memorial Day.
May 25th had never been that exciting, especially because I would be with a few of my FilAm Press Club of New York colleagues: Don Tagala of ABSCBN, Momar Visaya of Asian Journal, and Vanette Colmenares of OSM!. There was laughter on the road to historic Philly in a perfectly warm weather with DOT Attache Susan del Mundo and consultant Therese Necio-Ortega, who masterfully organized the tour for us.
Our first stop was at the chocolate world of Hershey, which seems natural when one is in Pennsylvania. The home-grown theme park and chocolate factory teemed with children, bus loads of them, when we arrived at noontime. It’s the Memorial weekend, all right.
For lunch, most of us tried the pulled pork with chocolate syrup. But the cacao juice which tasted like lemon, not chocolate (as I presumed), was the delightful surprise. After a quick 15-minute shopping, we headed to Philly for our historic walk.
We avoided the guided tour and decided to walk through history by ourselves. We went inside the old Independence Hall which housed the Congressional chambers when Philadelphia was the US capital, for a crucial ten years, from 1790 to 1800. The ground floor was the Lower House, and on the second level was the Senate. Spacious but nothing fancy, all functional – including the mahogany chairs and cabinets that mostly stood the test of time.
There were committee offices on the second floor too, and on the East and West offices hang the enormous paintings of King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette of France. The portraits, said our tour receptionist, were testimonies of America’s alliance with France during its formative years.
We saw the Liberty Bell and spent time at the colossal Philadelphia Museum of Art as well. I naturally gravitated towards the classical art section than in the modern art. Philly’s collections were astounding as well as distinct.
At six o’clock in the evening, we were headed to the famous Perla Filipino Restaurant on East Passyyunk, a lovely vibrant neighborhood of the south of the city.
Boy oh boy, I could not believe we were in for a 14-course meal by Chef Lou Boquila. For starters, we had Spanish Octopus, Kinilaw, and Sisig. I was content to have these for a heavenly dinner, especially with the crunchy and soft Spanish Octopus. But these were just appetizers.
The main part of the dinner came in quickly in gastronomic parade: Pork Belly, Sinangag, Short Rib Kare-Kare, Crispy Pata, Adobong Duck, Monkfish Sarciado, Pinaputok na Isda, and Laing. Each dish has retained the traditional Philippine essence, and achieved a curious diasporic elevation for the palate as well. The use of locally grown spices and herbs did the trick. Our oohs and aahs never stopped, as we passed one dish around for everyone to share.
But the grand finale were the desserts, because for me, they seal a dinner’s reputation of ‘unforgettability’. All three were unforgettable – ube, chocolate, and bibingka glazed with caramel. OMG. That night, I closed my eyes to savor and salivate again, thinking of these sweets that were to die for.
Chef Lou happily said that Perla, named in honor of his late mother, will open a branch in July, due to public demand. The current quaint resto sits about 30 people at one time. And they are mostly a multi-racial mix! Speaking of mainstreaming Filipino food, it is right in Philly.
Chef Lou maintains his humility, citing that he could never be proximate his mother’s magnificence in the kitchen. But even non-Filipinos love his innovative modernized Filipino dishes.
Kudos to the Perla waiting crew, who was swift and sweet to their customers, an indispensable element for people to come back for more.
We drove back to the Big Apple with hearts full and bellies satisfied. DOT attache Susan was happy that the 4th Filipino Restaurant Week was a resounding success, with Philly as a new participant. The uproar is so high, the #frw2018 is extended for a week.
“We are pushing for the Filipino Restaurant Week to go nationwide, hopefully next year,” she beamed. We were giggling in excitement. It is high time for Filipino diasporic cuisine to shine and the chefs that perfect them.
(Featured photo: My contingent of the food and historic tour with Momar Visaya, Susan del Mundo, Therese Necio-Ortega, Don Tagala, newly found friend Suzette Parungao, and Vanette Colmenares)