Wednesday, July 20, 2005

The Magic Wok - Artesia

I've noticed that Filipino food hasn't permeated into the American food culture as easily as Thai food has. Even Vietnamese food is making bigger strides into the mainstream than Filipino food, as more people are becoming familiar to pho and banh mi. In the meantime, Filipino restaurant food remains a curious mystery to most. It hides in the shadows, lurking only where Filipinos know to find it.

If I had to guess why this is, I think it's because a typical Filipino restaurant menu unapologetically caters only to Filipino tastes - i.e., there's no "beef and brocolli" dumb-downs or items like Pad Thai that can easily cross over.

Filipinos also have a fondness for sour flavors, and a penchant for anything made with fatty pork that is often off-putting to Western sensibilities. Added to this, Filipino food often does not exhibit the bright and spicy flavors of Thai, or the fresh herb notes of Vietnamese that diners have come to love. It is instead often dark, stew-like, and sometimes...a little scary.

Take a dish called dinuguan for example. Set a plate of this pasty black substance in front of a hardened American carnivore and he will surely recoil in horror when told it is a stew of congealed pig's blood. I still cannot bring myself to order this dish. It's blood for-gosh-sakes! But then again, I'm not Filipino.

Sure, there are attempts to introduce Filipino tastes to Western palates, like what Yi Cuisine in L.A. is doing. But to me, that's like wading at the shallow end of the kiddie pool. You'll never learn to swim that way.

No, if you really want to find out what Filipino food is all about, you must dive head first into it. You know, get yourself wet. No, not the deep-end. I'm not saying order that dinuguan yet. What I'm saying is, at the very least, try Filipino food in the way it was meant to be enjoyed, in a Filipino family restaurant.

Take for example my new favorite in Artesia. It's a dive of a place, called The Magic Wok (not to be confused with the horrible Chinese take-out chain of the same name). This family run establishment cooks up traditional meals and charge, on average, no more than $5 per dish.

In a spartan room with clunky chairs and tables, crowds of Filipino families hunker down to chow, feasting on all manner of pork, fowl, and seafood. All this is served by an attentive Latina wait staff.

Their menu runs laps around the traditional staples like pancit and adobo. But by far, their most popular item is the "crispy pata".

During Christmas, they always run out of this speciality so early in the day, that by 10 am, they have to put up a sign reading "NO MORE CRISPY PATA" to turn away disappointed customers.

I was lucky enough to try their crispy pata last week. And yes, it was a little scary at first.

At around $8 it was one of the more expensive items on the menu. And when it arrived on my table, it made me tremble with fear. Here before me was a ginormous, deep fried hunk of pork leg with the rind still attached and a giant white bone sticking out of it.

The golden rind, pork skin rendered beyond crunchy in boiling oil, is the first thing I tried. The texture is as dense as the crunch is deep. These are pork cracklings on 'roids, and once the crunch subsides, the remainder sticks annoyingly to your teeth. The flavor is fatty sweet, and can be a bit overwhelming if you're not used to it as I was. But I found that a dip in vinegar tames the richness from becoming too overpowering.

Once you've pried off the rind, you uncover a thin, white mucousy layer of fat (which you can scrape off) running over ruddy, sinewy meat. This muscle meat here is tender and spongy. A gentle tug and it falls apart into strands, just like carnitas. A dollop of the sweet sauce they give you is the perfect compliment as you eat it with rice.

So if you are accustomed dry, white meat pork chops, with nary a hint of fat; or if you curdle at the sight of the "real parts" of the animal you are eating, crispy pata probably isn't for you. But if you cater to the belief that pork should not be "the other white meat", contrary to the slogan, you might like it.

But if you do try it, like I did, don't order crispy pata without ordering something else to counter its porky-ness. We ordered a steaming bowl of the potent and lip-puckering sour soup called sinigang, made with a tamarind base and containing daikon and green beans. Along with this, we also ate a nicely fried piece of bangus (milk fish) and another plate of fried calamari. The calamari was a standout dish. Caked with a seasoned batter and fried to a dark brown, these rings and tentacles were easily poppable and addictive.

See, Filipino food isn't that scary! Okay...dinuguan is a little. And yeah, there's balut...I won't even go there.

Magic Wok
(562) 865-7340
11869 Artesia Blvd
Artesia, CA 90701

21 Comments:

At 5:27 PM, Anonymous Kirk said...

Elmo - Crispy Pata is indeed wonderful stuff. There's a place here called Villa Manila, that makes great Crispy Pata.

 
At 7:18 PM, Anonymous wow i'm a dog said...

they even made me vegetarian pansit! great place.

 
At 8:24 PM, Blogger Xericx said...

I don't like this place. Some of my relatives love going here though...i'm not too into Crispy Pata to be honest. Last time, I had that bitter melon dish...yuck.

 
At 10:52 PM, Anonymous Kirk said...

Hey Elmo - You haven't gotten to the Lechon Kawale part yet!!! Or Bicol Express which is very tasty and good.

 
At 8:47 AM, Blogger elmomonster said...

wow i'm a dog,

I've always wondered what your handle meant...cracks me up everytime I see it on Chowhound!

Xericx,

Yeah, it may be hard to tell in my review, but the crispy pata was my least favorite thing that we ordered. But it definitely was the most interesting and challenging dish for me since I've never had it before. I see myself growing to like it though...man, my cholesterol's going to spike!

I saw other people order the bitter melon dish...in fact, every table but ours ordered it! I was going to order it next time...but is it their rendition that you didn't like? Or do you not like bitter melon in general? I'd like to know before I try it...I like bitter melon, but if theirs is no good, I'd rather not waste my time.

Kirk,

I have in fact tried Lechon Kawale from Magic Wok. It's like Crispy Pata but in smaller chunks, and uniform crispiness...I think I like it better than Crispy Pata right now, simply because it is not so intimidating. But hey fried pork...it's what Homer Simpson hopes they serve in heaven!

What is Bicol Express? Haven't heard of that one.

 
At 9:26 AM, Blogger Xericx said...

I just don't like bitter melon.

 
At 10:38 AM, Anonymous Kirk said...

Elmo - Bicol is a region in the Philippines - Bicol Express is basically a stir fry using strips of pork belly, coconut milk, garlic, ginger, onion, and chili pepper. Bicol for the region, and I guess express becuase it's a fast stir-fry. This actually sounds like something right up your alley Elmo! Let me check if any restaurants around here serve this.

 
At 4:02 PM, Blogger elmomonster said...

Mmm...all those ingredients sounds awesome. I'll be on the lookout for that one on Filipino menus.

 
At 6:36 PM, Blogger Xericx said...

Bicol express is awesome. They had a great rendition over at the late, great Barrio Fiesta.

Magic Wok is more of a divey-place. I didn't particularly like the food overall I remember. The only thing I ate was the adobo, and they made it with pork, which I don't generally go for.

 
At 3:56 AM, Blogger Seth Chadwick said...

Elmo, I give you great credit at being a wonderful chowhound. Your reviews are great!

 
At 9:36 AM, Blogger elmomonster said...

Xericx,

I agree, Magic Wok is a TOTAL dive. The walls are barren except for a few scuff marks and precariously hung picture frames. The place looks like it needs a good scrub down. But oddly, I feel more comfortable here than Goldilocks down the street. Goldilocks is okay, but man do they charge an arm and a leg!

Gotta try that bicol express though...you guys have sold me on it.

Seth,

Thanks for compliment! I try!

 
At 12:17 PM, Anonymous stef said...

hi elmo, bloghopping here -- LOVE this post -- i always enjoy it when other people try filipino food; doesn't matter if you loved it or hated it, i'm just glad there are people adventurous enough to do so. i see kirk here has already told you about bicol express:) -- our food isn't just all about pork fat, so i hope you'll try more dishes. as for the bitter melon, it may be an acquired taste for some. a lot of filipinos don't like it, and i just learned to eat it as an adult, mostly because i feel very connected to my heritage when i do so, not because i love bitter flavors:). hope you don't mind if i mention this post on my filipino food blog (beyondadobo.com). if you do, just let me know and i'll edit.

 
At 1:42 PM, Blogger elmomonster said...

Stef,

Thanks for visiting! I am honored to be mentioned by you!

I am slowly trying more and more Filipino food and loving it.

I even cooked sinigang once, very successfully I might add!

 
At 4:17 PM, Anonymous dbholden said...

How about the pinakbet?

 
At 4:24 PM, Blogger elmomonster said...

I haven't tried the pinakbet at Magic Wok, but I recently tried the one over at Salo Salo Grill. I enjoyed it very much, except that the bitter melon was too bitter.

 
At 3:40 PM, Anonymous carlo said...

what's is your ethnicity? i can't even begin to guess based on the breadth of your posts.

keep up the wonderful work.

 
At 8:46 AM, Blogger elmomonster said...

carlo,

In that case I'll continue to keep you guys guessing! ;-)

Thanks for reading!

 
At 9:01 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have been going to magic wok since 1988! Live in Las Vegas now but when in Socal find my way back to Magic Wok!

 
At 9:54 PM, Blogger SugarCocoon said...

hmmm, I think Filipino food places just like the Thai and Vietnamese food places, cater to anyone who's willing to venture out to different kinds of food, people from different cultures surely like the Filipino Lumpia and the Filipino Pancit noodles. Filipinos don't all lean towards sour flavors, we have other foods, like Tinola Chicken Soup and Adobo that are surely tasty.

 
At 11:47 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

i'd just like to comment that the express in bicol express, comes from the fact that bicol is the last province that had the old train tracks headed unto manila (not because it is stir-fried). and all goods coming from the bicol region would have been on board those trains. so one enterprising restaurateur thought of naming this dish as such

 
At 5:54 PM, Blogger daniellemarie. said...

i loove going to magic wok. i always order the same thing: crispy pata, daing bangus, gulay beans (to get my serving of vegatables), and pancit sotanghon. (maybe i should look at other things on their menu.)

i'm half filipino, but i admit, after finding out that dinuguan consists of pork's blood, i've shied away from it at family parties!

 

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