Monday, February 21, 2011

Back to the Old Country

"I'm going back to the Old Country..."

I have always heard that phrase, or variation on it, uttered by generally older folks who emigrated, from whatever foreign land, to the United States. It wasn't until today that I realized sometimes the "Old Country" is just a few exits down the freeway, especially if you haven't been there for years and the place seems like a different world than the one you currently call home.

My companions for this trip to the "Old Country" were my friend and fellow food writer/blogger Sarah (known to the food blogging world as The Undercover Caterer...if you haven't visited her blog, go!) and her husband Guido, who is a great cook in his own right as well as a fellow lover of all things pork. It had been a while since we had all shared a meal together to blog about and we were way beyond overdue. I told Sarah that I'd wanted to go eat and write about Filipino food. She knew exactly where to go.

I grew up in South Sac; Valley Hi to be precise; off of Mack Rd & Center Parkway to be exact. To those who make the commute from The Grid (that would be Downtown to all you 'burb dwellers) to Elk Grove, the Mack Road exit off of Hwy. 99 may seem like a hot mess of mishmashed businesses randomly situated next to one other, and to a certain extent it is. It was weird to see what it had become since I hadn't taken the exit for at least 10 years. What was once, 25 years ago, wide open fields filled with potential is now a cluster of gas stations and strip malls on life support. As we took the off-ramp and headed west on Mack, I found myself reminiscing and pointing out to Sarah & Guido places that were there, but no longer there. I pointed out the strip mall behind Mr. Perry's where there used to be a Thrifty's, where I remember going with my grandparents for 25 cent ice cream cones. I remembered when the Food Source was once a gleaming new Jumbo supermarket, with a Longs Drugs next door (now empty) and a Round Table Pizza (still open) between.

Across from that strip mall was the "newer" strip mall, that used to house Lamppost Pizza- the pizza parlor that always had the coolest new arcade games, where every sports team had their end of season pizza party. That place now stands empty, though the Big 5 Sporting Goods store remains after all these years, as does the Denny's in the parking lot. At the other end of the mall stands the building formerly known as Target, which I also remember as being the brand, spanking new place to shop in South Sac until it was supplanted by Super Target just a couple of miles south. However, the reincarnation of business in that building may be more awesome than the original Target that once occupied it.

The building formerly known as Target

What was once a Target is now a way more cooler Seafood City grocery store. I had never heard of this chain before, but according to their website, it is "A unique lifestyle center for Filipinos / Asians in the United States" that was, "established over 20 years ago with the opening of its first store in San Diego in Southern California, Seafood City is recognized as the "home away from home" for Filipino / Asians in the United States." I had no idea that this chain existed. Now I wish I'd known about it sooner.

It was weird when I walked in, because I remember how it used to be laid out when it was a Target. They sure fixed up the place. The place is best described as a town center put under one roof. When you enter the main entrance hall, you are greeted by what is essentially a food court selling Filipino style fast food as well as a bakery.

Did you know ChowKing is an international fast food chain?

I don't got balot, but I do want...

This is a far cry from Safeway or Trader Joes. You will not see the following things at either of those two stores:

Yes...that is both durian ice cream and cheese ice cream!

I guess if the place is called Seafood City, you just have to have the fish out in the open...

Yes, you read that right: Pork Blood

mm...pork blood

Needless to say the place was pretty awesome for no other reason than its existence being a testament to the real diversity we are so lucky to have here in Sacramento. Growing up here you take that diversity for granted.

I picked up a few random items while Sarah and Guido tracked down ingredients for a lemon chutney that was to be made from friends' tree fresh lemons. Incidentally, I've seen the pics of this chutney and it looks delicious.

Having made our purchases we hit a couple of other Filipino businesses that had risen from the ashes of the once thriving strip mall of my Valley Hi youth. The first was a Starbread Bakery, a place that Sarah had visited before where she had tasted Se├▒orita Bread, a light and buttery Filipino sweet bread coated with a dusting of sugar. We got a batch of warm bread that literally melted in our mouths.

(You'll have to visit the Undercover Caterer to see the offerings of Starbread)

Your neighborhood Filipino bakery

We next visited a Filipino butcher shop, TM Meat Market...

(again, please visit the Undercover Caterer for additional pics)

The second we walked in we were welcomed by the delicious scent of spicy marinades and the sight of fresh raw meats. The staff was friendly and eager to answer any questions about their cuts of meat.

Mexicans aren't the only ones who love tripe

Hello pig head

Cute figurines of yummy dead flesh

All of this food sufficiently adding to our already existing hunger, we set out for a meal at a real Filipino restaurant just one exit north off of Florin Road East; a place in the hood called South Villa.

South Villa- seriously in the hood...

Vacant store across the street

Sketchy apartments behind...

Sarah had been here before and knew the place could satisfy my two of my desires: the first being my desire to eat authentic Filipino fare and the second being my desire to devour pork.

The inside had a ramshackle charm about it. There was nothing at all fancy about the place. I always admire this quality about places in the hood that had clearly been in business for a while. It usually is a signal that the place is just about the food. Rather than gussy up the place with meaningless adornments, the decision was made by the proprietors to serve food that kept people from the neighborhood coming back for good food at a good price.

We settled on ordering a diverse selection from the menu. In all we chose four dishes:
-Chicharon Bulaklak
-Bouillabaisse Soup
-Lechon Kawali
-Kare Kare

The first dish to arrive was the Chicharon Bulaklak.

We were a bit scared to order this because of what it was- the lower intestines of a pig. Now being Mexican, my people are not strangers to the delicacies of the digestive tracts of farm animals. I love Menudo, the most wonderful soup in the world with its main ingredient being cow stomach. What Sarah. however, was quick to point out was that though this was part of the digestive system, we had ordered was more the lower intestine, or the "exit route" if you will. Neither Guido nor I were put off by this. One of the essential missions of food adventurists is to dare to tread where others dare not. If that meant nibbling on piggy poop chutes, then so be it.

The Bulaklak came with a vinegar sauce seasoned by a single slice of jalape├▒o. As you can see it was deeply deep fried. It was as you could guess, very crispy and also surprisingly airy. It tasted greasy and vaguely porky at the same time. Adventurous as we may have tried to be, I think we all had a hard time getting past the fact that it was the pig's posterior. This is not to say it wasn't tasty, but unfortunately the mental block was too much to overcome. I think this is one of those things that if you didn't tell me what it was I'd have sucked up the whole plate, unfortunately I had to ask what it was. I failed myself.

The Bouillabaisse Soup came out next.

This was the surprise hit of the meal. I don't think any of us were expecting to have a French staple at a Filipino restaurant, but sure enough, there it was on the menu listed under "Authentic Filipino Soup". It was delicious. The yellowy broth was thick; not quite chowder thick, but thicker than mere brothy. There was an underlying buttery creaminess to it that mixed perfectly with the fresh shrimp, squid, and humongous mussels. All that was missing was some warm, fresh sourdough bread to sop up every last bit of the soup. I think we all agreed we'd go back just for this soup.

Third up was the Lechon Kawali.

Sarah chose this dish knowing mine and Guido's love for all things pork. This was a simple dish of deep fried, crispy pork belly. This dish was great on a couple of different levels. I love pork and I love fried pork even more. On that basis alone, this dish delivered. What made this dish even better was the immediate sense memory that I got with the first bite. It immediately took me back to my youth when my dad would cook pork for the family. He would lightly batter it with peppery flour and deep fry it until the outsides were crispy and just on the edge of burnt while managing to keep the inside white and relatively moist. This dish tasted exactly like that pork my dad used to cook. All that was missing was the Mexican requisite of lime to squirt on top of. This dish made me very happy.

The final dish was the Kare Kare.

This was an ox tail stew with bok choy and eggplant. The gravy was a peanut based sauce that wasn't to thick or too peanutty. I'd never had ox tail before and loved it in this incarnation. The dark looking and flavored meat melted away from the bone and melted in my mouth. Having eaten this, I am going to make it a mission of mine to experience ox tail in its various forms. In fact I was kicking myself for having not experienced this part of the cow sooner. This dish delivered.

And thus my trip to the "Old Country" was over. Like with most trips for people who make that visit, the place is never quite how it was or how you remember it. The Valley Hi of my youth is long gone and likely long forgotten, people like me having moved away long ago to the "New World" filled with new experiences and opportunities. I am happy to see the place still fighting to stay alive, occupied now with a new generation of people who have made my "Old Country" their "New World". And I have no doubt, twenty years from now, one of the present day adolescents will look back at the home of their youth and find that the more things have changed in the "Old Country", the more they remain the same.

Seafood City is located at:
6051 Mack Road
Sacramento, CA 95823
(916) 393-8900
in the Southpointe Plaza

Starbread Bakery is located at:
6127 Mack Road
Sacramento, CA 95823
(916) 427-8598
in the Southpointe Plaza

TM Meat Market is located at:
6181 Mack Rd
Sacramento, CA 95823
(916) 393-3050
in the Southpointe Plaza

South Villa Restaurant is located at:
7223 55th Street
Sacramento, CA 95823
(916) 429-1949


  1. ... she knew where to go because of me ;)!

  2. You guys are brave to eat the food...I'm Filipino and don't eat any of the foods you featured!

    Thanks for the entertaining post!

  3. I'm still thinking about that pork belly. YUM.

  4. Hi,

    I work on the social media team at Urbanspoon and wanted to say hello. I just stumbled onto your blog and it's great! I wish I had some more current adventures to read. However.. I loved reading what you have here so far though.
    I also love that you are such a champion for your cityYour blog has some really beautiful food photography.] I also read your review of South Villa and wondered if you would be willing to add your review to Urbanspoon? I'm going to contact your friend and blogger Sarah and see if she'll submit her Starbread Review to Urban spoon also.
    I hope you two are stil blogging!

    It's easy. Users will see a short teaser of your review on Urbanspoon, and we display a link to click through to your blog to read the full review. This is not an ad or a promotion -- just an opportunity to connect our users with awesome bloggers like yourself.

    If you are interested, you can find directions by clicking "Add your review" on any Urbanspoon restaurant page. For example, here are link options for your review of RESTAURANT: South Villa Team

    Feel free to contact me if I can answer any questions or if you need help adding your reviews. Thanks again. I look forward to reading more of your Sacramento restaurant reviews soon!

    Urbanspoon Social Media Team