By Kaitlin Steinberg
By Minh T Truong
By Molly Dunn
By Brooke Viggiano
By Kaitlin Steinberg
By Molly Dunn
By Molly Dunn
By Eating Our Words
Every evening, when the late shift shows up, the Medical Center begins to look like an outpost of Manila. For reasons that, to me at least, are not perfectly clear, the night crew that keeps the Center going, from doctors down to the lowest support personnel, all seem to have come from the Philippines. Indeed, if it were not for the 30,000 or so Filipinos who call Houston home, the Medical Center might just shutter its doors when the sun goes down.
If it weren't for that abundance of Pacific physicians, we also might not have the curious wonder of two of the city's better Filipino restaurants' coming into existence a mere mile from each other. The older of these is the Gold Ribbon, which is located a half-mile west of the Medical Center on Holcombe. The Gold Ribbon opened in 1992, in a site that had housed the Goldilocks Filipino restaurant since 1980. At first glance, it's hard to tell that the Gold Ribbon is a restaurant; its formal name is Gold Ribbon Bake Shop, and more than half the space is occupied by a pastry shop that turns out some wonderful custom cakes.
But when the staff at the Medical Center complete their night shifts, they know to head straight for the Gold Ribbon, which begins serving "dinner" for them at 7 a.m. (Unfortunately, while this is perfect for the hungry physicians, those with more regular schedules may have trouble getting dinner, since the Gold Ribbon closes at 6 p.m.) The food is served cafeteria style, with a wide variety of dishes available on the steam table. Given the speed of the turnover, freshness is not an issue here. Food is continuously being renewed from the kitchen. For $3.50, a price that hasn't changed in four years, you can purchase a combination plate of two dishes and a heaping portion of white rice. When you consider that everything here is made from scratch, even the sauces, it's easy to change one's perspective on food value.
2416 W. Holcombe Blvd.
Houston, TX 77030
Region: Kirby-West U
On my first visit I tried the lechón kawali, or pan-fried roast pork. The morsels of pork are cut into one-inch strips that have the rind still on them. This makes for a very crispy, very crunchy dish, somewhat similar to the chicharon found in Mexican and Caribbean kitchens. It's served with a traditional Filipino dipping sauce made of apple cider vinegar, onions, garlic, sugar and chicken livers. The result is yet another sweet and sour sensation with the consistency of applesauce that goes wonderfully with the pork. It's refreshing to find familiar ingredients blended with the exotic in such an exquisite way.
The story of Filipino cuisine is tied to the successive waves of nations that colonized the more than 7,000 islands that make up the Philippines. The islands were originally inhabited by the Malays, who utilized indigenous ingredients such as coconuts, pineapples, rice and seafood. The Chinese appeared around the 13th century and brought with them noodle dishes (pansit), dumplings (siomai) and egg rolls (lumpia). The Spanish came in the 17th century to introduce tomatoes and garlic. Each successive wave of colonial rule brought with it different ingredients, all of which blended with the native cuisine to create a wonderful mixture of Oriental and European cuisines.
At Gold Ribbon, the cafeteria-style arrangement allows a newcomer to get a good sense of that Filipino variety. One of the items I tried was adobo, the closest thing there is to a Philippine national dish. I went with the chicken variety, though it's also available with pork. After marinating in vinegar, soy sauce and garlic, the meat is flavored with the subtle sourness of the resulting stew all the way to the bone. Another discovery is sagó, a very sweet and very thick banana-flavored drink with an almost gelatinous consistency and a number of tapioca balls the size of small marbles mixed in, which makes it awkward to drink. The effort, though, is worth it.
Sweets and desserts are a mainstay of Filipino fare. The dish called halo halo, which, literally translated, means "mix mix," gets its name from the fact that it contains so many different ingredients and required continous mixing. At first, it was hard for me to imagine how chickpeas, mung beans, sweet white beans and sweet corn could make a good dessert, but it turned out to be a wonderfully refreshing, extraordinary taste experience. The base is shaved ice and evaporated milk, but it also contains a thick milk flan, lots of tropical fruit and coconut shavings. No two mouthfuls taste or feel the same. At $3 for a bowl large enough for two, this is popular as a merienda (midafternoon snack). Another dessert was the turon, which looks like a cross between an egg roll and a burrito. Inside the crispy, flaky shell, neatly folded in the shape of an envelope, are sweet plantains and jackfruit. The outside shell quickly gives way to the smooth interior, allowing the flavor of the plantains to dominate.
The two women who own Gold Ribbon are friends as well as business partners. When Delores Mangahas and her husband Gerry moved to Houston in 1984 to be close to her daughter, she met and befriended to Kitty Beard. When Beard decided she wanted to get into the restaurant business, she consulted with Mangahas, a Philippine native. The resulting mix of ethnic culinary knowledge and basic business led first to the Gold Ribbon and then, last January, to another cafe, the Gold Basket Restaurant and Oriental Mart.