Going for the Gold

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.

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.

Located approximately a half-mile south of the Medical Center on Fannin, the Gold Basket is tucked away in a tiny strip shopping center next to Gold Video. It's easy to make the mistake of thinking that the place is closed; a banner hanging loosely from the store front proclaiming "Oriental lunch buffet" is the only sign that there's a restaurant here. But the pearl inside is well worth discovering. The decor is a clinical white, broken up by gold accents. The place is immaculate. It is easy to tell that the owners take great pride in their jewel. On my visits, the room was filled with Filipinos -- businesspeople, engineers, medical staff still in their green scrubs and Army officers in their green uniforms.

I have never been a fan of buffets, but the buffets at the Gold Basket -- which change daily, and are the only way the food is served -- have changed my opinion. At $4.50 per person, the bountiful array provides the best food value this side of Manila. Although a short-order menu appears on the wall behind the main counter, none of the traditional dishes are prepared on request anymore.

Mondays are seafood buffet days. (As with the Gold Ribbon, the serving is an early-to-midday affair, with the restaurant opening at 10 a.m. and closing at 6 p.m.) And on this day, as on others, no concessions are made for non-Filipinos -- there are no names or signs describing the food, although assistance is readily available if you ask for it. As I surveyed the compact buffet, my gaze was quickly drawn to some shrimp freshly delivered from the kitchen. People quickly lined up behind me in anticipation. After my first taste, I understood why. The shrimp were first seasoned with a mild pepper marinade, then enrobed in a whispery-light tempura batter and gently fried. The result was a two-texture, two-taste sensation that's hard to beat. The other dish that drew the crowds was a whole red snapper, head, tail and bones included, drowning in a tomato sauce resembling the orange-brown atrocity served over enchiladas at some cheap Mexican joints. The silver color of the fish glistened through the red sauce whenever the light struck it at the right angle. The fish is baked with onions and red and green bell peppers. The sauce, which turns out to be sweet and sour, gives the dish an interesting character.

An industrial-sized rice cooker sits perched on a table, along with a huge serving ladle ready to dish up the plain, white, fragrant rice that makes a perfect accompaniment to soak up the juices of all of the offerings.

The friendship between Beard and Mangahas that led to the stringing together of their two Gold successes suggests a Midas touch. And it appears to be one that hasn't stopped working, because early next year the Gold Ribbon will be moving to even larger facilities across the street from its present location.

Gold Ribbon, 2401 Holcombe Boulevard, 665-6464;
Gold Basket, 7235 Fannin, 795-4255.

Gold Ribbon:
halo halo, $3;
sagó, $1;
combination plates, $3.50.

Gold Basket:
buffet, $4.50.

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