Perlas ng Silangan
69-09 Roosevelt Avenue, Woodside, New York, NY
Review by SuSu, MaceVindaloo, Jools, MostlyIrish
As cuisines go, Philippine cuisine is not well-represented outside of its native land. This could be because of the many "occupiers" of these islands (most recently by Americans, Japanese, Spanish, etc.) due to its great location for trade and warfare. Also, Philippinos are rather unique among Asian cultures in that nationals can often pass as other nationalities easily. They do speak a variety of languages, after all. In fact, they are popular entertainers throughout Asia, in that they look completely and authentically Asian but speak nearly perfect English in a variety of accents. These entertainers also can sing anything you request; they are pretty un-stumpable.
So, perhaps it's not a surprise that they may not bring their cuisine with them when they travel abroad. But surely, when a Philippino is homesick and needs comfort, there must be someplace they go to get food just like they get at home. Of course, the food will be cheap and good.
It turns out that Perlas ng Silangan ("Pearl of the East" or "Pearl of the Orient" this is the nickname for the Philippines herself) is as close to the "real deal" as one can hope to get outside of the Philippines, and the space does double-duty as an eatery by day and a nightclub by night. This is important to know, since they offer only the "bar menu" during nightclub hours, which can inhibit you if you had planned on ordering a variety.
Basic peasant food anywhere consists of boiling or grilling, but boiling is more popular because it feeds more people. What makes Philippine food different from other cultures? The Spanish heritage is seen quite clearly, not only in that many Philippinos have surnames like Morales, but in offerings like bacalão (salted and dried codfish) and their use of chorizo-like sausage meats. There is also extensive use of pork, and dishes with names like escabeche, mixed on the menu with names like lumpiang, a curious but not incongruous mix of Spanish, Chinese, Malay, and the Philippine language of Tagalog. (Note: In the movie Big Fish, in that scene when Edward Bloom is in Korea during their version of their USO, there is a ventriloquist and his dummy on stage ... but rather than Korean, he is speaking Tagalog! It's probably deliberate; Bloom spoke Cantonese during that sequence and was understood perfectly by the Siamese twins who sung in English ...)
We tried to order what could be termed "national" dishes, like adobo which is a garlic, soy sauce, vinegar concoction in which food is braised until the liquid clings to the meats chunks as a sticky brown sauce. Unlike other examples elsewhere, it wasn't acrid and clumsily spiced, but rich, in that sort of gravy/demiglace way. The pork used was belly, meaning there were streaks of fat in the cubes of meat, and it was really tasty and wonderfully textured.
Modern Philippine food heavily features frying, with KFC being a hands-down favorite for take-out fried chicken over there, apparently. So we tried the fried chicken legs here and they were very Malay-like very crispy and cooked well-done, and done well enough to eat the knuckles and gristle if you like them. Try this with banana sauce, which is on the table! It's a red sauce, looks like Maggi chili sauce. Put a spoonful in your mouth and you'll realize not only isn't it hot, but sweet ... and tastes just like bananas! How do they do that?
We also tried a "sizzling seafood" platter, which is something that comes covered in foil and making a lot of hissing and popping noises, rather like fajitas in a Tex-Mex place or steak in an American steakhouse. The shrimp came covered in a sweetish chili-like sauce (it may have been banana sauce) with peppers and onions very much, in fact, like fajitas. Rice was served on the side, and the shrimp was cooked perfectly. The photo looks like there is a lot of sauce, but it was sticking pleasantly to the shrimp.
Bulalo is a boiled beef soup, bone in. This makes sense, since these are not tender cuts of beef, but we found it bland, kind of the worst of what you'd expect of home cooking. It tasted about what it looks like, and it's probably something you had to grow up with to really enjoy.
We had a chicken dish braised in a red sauce and served with stir-fried peppers, onions, and carrots. It wasn't sweet; instead, it was more like adobo, in that it was tart and garlicky and really lip-smackingly delicious. We added rice to the sauce after the tender chicken pieces were all eaten, to soak it all up. We actually stopped the waiter from taking away a plate that looked empty, for it still had some sauce left on it!
As a nightclub, it seems Perlas ng Silangan is used for everything from starlet meet-and-greets to immigration law protests and lectures. There is a band set-up and projection television which never gets put away. If a band isn't playing, you can watch the video of a bright yellow sun rising into an orange cloud-dotted sky. Or you can try to figure out if the others in the restaurant are actors or crew for any number of Philippine movie or video productions which shoot in New York. Or if they just act that way? It's also a venue for opening events, radio shows, basically anything owner Nel Castellvi deems appropriately community-worthy and good for business.
In fact, Perlas ng Silangan is in New York's "Little Manila," with the neighborhood of Woodside being home to the largest number of Philippinos in the city. There are other restaurants, but when we were there (on a Saturday), they all seemed to be closed except for this place. Maybe they all come here for the show?
The biggest surprise was the cost the dishes averaged around $5 apiece; the sizzling shrimp were about $12. We averaged about $10 apiece including beers and sodas and tip. And our understanding is there is no cover charge for the nightclub either. Or maybe it was because we just kept eating as mealtime rolled into nightclub bar time? They didn't rush us out, however. Everyone was very nice. We didn't stay for any of the gigs, however.
When one hears the term, "pearl of the orient," one may not envision a place in Queens, New York under the elevated subway track. But to ex-pats and fans of good, cheap food, it's a pearl of great value, indeed!
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