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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, December 17, 2004

A delicious introduction to cuisine of Philippines

By Helen Wu
Advertiser Restaurant Critic

Ruben Delacruz and Nenita Delacruz, both of Kalihi, order a variety of dishes to share at Mabuhay Cafe & Restaurant on River Street in Chinatown.

Photos by Rebecca Breyer • The Honolulu Advertiser

Kare-kare, a stew, is one of the offerings at Mabuhay.

Mabuhay CafE & Restaurant

1049 River St., Chinatown


Open 10 a.m.-10 p.m. daily

Metered street parking

1/2 Mediocre

Like the words "foreign film," the term "ethnic food" can strike fear in the hearts of even sophisticated eaters. What is it about something different that makes us squirm? Often, it's a matter of not understanding what the "other" is all about.

I don't know a lot about Filipino food — widely available in Hawai'i — but am determined to find out over the course of the next year as I check out various restaurants.

For many, Filipino cuisine has an egregious reputation based on "exotic" delicacies that seem outlandish to Western-adapted tastes. But to assume that all Filipino foods are too strange to be understood or appreciated denies the diner the pleasures of a cuisine suffused with a rich history of native, Indo-Malay, Chinese and Spanish influences.

Mabuhay Cafe & Restaurant on the edge of Chinatown is a comfortable place in which to venture beyond banana lumpia.

The Philippines are an archipelago consisting of 7,107 islands populated by diverse ethnic groups who speak more than 100 languages. "Mabuhay" is a word from Tagalog, one of the major Filipino languages. Based on the verb "to live," it is comparable to the word "aloha" in its assortment of favorable definitions, meaning anything from "long life" to a "greetings" or even "thanks." The atmosphere at Mabuhay embodies this word. Mabuhay's friendly staff can help guide you in selecting dishes from the lengthy menu.

Simply decorated, Mabuhay feels as homey as its food. The Lumauag family still operates this business, which they opened in 1963. You can find son Rudy in the kitchen cooking up dishes during the day.

Walking through the door, my eyes zoomed in on a jukebox at the heart of the restaurant and a counter with swivel stools that gave me a '50s flashback. My friend and I sat at one of the many tables and were surrounded by appetite-increasing stimuli. Aromas of sautÚed garlic and meats teased us. We heard the sizzling sounds of food in a hot pan. The sight of a few small groups of women eating various stew-like dishes filled us with further anticipation.

A waitress explained that Mabuhay's dishes are generally prepared in the style of Manila. The menu is arranged according to meat selections: pork, seafood, chicken and goat. Also available are specialties, side orders and plate lunches ($6.45) with two scoops of rice and a choice of three items out of five selections.

Dishes are cooked fresh to order here, so be prepared to wait a little. If you want your soup to arrive before the rest of your meal, be sure to request it first. Or if you want to eat in courses, be sure to make that clear, otherwise all orders are placed at the same time.

Speaking of soups, the number of soups on the menu surprised me, leaving me with the impression that soups are as important as entrÚes in Filipino cuisine. Here, the soups are spread all over the menu, rather than listed together. This made deciding on a soup slightly confusing for me, the uninitiated. The clear menu descriptions were a relief, however.

We identified some immediate favorites out of the recommendations by our waitress. We enjoyed shrimp sari-sari soup ($8.45) with a variety of vegetables such as slices of squash, eggplant and long beans in a delicate, seafood-flavored broth.

Fried pork ($8.45) would be the perfect snack for a football game. Pork steaks marinated in vinegar, pan-fried with garlic and cut into strips were delicately crispy and tender. They arrived with a dipping sauce of vinegar and minced garlic that offered extra zest.

Goat kaldereta ($8.95), a hearty stew made with pineapple and potatoes, was also very satisfying. Although my friend had never tried goat before and was initially worried about how the meat would taste, she found the dish unexpectedly appetizing. She found the goat was tender, although a bit bony, but not too strong-tasting, to her relief.

In contrast, fish sarciado prepared with mullet ($8.45) didn't appeal. We found the whole, pan-fried fish too fishy-tasting, despite its tomato-based sauce with bell peppers, garlic and onions. Mabuhay offers a choice of mullet or bangus (milkfish) for its various fish preparations. We had opted for mullet because milkfish is known for being bony. Chicken squash soup ($7.45), prepared with slices of long squash, was another dish that did not appeal to us because it was bland and over-salted.

I can, however, highly recommend all three of the desserts on the menu. Halo-halo ($4.75) literally means "mix-mix" and is a refreshing dessert of crushed ice and sweet fruits served in a tall glass. Sugar palm fruit (kaong), coconut sport (macapuno, stringy gelled coconut), coconut gel (nata de coco) and purple yam (ube) are drenched in evaporated milk for a creamy, rich dessert.

Magnolia-brand ice cream ($2.55) in three flavors — mango, coconut and ube — showcases one of the Philippine's most popular treats. It is a must as a scoop on your halo-halo or in a dish to go with banana lumpia ($7.25).

If you, like me, are just learning about Filipino food, I can comfortably suggest you set aside your fears and check out Mabuhay Cafe. I'd love to hear about your favorite Filipino restaurants and their signature dishes.

Reach Helen Wu at hwu@honoluluadvertiser.com.