Friday, February 5, 2010

Ihawan: Filipino Feast or Grease Fest?


This article originally appeared on The Gotham Palate.

My mind is having trouble focusing these days. Maybe it's our media-saturated, technologically-driven age. Maybe it's the weather. Or maybe it's because I can't quite decipher Ihawan.

No, he's not my boyfriend. Ihawan is a Filipino restaurant in Woodside, Queens, serving up home-cooked Filipino favorites, like Lechon Kawali (deep fried crispy pork with liver sauce on the side), Beef Kalderata (stewed beef) and Sizzling Sisig (pork ears and mouth marinated with lemon and hot pepper).

Generally, I'm not a big fan of fried foods. Deep-fried grease and oily batter just don't inspire lip-smacking in me, but I'm always open to trying new things.

Some of my Filipino culinary favorites are things my friends' parents would make - like chicken adobo and lumpia (egg roll). This time around, I was craving the Kare-Kare, or stewed oxtail in peanut butter sauce with mixed vegetables ($8). I got a whole plateful of oxtail, though the ratio of meat to fat was considerably less than I would have liked. Sure, I love fatty bits of pork in ramen - it's what makes the broth that much more appetizing. But when it comes to my oxtail, I gotta have some meat on those bones! I liked the thick nuttiness of the sauce but it seemed like some herbs or spices were missing. I couldn't detect a kick in my mouth, and the string beans were rather bland and lifeless. (No, I have not burnt all my taste buds.)


My friend D went for the pink - literally. He chose the Binagoongan, or pork sauteed in shrimp paste ($7). His immediate reaction: "I remember the pinkish color* threw me off. But then I remembered it was shrimp sauce so that was OK. But the taste was definitely too strong after a few bites. It did not taste like it was healthy for me."

My take: Strong is right - this dish looked the color of Pepto Bismol, luckily tasted better than that, though I wouldn't make this for myself. It came with a fishy (anchovy?) paste on the side. Combining the two made for a very salty, very fishy concoction. Fish paste tastes better on plain rice.

Inihaw Na Longanisa.

R was in the mood for something more substantial - Inahaw Na Longanisa, or grilled pork sausage with eggs ($8). Definitely approved of the sausage, which was just crispy enough on the edges. Warm, meaty, substantial. What better way to top it off than with an egg or two! (She usually prefers them over-easy.)

Filipino Desserts.

After a full meal, we still had room for desserts! D went for the Saging Con Hielo, or sweetened banana with milk and crushed ice ($4). Each bite was filled with soft, crushed banana. My Halo-Halo ($4.50) didn't disappoint either. On the top: crushed ice, milk and cream flan. Bottom: mixed tropical fruits (jackfruit, purple yam, coconut) and red and white beans. Cold, refreshing and hearty - just light enough not to feel weighed down after all that we consumed.


The flan took its pretty time in transit. I watched the waiter scribble it down on his pad, but there was a mix-up in the kitchen and it didn't appear with the other desserts. After 10 or 15 minutes of extra waiting, we flagged down the waiter and corrected the mistake. I was a bite taken aback by the brusque, detached service. The flan itself was swamped in caramel, lending a sticky, overly sweet taste.

If there's one thing I've learned, it's that Filipino cooking cannot be rushed. It takes awhile for the flavors to simmer and the meat to become so soft you can pull it apart with one touch. However, our dishes got cold pretty fast. I'm not sure whether this was due to the cooking methods or the restaurant's poor heating. At least the prices were cheap.

Consensus: Solid, but not terribly exciting...much like a blind date that you want to say went well but can't quite convince yourself is worth another shot. Dessert was the BFF that bails you out with one quick phone call. The sweet, substantial and texturally rich halo-halo saved the day - or rather, my impression of this restaurant that was quickly faltering as the night progressed. Ihawan wasn't bad, but it didn't blow me away.

*Side Note: None of the Binagoongan recipes I looked up online remotely resembled the one we ate at Ihawan. What IS that pink paste made of, anyhow? O.o

Rating: 3.5 stars. Halo-halo is my hero.

40-06 70th St
Woodside, NY 11377

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