Many dishes from the world's second-largest archipelago make the perfumed delicacies of Thai food or the gutsy surprises of Korean recipes seem as straightforward as mashed potatoes. Add to their sometimes-scary ingredients the Filipinos' unorthodox combinations, such as bitter melon with thin slices of marinated beef sautéed in oyster sauce, and you're dealing with some pure, true dinnertime shocks.
Their kitchen-sink approach to recipes is a direct result of Philippine history, which includes a long list of conquerors who have introduced their ideas of good eating to the chain of islands. The Chinese brought noodles and noodle dishes; the Spanish, the stews, rice-and-meat dishes, and flans; the Indians, spices and curries; and the Americans, canned meats and fruits, courtesy of food-rationing habits after World War II.
Of course, understanding the history of Filipino food doesn't make diving into a stew of boiled kneecap any easier. Americans, including South Floridians, are timid of palate, which makes Pegasus Pinoy particularly admirable. Managed by Ed Flores, the 5-year-old, 20-table restaurant flies a lonely, local flag in honor of its country and its country's food.
Though Jacksonville has a sizable Filipino population and a handful of pinoy restaurants, diverse South Florida has so far mustered even fewer. Next to Hair Port USA and kitty-corner to the Village Well in a backstreet shopping center off Fort Lauderdale's 17th Street, is Pegasus -- which exists in no small part as a spinoff from nearby Port Everglades, where cruise ships are staffed to a surprising degree by Filipinos. These men have come to think of this little restaurant as a bastion of decent eats in a desert of prepackaged food and savorless spices, and they flock to Pegasus' turo-turo (literally, "point to whatever you like") buffets 9 a.m. till 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
My interest in the place was more complicated -- a suspicious mix of professional curiosity and a need for a challenge. What I knew about Filipino cuisine could be put in a caption. I knew that Jeff Smith, a.k.a. "The Frugal Gourmet," had called it "not high-class." I knew New York writer Barbara Costikiyan thought it "sophisticated and exotic." And I knew that it might be the last ethnic food not exploited into inauthenticity (New Yorkers, for instance, tried to turn Ethiopian cooking into a commodity in the late '80s).
I entered the two small, green-and-white rooms of the almost empty restaurant around 7:30 p.m. on a Friday and was struck immediately by how its intimate scale and lack of design echoed similar neighborhood restaurants in Tangiers, Colombo, even Riyadh. Though Pegasus is currently undergoing renovations, the owners will not be easily able to erase the feeling of storefront simplicity. Seated at a table decorated with a plastic tablecloth and artificial baby's breath, I took in a print of the Virgin Mary blessing the multitudes, then swung my attention to a TV high on the wall playing a satellite feed of TFC, the local Filipino channel. I also glanced through Basta Pinoy!, the biweekly chronicle of Filipino life in South Florida, which was available by the front door.
Efficient and self-effacing, waitress Grace arrived with menus and asked for drink orders. I went with a bottle of the Manila-produced San Miguel ($2.50), a pale-yellow, low-bodied brew whose slight malt flavor goes well with the food's riot of sensations. Also available were iced tea and sodas ($1), no-name chardonnays, merlots, and cabernets by the glass ($3), and nine other kinds of domestic and imported beers ($2.50).
The menu declares the house specialties to be, among others, such Filipino staples as kare-kare ($8.99), an oxtail stew with vegetables and a sauce thickened with ground roasted peanuts and rice; bulalo ($9.50), beef bones and meats boiled with vegetables; and dinuguan ($6.50), pork cooked in pork blood -- with steamed rice cakes.
Grace explained that the latter option wasn't available. I turned back to the menu. From the eight appetizers ($4.99 to $7.50), my party chose the lumpiang Shanghai ($4.95). This deep-fried egg roll stuffed with ground pork and beef proved a challenge because of the strong, meaty flavor. But a sweet-and-sour sauce enhanced the flavor of the batter and blunted the meat's ranginess.
Then we picked the pleasant sotanghon soup ($5.50), cellophane noodles served in a chicken broth with julienned chicken and scallions. These noodles, made from soybean paste, blended smoothly with the broth and scallions. Also worth repeating was a bowl of sinigana na baboy ($6.95), a sour potage similar to a bouillabaisse, with an equally freelance selection of ingredients, in this case pork, tamarind, and Asian vegetables.
So far, the meal had proven rather innocent. But the end of innocence was upon us. We had arrived at the selection of main dishes. There were five of chicken (all around $6.50), six of pork ($5.95 to $7.50), three of beef ($7.50 to $7.95), and seven of seafood ($6.95 to market price for the Manila Bay Special). Beginners should probably go with a variety, one from each category.
Following this strategy, we began receiving steaming dishes within 15 minutes. Then, it was off to a Marx Brothers' movie of tastes and sensations, marinades colliding with coconut milk, deep-fried pork belly careening into liver paste, milkfish wallowing in vinegar.
Things began calmly enough with a surprisingly delicate and mild chicken curry ($6.95) that differed from Indian or Japanese versions by the presence of red bell peppers and carrots swimming in a coconut milk broth. Then, Grace began to unload the other main dishes.
Lechon kuwali ($6.95) presented the first challenge. The chunks of deep-fried pork belly were heavily lined with fat, which caused an involuntary heave. But patience and good sense reigned. A blend of vinegar, sugar, and liver paste went with the dish. We dipped, we tasted, we were conquered. The chunks were suddenly irresistible.
The next Everest was kalderetang baka ($7.50), a beef stew with coconut milk, onions, bell peppers, green peas, and olives. This dish can be eaten either mild or spicy. I chose the spicy variation and, after the first burning taste, knew the meaning of regret. Another San Miguel seemed suddenly reasonable, and between sips, the stew seemed to grow milder and the unique combination of olives and coconut milk became a why-didn't-someone-think-of-this-before? sort of given.
We also tried a Filipino classic, pancit guisado ($6.95), wheat noodles sautéed with shrimp, garnished with julienned carrots, celery, cabbage, and green beans, with onions and black pepper for seasoning. This dish can be prepared with rice noodles (bihon in Tagalog), flour noodles (Canton), soybean noodles (sotanghon), or fresh egg noodles (mike). The flexibility of the recipe makes it one of the most popular basics of Filipino fare, and Pegasus does it admirably.
Before taking another adventure in good eating, we took a breath -- and saw that the restaurant had filled up. Generations of families, drivers of white vans, cruise-ship workers, and groups of women had taken over the tables, eating by using their spoons as a knife with the left hand and forks with the right hand. The arrival of many of these patrons was, for Americans, quite late, starting around 9 p.m. This underscored the fact that Filipinos are not fans of the early-bird special.
Then it was back to the third dinner challenge, the seafood selection, daing na bangus (priced by size), milkfish marinated in vinegar, garlic, pepper, and salt, and then grilled. Since the first bite didn't make us long for a life in Luzon, we decided to get into the real spirit of Filipino food and began dipping pieces of the fish in liver sauce for the fried pork bellies. The vinegar worked well with the taste of liver, and the fish went smoothly with garlic. Double kismet.
At this point, after so many mystery tastes and textures, dessert might have seemed demasiado. But we nevertheless steamed ahead, looking at the short menu, which includes such items as leche flan ($1.99), sago at bulaman ($1.95), an edible palm starch cooked in jello, and any flavor of Magnolia ice cream ($2.50). We took a gamble with that Filipino favorite, halo-halo ($3.50). Soon, Grace reappeared bearing a parfait dish and long-handled sharing spoons.
Initially disconcerting and ultimately satisfying, halo-halo turned out to be the most appropriate way to end a meal at Pegasus. At the top, a clump of whipped cream covered a scoop of vanilla ice cream. As the ice cream melted, it blended with pieces of jackfruit, sweet yam, pounded dried rice, and cubes of colored gelatin below. At the bottom were a few sweet, preserved red beans. Shaved ice and coconut milk surrounded these tastes in a cold cocoon. The strangeness of the combination turned out to be a cunning way to neutralize all the strong spices and marinades of the meal. Spoons flew, and the dessert disappeared in minutes.
By this time, the San Miguel was working its intended effect. In one of those silly epiphanies food writers sometimes have, I was suddenly struck by the fact that halo-halo said a lot about Filipino culture: You can't enjoy only the ice cream (the West) or you'll miss the mysteries of the East (those Asian tropical fruits).
In other words? Everything goes in Filipino food and, after you get used to it, everything goes down quite well.