It’s curious because Filipinos are the second largest Asian population in the US. In a few cities, like Las Vegas, Philippine restaurants are starting to pop up, though. But before we dive into the restaurant scene in Sin City, first let's address this basic question: What exactly is Filipino food?
It’s hard to define, says Cathy Ferrer, a manager with Max’s Restaurant, "Cuisine of the Philippines."
“When you say Filipino food, it’s actually a fusion of many cultures and many countries,” Ferrer says.
Philippine food has Chinese, Malaysian, Spanish and American influences — all cultures that have shaped the Philippines. Filipinos eat a lot of rice, pork, chicken and, of course, fish — the Philippines is an archipelago of more than 7,000 islands, after all. All the food is spiced the Philippine way:
“Tons and tons of garlic, soy sauce, vinegar, onions,” says Ferrer
Ferrer helped open the new Max’s in Las Vegas a few months ago. The chain restaurant also has locations in California, Hawaii and New Jersey and has been serving food in the Philippines since 1945.
In Las Vegas, my hosts served me soft Pancit noodles and garlic fried rice and pork — cooked Philippine Adobo style, braised in soy and vinegar. And, of course, we had to have Max’s famous fried chicken.
“We love crispy stuff,” Ferrer says. “Deep fried stuff.”
It all tasted good, a bit heavy, but good. The restaurant was appealing. The servers were friendly. So what’s the problem here? Why aren’t more Americans eating Filipino food? Ferrer had one theory.
“We have a term that we call turo-turo: all food is already in a serving dish, and you just point to what you want,” she says.
Turo-turo, which means “point-point” in Tagalog, is buffet style. Max’s did away with that.
Here’s another problem, as I see it: the food didn’t taste all that different from basic Chinese food. So why switch?
Ferrer says her country’s food actually has quite a few surprises. She says she ordered me the “safest food” as a sampler.
“They gave you the ‘white guy menu,'" says Brock Radke, food editor at Las Vegas Weekly Magazine. “That happens a lot at ethnic restaurants.”
Radke has tried a fair amount of Philippine food and has good things to say about it. He thinks it hasn’t quite caught on in the US because it's considered rustic, homey food.
"Every time I ask someone, 'What's the best Filipino restaurant in Las Vegas?' most people tell me, 'There really isn't one ... my mom's house,'" Radke says.
He also thinks non-Filipinos might be intimidated, scared off by the food. For example, in the Philippines, fish, sometimes big fish, are served with the head intact. It’s done that way in the US sometimes. To be fair, many other cultures serve fish this way, too.
Radke told me about a bowl of sinagang he recently had at Max’s.
“It’s kind of a sour stew, with really giant chunks of food in it, like whole shrimp and big pieces of bok choy. It’s like they didn’t bother to cut it up. It’s kind of clumsily assembled, but I say that with affection. It’s kind of fun to eat, also.”
I had the same soup. Staring at the shrimp, and it’s many, many legs, well, it was a bit off-putting.
“I think the average suburban Las Vegan would probably be terrified to see a whole shrimp in their soup,” Radke says.
For the record, Radke liked the soup, as did I.
So how exactly does an eclectic cuisine gain acceptance? How did sushi catch on? Thirty years ago, who would’ve thought Americans would develop a love affair with raw fish wrapped in seaweed? What will it take for Filipino food to get to that point?
“It’s hard to say,” Radke says. “There are a lot of Filipino chefs in Las Vegas. Maybe somebody will, kind of, go the extra mile to put it into some kind of a package that’s a little more friendly and approachable for people.”