Friday, July 20, 2012

Zocalo: Celebrating Manila to Acapulco

Where is the Filipino love? I ranted about that question before, curious as to the reasons for the dearth of Filipino restaurants. There appears to be only a single Filipino restaurant close to the Boston area, in Quincy, and there are less than 500 Filipino restaurants in the entire U.S. Compare that to over 43,000 Chinese and over 14,000 Japanese restaurants in our country.

So I was pleased when Chef Erwin Ramos of the Olé Restaurant Group announced they would hold a special event, a dinner comparing and contrasting Mexican and Filipino cuisines. At both Olé Mexican Grill in Cambridge and Zócalo Cocina Mexicana in Boston, they offered a three-course meal, with each plate sharing a dish from each of the two cuisines. As Chef Ramos was born in the Philippines, he has an understanding of Filipino cuisine, and it seems like an intriguing pairing. Yet there is a deeper connection between Filipino and Mexican cuisine of which many people might not know.

Starting in 1565, a trade route was begun between the Philippines and Mexico and it was commonly called the Manila-Acapulco Galleon Trade. Approximately once or twice a year, Spanish trading ships would sail across the Pacific Ocean, which usually took about four months. This led to a variety of Mexican influences in the Philippines, including culinary ones, and vice versa. It was an extremely valuable and important trade route, uniting Asia with the New World. The trade route officially ended in 1815 with the start of the Mexican War of Independence, though trade between the two countries would later continue again. In 2009 in the Philippines, it was declared that each October 8 would become Día del Galeón ("Day of the Galleon"), a holiday to commemorate the Galleon Trade.

The dinner was only $35 per person for a three-course meal, which technically was six courses as you received two items in each course, one Mexico and one Filipino. I was invited, with a guest, for a complimentary dinner and it was my first time dining at Zócalo Cocina Mexicana. It is medium-sized restaurant with a bar down the right side of the room and a funky and cool decor, from statutes of flying pigs to skull candles. You can even watch them making guacamole in the dining room, from slicing the avocados to making the paste with a mortar and pestle. On a Wednesday night, it was busy and the patio probably would have been occupied too if it had not been raining.

Soon after you are seated, they bring chips and salsa to your table, and will refill it later if you so desire. Their drink list is strong on tequilas, mezcals and Mexican beers, and many of their cocktails have a Mexican twist. The Watermelon-Jalapeno Margarita ($10.95) is made with Tanteo Jalapeno Tequila, fresh watermelon puree, Combier Orange, and fresh lime juice and comes as either mild or spicy. I went for the spicy and it came in a large rocks glass and not the usual margarita glass. It was not too sweet and had a nice spicy kick on the finish, though the kick wasn't over the top.

The Los Meurtos Manhattan ($11.95) contains Woodford's Reserve Bourbon, Mexican Coca Cola syrup, Drambuie, and Mole bitters. Again, the cocktail was not too sweet, and there was a nice touch of chocolate complementing the vanilla of the bourbon, along with a mild caramel streak. As I dislike overly sweet cocktails, Zocalo did a great job with the two that I tried.

They also sell a Red (Mango flavored) and White (Peach flavored) Sangria ($6.95/glass, $21.95/pitcher). The Red Sangria was very good, once again not too sweet and the mango flavor was more subdued and did not overwhelm the rest of the flavors. A perfect summer drink.

There were four options available for the Appetizer course and we tried two different ones. The Cactus Salad is joined with Atchara (papaya) & Lechon Kawali (pork dish). The Cactus Salad consists of pickled cactus on a bed of mixed greens and I don't recall having eaten the green pads of the cactus before. But they were good, reminding me of a cross between a green pepper and a pickle. The Atchara, a green papaya salad, came with the Lechon Kawali, roasted pork. The papaya was crisp and refreshing and I liked the seasonings on the pork, though some of the meat was a bit overcooked, which would be a common complaint for the entrees as well. The pork had a crisp outer coating and I liked dipping it into the sweet sauce.

The other appetizer were the Chicken Taquitos and Lumpia. The taquitos were crispy corn stuffed with chicken, potatoes, and cheese and I was very impressed with their creamy texture. One of the sauces was sweeter while the other was a bit smoky, though still with a little sweetness too. Both were very good with these items. The Lumpia, kind of a Filipino spring roll, was a rice tortilla rolled with chicken and shrimp. It had a crunchier texture, though the meats were tender and would be an excellent summery dish. I would easily order either of these items again.

There were two options for Entrees for we ordered both of them. The Mole Amarillo is a pork stew cooked in tomatillos and chiles, and it is the darker meat on the right side of the photo. The spices and flavors of the meat were very good, with an excellent smoky edge, though some pieces were overcooked.  The Kare-Kare is a Filipino stew with oxtail, which was tender, in rice and a peanut sauce. An intriguing and tasty sauce, you also can mix in some of the fish sauce, called patis, seen in the little metal bowl. We were warned that some people didn't like the smell or taste of the fish sauce, and they compared it a bit to anchovies. But I very much enjoyed it, finding it to be savory and umami rich. I would have loved an umami-rich Kimoto Sake to pair with that fish sauce.

The other entree was a comparison of Mexican versus Filipino Adobo. The Mexican version, pictured on the left side, was cooked in achiote and dried chile paste while the Filipino version was cooked in soy sauce, garlic and vinegar. Both dishes were nicely seasoned and spiced, and I would gladly enjoy either version, though I would give a slight edge to the Filipino version. It was intriguing to be able to do such a comparison of the two styles.

For dessert, the Flan de Caramelo, pictured on the left, was superb with rich, sweet flavors and plenty of caramel. It had just the right consistency, and tasted almost as if it had a bit of coconut in it. It is still light enough that even after a large meal you could find a way to enjoy the flan. The Filipino dessert was the Brazo de Mercedes, which seems to be related to the Spanish Brazo Gitano. It is a rolled meringue cake with an egg yolk filling, and certainly had a more unique taste. The cake was a bit spongy with the filling being more like a custard texture, with a rich eggy flavor. In this dish though, I have to give the edge to the flan.

We definitely need more Filipino cuisine in Boston. Consumers would find much that is familiar to them, yet also find some unique elements as well. Zocalo has done several of these dinners before and I hope that they do even more of them in the near future. I recently ranted about restaurants that simply jump on the trendy bandwagon, rather than trying to offer something unique. Well, this is a perfect opportunity for a restaurant to start a trend, to offer Filipino dishes and bring attention to this neglected cuisine.

Zocalo Cocina Mexicana on Urbanspoon


Bianca @ Confessions of a Chocoholic said...

My mouth is watering! Glad to hear you enjoy Filipino food. Kare-kare is usually served with bagoong (shrimp paste), not fish sauce... It looked like the Zocalo had bagoong too, not patis. I love brazo de mercedes, but I would also prefer the flan :) Have you been to JnJ yet? Here's my review!

dearmum said...

thanks for showcasing filipino food, you were right when you said it's not been getting the right amount of appreciation and attention, and nice to hear you enjoyed the food as well, there's still a lot more you have to taste and experience so perhaps you may want to consider vising the Philippines for a more fun experience perhaps? anyhow, more power to your blog.. wink!