The Philippine Garden, open just about two months, joins a growing list of Pacific Rim restaurants serving Salt Lakers a bountiful array of Asian cuisine. From Korean and Thai to Vietnamese, Japanese, Chinese and now Philippine cuisine, the choices go well beyond chow mein and sweet and sour pork.
While a fairly new entry on the restaurant scene, many of the offerings of the Philippine Gardens are familiar fare to local aficionados of ethnic food. Proprietor Vic Fernandez and his family have been preparing and offering many of their homeland's specialties to crowds at events like the Utah Arts Festival, Living Traditions Festival and other regional events. They even served Oriental dishes at the Utah State Fair.Newcomers to the Philippine Gardens will find many similarities between the menu at this cleanly appointed eatery and Chinese restaurants. Of course, the influence of the Spanish who colonized the Philippines for centuries is incorporated in the menu, mostly with subtle touches in seasonings. It is food best described as Oriental with a touch of Spain.
This influence was most apparent with the leche flan dessert ($1.50), a luscious, velvety custard laced with a sweet carmelized sauce. Another dish with a hint of Spain was one of the house specialties, pancit malabon ($4.25). It is a generous serving of chopped rice noodles blended with an earthy crimson meat sauce. It was topped with several sliced cold prawns.
The other entrees as well as the appetizer platter or pulutan ($7.40) resemble Chinese dishes; yet each had a distinctive and appealing flavor and presentation.
The appetizer combination included small Philippine egg rolls, or lumpia, fried wontons, siomai (pot stickers), mini rolled vegetable filled egg rolls, and marinated chicken wings. The clear favorites were the pencil-thin egg rolls filled with crispy vegetables and the chicken wings. Unfortunately on our second visit they were all out of the chicken wings. One of the airlines had cleaned out the evening's supply for an international flight. (Certainly a compliment to the chef.) Nonetheless we were satisfied with the other egg rolls.
We also enjoyed several other specialties from the well-rounded menu. The adobong manok, or chicken adobo, ($4.25) is marinated chunks of chicken simmered in a subtle, slightly thick sauce consisting of soy sauce, vinegar, pepper, garlic and bay leaf. The pinoy shish kebob ($4.55), a favorite dish Fernandez and his family have offered from their various festival booths, is two skewers of marinated and barbecued pork. The chunks of meat were tender and tasty.
The stir-fry vegetables, or guinisang gulay ($4.25), was a pleasant blend of crispy vegetables accented by black mushroom slices and topped with fried tofu. Other entree selections include pork adobo, inihaw na baboy (charbroiled pork chop), shrimp in coconut milk, cashew shrimp or chicken, beef broccoli, pinoy style chop suey, deep-fried shrimp and chicken almond delight. Prices average around $5 and include a heaping portion of steamed rice.
We also enjoyed two Philippine drinks. The gulaman sugo is a very sweet fruit drink mixed with chewy chunks of agar-agar. The halo-halo (which translates as "mix, mix") is a layered beverage of fruit, iced milk and sweetened beans, more appropriate as dessert.
The Philippine Gardens adds another colorful and engaging restaurant to the list of Asian restaurants that are springing up around the area. So far it is one of a kind and certainly worth a visit.
Rating: * * * *
The Philippine Gardens Cafe, 145 E. 1300 South, Lincoln Plaza, 364-1376. Open for lunch Monday through Thursday, from 11 a.m. until 2 p.m.; dinner served from 5 till 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday, lunch served until 2:30 p.m. and dinner served until 10 p.m. Closed Sunday. Accepts check with guarantee card.