LITTLE ROCK Over the years, Asian restaurants have filtered in and out of the central Arkansas market.
We have Chinese buffets and Japanese sushi bars and/or teppanyaki steakhouses practically on every street corner now.
We have a couple of Vietnamese places, and a Thai kiosk opening up in the River Market, although you still have to go to Jacksonville's Thai Taste to get full-spectrum Thai. And we hear tell of a combination Japanese-Korean restaurant that recently opened in Cabot.
We don't yet have any Cambodian, Burmese, Singaporean, Malaysian or Indonesian restaurants. After all, this isn't San Francisco.
But we do now have a place to get Philippine food: Philam Gourmet, in the Broadmoor Shopping Center space that originally housed Hunan and which for years has been a revolving door for middling-at-best buffets.
This is not Little Rock's first Philippine restaurant - Manila Garden had an all-too-brief life in the erstwhile Main Street Mall with a brief revival on South Main Street, and one of two places called Taste of Asia served a Philippine-centered menu for a while on Asher Avenue (now Colonel Glenn Road) west of University.
The "Phil" part of the name cleverly incorporates not only "Philippines" but also "Philadelphia," from whence the folks that run the place have moved.
The "Am" expresses a planned menu expansion to include more American dishes, which now consist only of the restaurant's Famous Philadelphia Cheese Steak ($7.99), in the style of Jim's on Philadelphia's South Street.
It's close enough that it earned the approval of a former Philadelphian - thin-shaved steak and grilled onions on a hoagie roll lined with American cheese; none of this bell pepper nonsense, but you purists will have to be careful that the kitchen doesn't slip you any mayonnaise or pickles. It comes with a large pile of near-perfect unsalted fries, crisp on the outside, soft on the inside.
The decor hasn't really changed from that of the most recent buffet tenants - Formica-topped tables surrounded by blue-vinyl-padded roll-away chairs or newer gray-vinyl-padded cafeteria chairs. Occupying the back third of the dining room are the buffet tables, whichPhilam doesn't use except on Friday nights (more about that later). It's interesting to watch the staff deflect lunchtime customers who come in seeking the buffet that's no longer there.
The tableware is undoubtedly left over from predecessors, too, including the dull-pastel plastic lunch plates (you get real china at dinner) and the fairly flimsy silverware (except for the knives, which are heavy and sturdy). A sound system spouts an amazing musical variety, from Philippine pop to Philippine and American rap to the currently unavoidable Christmas pap.
Absolutely start off with an order of Lumpiang Shanghai ($3.89), six thin, taquito-like, crisp-fried egg rolls wrapping little balls of pork marinated in garlic, onions and spices.
The restaurant hadn't yet gotten in the squid necessary to make Calamares ($6.89), so with the encouragement of our Asian Food Expert we adventured the Chicharong Bulaklak ($6.89).
The menu-makers wisely omitted a description, because it's Philippine deep-fried chitterlings (pig intestines) in small chunks that you eat like pork rinds. They're served without sauce; our waiter recommended dipping them in vinegar, which seems to be the principal Philippine condiment of choice, although Asian Food Expert enjoyed them more, soul-food style, with a large dash of Louisiana hot sauce.
The waiter brought, unordered but welcome, cups of Misua soup ($2.69 a bowl), a mild broth full of soft thin noodles with bits of shrimp and beef.
Probably the "safest" entreefor the newbie is the Pork Inihaw ($7.89), tasty thin-sliced grilled pork marinated in garlic and "island spices." The waiter also pushed, although we didn't try, the Pork Barbecue ($7.89), seven skewers of marinated pork with "sweet herbs and spices."
Also on the less risky side is the Tapa ($7.89), herbs-andspices marinated beef, quite flavorful but a little on the dry side (not dry enough to be jerky, but trending that way).
Adobong Manok ($7.89, also available with pork as Adobong Baboy), chicken chunks in a garlic and vinegar sauce, was also tasty but also rather dry, and we really didn't get enough sauce with it.
We also ordered the Adobo Sa Gata ($7.89), similar to the Adobong but with an additional coconut sauce, but we're convinced that what the kitchen sent out was another order of the Adobong, because there was no hint of coconut whatsoever about the dish.
Pancit Bihon ($7.89), thin egg noodles in a slightly gelatinous sauce (think Cantonese lobster sauce) with shrimp and ground pork, was extraordinarily mild and we would have liked the noodles to have been somewhat less limp.
Southern American diners may recognize, in a different guise, the Lechon Kawali($9.89), crisp-fried chunks of pork belly - a layer of meat, a layer of bacon and a thick layer of crisped fat with a dark soyvinegar dipping sauce.
Ginataang Hipon ($9.89) was a nice surprise, plump shrimp with Asian vegetables - actually an imported Philippine squash that looks like zucchini but, to our delight, has the texture of potato - sauteed in coconut milk. At our request, the kitchen spiced it up a bit, though not enough to excite Asian Food Expert's palate.
A dozen or so of the entrees are available as $7.99 lunch specials, many of them with side Lumpiang Shanghai and either fried rice or garlic rice, worthwhile, both.
The owner-managers are on the floor slinging plates and generally provided excellent service.
For the Friday night buffet you pay up front - $10 plus drink - for a couple of dozen items, some from the menu (including Dinuguan, a somewhat frighteningly grayish meat-andpotato stew), some not (we enjoyed a tofu dish with peas and ground pork the name of which we didn't exactly catch).
Most noteworthy are the dessert items, including Lecheflan ($1.99 on the menu), a sweet milk-based custard with an almost cheesy consistency,and most especially the exceedingly delicious Turon ($1.59) - bananas, jackfruit (a southern Asian delicacy) and granulated sugar in a crisp lumpia wrapper.
What must be the area's entire Philippine community packs the place on Friday nights for the buffet, absolutely transforming the atmosphere into an almost carnival gaiety. An adjoining party-overflow-karaoke room turns into a play area for children.
Philam Gourmet Address: Broadmoor Shopping Center, 2924 S. University Ave., Little Rock Hours: 11 a.m.-8:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Friday-Saturday Cuisine: Filipino Credit cards: V, MC, AE, D Alcoholic beverages: No Reservations: No Wheelchair accessible: Yes Carryout: Yes (501) 568-7776
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Weekend, Pages 59 on 11/28/2008