Sunday, February 7, 2016

Salo-Salo Grill - West Covina, CA

Judy gave me the book Fed, White, and Blue by Simon Majumdar for Christmas and in one of the early chapters Simon visited Salo-Salo Grill in West Covina to learn how to cook Filipino dishes. As I read the chapter I realized that I have never eaten Filipino food (at least that I can recall). So I proposed to Judy that we go there and she was game. We invited Jeff and Julee, Jeff a former LDS missionary to the Philippines, to go with us. Salo is ranked no. 24 of 232 restaurants in West Covina on Trip Advisor and gets 3.5 stars on Yelp with 235 reviews.

I looked up Filipino cuisine on Wikipedia and I was blown away by the variety of dishes I've never heard of. Where has this been all my life? Filipino cuisine focuses on a combination of sweet, sour and salty flavors and tends to be less spicy and less complex than other Asian cuisines. Vinegar is a common ingredient.

Salo-Salo is a larger building to one side of nicer-than-average strip mall. Other ethnic restaurants are represented including one serving Indonesian food. Salo-Salo was full of Filipinos, usually a good sign when visiting an ethnic restaurant.
We ordered, then waited, and waited and waited. People who came after us were served, ate and left, before we were served. The restaurant filled up while we were there, but was emptying out before we finished. I'm not sure the cause - what we ordered, what we looked like, or what we smelled like, but we felt and were unattended. The sago-gulaman, a sweetened tapioca with diced gelatin drink I ordered never came, adding to the gripe of poor service. Fortunately, we were with good company and the unfamiliar smells that were assaulting us while we sat gave evidence that we were going to eat a food foreign to us. I was excited to dig in when what we ordered was delivered.

I ordered the "make your own platter" which included three items and one side, ostensibly to share with Judy. I picked three of the four items from the crispy meat platter, including lechon kawali (deep-fried pork belly with crispy rinds), Kuya's fried chicken and lechon ribs (battered pork ribs). I got a side of mango salad at Judy's urging, I would have ordered something more savory.
Pork belly on the left (3 slices), chicken in the center and unrecognizable pork ribs to the back right. The mango salad is back center.
I particularly wanted the pork belly as that was one of the items Simon Majumdar learned how to cook when he visited, and I generally quite like pork belly. Simon wrote that the pork belly was first brined with lemongrass to freshen up the flavor, then simmered with a broth flavored with onions, celery, garlic and carrots, then dried in the oven, and then deep-fried. These steps create pork belly that is very crispy on the outside and very tender succulent and juicy on the inside. It reminded me very much of the chicharron that I occasionally buy from a local Mexican food market - crisp on the outside, but in this case, on the inside much, much more tender. This was probably my favorite food item of the night and something I would order again.
From the picture you can tell is was very crispy - but what is not obvious is that it was very juicy on the inside.
The lechon ribs were heavily battered and crisp on the outside, although nowhere near as crisp as the pork belly, and quite juicy on the inside. I liked the juiciness of the ribs, but I felt that all of the batter hid much of the taste. I'm all for batter when what you are eating is kind of bland, like fish or chicken, but for ribs it just got in the way.
Overly battered pork ribs - front and right. The chicken is to the left.
The fried chicken was much too dry for me. I would have taken I bite or two and left it. However, I discovered that the Mang Tomas All Purpose Sauce, when liberally slathered, moistens it up and gives it more flavor - like salt and butter on corn on the cob. The ingredients of Mang Tomas are water, cane sugar, breadcrumbs, cane vinegar, salt, onions, garlic and black pepper. Without the Mang Tomas, the chicken would have been left for dead.
Transforms the inedible into the edible.
Judy got kare-kare, an oxtail in peanut sauce with vegetables and served with a bangoon, a sauteed shrimp paste. She had them leave out the tripe that was also supposed to be included. Simon Majumdar also made kare-kare when he was at Salo-Salo. He described it as a stew traditionally made of oxtail, thickened with ground toasted rice and ground toasted peanuts. Wikipedia states that kare-kare is made from a base of stewed oxtail, but can be made with all sorts of other ingredients, including seafood. Vegetables, such as eggplant, Chinese cabbage and other greens are added, usually "equaling or exceeding the amount of meats." The stew is flavored with ground roasted peanuts or peanut butter, onions and garlic and can be thickened with toasted or plain ground rice. It is often eaten with bagoong (shrimp paste), sometimes spiced with chili and sprinkled with calamansi juice. This is Filipino comfort food and it was very, very good. Judy pronounced it the best dish on the table and her assertion had some merit.
This picture was taken after some of the contents had been removed. The item in the center-front is a segment of oxtail. Green beans, bok choy and purple cabbage are also floating around in it. 
Julee ordered an appetizer that I think was vegetable lumpia frito, vegetable spring rolls. Lumpia is a staple in Filipino cuisine, but originated in China. It is served as an appetizer or main dish and accompanied by a sweet sauce and/or an apple cider vinegar/garlic sauce. The outside was hard and crispy, the inside very moist. I tried both the sweet sauce and the hot vinegar sauce with what looked like green beans floating in it. Toward the end of our meal I popped one of those green beans in my mouth and learned that it was a pepper with a pretty good kick. I ended up eating some of the extra pork belly I was going to take home in an attempt to silence the raging fire in my mouth.  Julee who had earlier eaten something she could not identify and complained about how hot it was, laughed almost beside herself, as I scrambled for an antidote. 
Beware of the innocuous looking green beans floating in the vinegar. They are chili peppers and they contain fire. 
Julee ordered a milkfish, I'm not sure what the exact preparation was. I've had milkfish before and find it kind of mushy and soggy. This was similar.  
Jeff ordered what I believe was miki-bihon, a combination of egg and rice stick noodles sauteed with Chinese sausage, shrimp, fish balls and vegetables. The miki or Shanghai noodle is an egg noodle and the thicker of the two. The bihon is a rice noodle and thinner. I really love rice noodles and quite liked the small taste I had of this dish.
Jeff ordered a boneless chicken fillet fried in adobo sauce. Adobo is a  hallmark dish of the Philippines. The chicken is marinated overnight in vinegar, soy sauce and garlic. Then it is simmered and browned after it is cooked, one of the things that distinguishes Filipino adobo. I had a piece of the chicken. I loved the flavor, but the chicken was over-cooked. 
adobo chicken
After a huge meal, we still decided to try dessert. Judy and I ordered the halo-halo special: sweetened beans, coconut gel and fruits over crushed ice, sprinkled with pinipig (rice crispies), topped with leche flan and ube ice cream. Ube is the name for purple yam in the Philippines. The ice cream was good, but nothing really made it spectacular, except the purple color that was fun. The crushed ice was quite runny and I was not particularly fond of the sweetened beans. I enjoyed the texture of the flan. A fun dessert, and although visually unusual and combining many weird elements, not something I would order again. 
halo-halo special
Julee ordered leche flan, a Philippine custard pie in caramel syrup. Flan is flan. I enjoy the smooth texture, but a little goes a long way. 
Finally, Jeff ordered the turon ice cream delight which was ube ice cream with sweet bananas in a fried pastry in a langka syrup. The fried banana in the syrup challenged the kare-kare and the pork belly as the best dish. I would go back to try that dessert again. 

This picture was taken after it had been whittled down. It was originally surrounded by pastry wrapped and fried bananas. 
Aside from the very poor service, we really enjoyed the meal. We got a great introduction to a new cuisine that I now want to learn more about. 


  1. I loved the kare-kare, but it was very rich--a little went a long way. In fact, much of the food was quite heavy, which surprised me. Still, I would like to go back several times and try some other options. There were a lot of intriguing dishes on the menu.

  2. Boo to poor service. We have a Filipino friend of a friend that cooked a delicious Filipino meal for us. It was heavy, surprisingly sweet, and absolutely delicious.