It’s dumb to complain about being a white guy, but I’ll give it a shot anyway.
I don’t know what “authentic” food tastes like. All of my taste buds were born in South Carolina and moved to Oklahoma. They are geared toward flavors like butter, grits, biscuits, various meats that have been fried in the manner of chickens, etc.
As a food critic, this puts me at a disadvantage, because I have no clue if the pancit bihon at Chibugan Filipino Cuisine taste the way it’s supposed to taste. All I can tell you is that it tastes good to me and my white guy palate here in Oklahoma.
There’s a moment in the Netflix food documentary series “Ugly Delicious” where the owner of a Mexican restaurant that was the inspiration for Taco Bell is asked about whether his food is authentic and I really loved his reply. Basically, he said that all food is authentic and none of it is. Because what you’re tasting is not just a recipe filtered through location (and ingredients, personal tastes, etc.), but also filtered through time.
You can never step in the same river twice. And the same is true for a bowl of pork adobo, although I recommend you eat it instead of stepping it in.
The Philippines is a group of about 7,000 islands near Vietnam and Taiwan in southeast Asia. You don’t actually need to know any of this to enjoy Filipino food, but it’s good to learn about the rest of the world sometimes.
When you order at Chibugan, the first thing they do is bring you a complimentary cup of arroz caldo — chicken and rice soup. It is extremely good soup. So good that you can order just a giant bowl of it ($3.99) and I’m pretty sure you’ll walk away happy and full and with a positive outlook on life in general.
But even if you only have the small cup of soup, I implore you to really taste it. Soup is not held in the high esteem I feel it deserves, but this could be the soup to change your mind. It’s creamy, like a thin porridge, and has a deep, roasted chicken flavor that just melts me to my core. It’s analogous to congee in Chinese and Vietnamese cuisine.
There are two dishes people talked to me about frequently before Chibugan opened as must-have Filipino meals. They would lament to me often how Oklahomans were missing out on pork adobo and lumpia.
So when Chibugan opened, you can be sure those were the first things I ordered.
Lumpia (12 for $3.99) are like tiny fried spring rolls, but instead of filling them with nonsense like vegetables, these are stuffed with pork. Yeah. Lumpia are crispy, meaty, fried little sticks of glorious caveman joy.
You can’t eat just one. Unless we’re eating together and I pull the old, “Look over there, is that superstar Filipino boxer Manny Pacquiao?” routine and you look and it’s just a painting and then when you turn around I’ve shoved the rest of the lumpia in my mouth. Then you should count yourself lucky you even got one.
Pork ribs adobo ($8.95) are a giant bowl of ultra-tender ribs in a jus of soy sauce and vinegar. My recommendation is to use your fork (or your fingers) and strip the meat off the ribs. It won’t be hard. Then pour the jus over the rice and let it soak up all that salty, tangy flavor. You don’t want any part of this meal to go to waste.
I understand why pork adobo is so beloved and so comforting — I know I’m a fan — but it’s not the dish I would tell newcomers to Filipino cuisine is a “must have.” Not when there’s lechon kawali ($8.95).
Hold onto your hat and any neighboring hats, because this is going to blow your mind and you’ll want to have a hat handy to catch your brain. Lechon kawali is deep-fried chunks of pork belly. Yes, it’s Filipino food, but does it get any more American than that?
The last time I tried lechon kawali, I was underwhelmed. This time, the owner kindly showed me the key to amping up the flavor and the moisture to make the most out of the dish: the brown sauce.
My friend Julie and I pondered over the brown sauce for most of the meal, desperately trying to parse out which flavors we were getting. Finally I gave up and asked the owner. He looked around like it was a secret before he told us. The secret ingredient is liver.
Honestly, you put “liver sauce” on a squeeze bottle on the table and I can totally see people eschewing its use. But you tell me to put the brown sauce on my fried pork belly and it tastes so good, mildly fruity and sweet, and I’m in. So, it’s liver. But don’t let that scare you off. It’s delicious nonetheless.
That said, other than my beloved arroz caldo, the dish I’m most likely to get next time is pancit bihon ($7.95). It’s rice noodles, chicken and vegetables stir-fried in soy sauce and I’m absolutely obsessed with it. The noodles are light and chewy and soak up all that salty soy sauce flavor I love. The chicken is tender and tasty and the vegetables give it a little extra body and a little extra crunch.
And maybe this isn’t how Filipino food is supposed to taste. I don’t know. I can only speak to the authenticity of my taste buds and even though they’re Okies through and through, they sure dug on the food at Chibugan. I bet your Okie mouths would like it, too.