When it comes to dining at restaurants that feature cuisine you grew up with, it’s safe to say that one will definitely be much more critical of the food itself. Such was the case when I dined at Pondahan, a Filipino restaurant in West Covina. While I’m going to sound biased, there’s not much that can beat my Mom’s cooking. So if I’m going to have a meal at a Filipino restaurant, it better be as good, if not better than what my Mom has been cooking for her family for years, for me to want to come back. On that note, let’s start.
For our meal, we shared 12 dishes. That’s the nice thing about having a dining group with people who actually have the desire to try new foods, even if they have to be rolled out of the restaurant afterwards. Basically, what that means is that we’ll usually try to order a good sampling from the menu and if there’s leftovers to take home, that’s even better.
We started off with the Appetizer Sampler which had egg rolls, chicken wings, fried calamari, sweet potato fries and tortilla chips. Since I only tried the calamari, I can’t say much about the rest of the items on that plate; however, the calamari batter had a nice little peppery flavor to it. I can say that I thought the sweet potato fries and tortilla chips were an odd choice to add to this dish. I don’t recall my Mom ever whipping up either of them for dinner, so I actually thought it was kind of silly to even offer them up on the menu, but maybe, that’s just me.
As for the two noodles dishes we ordered, one was the Pansit Malabon and the other was the Pansit Canton Guisado. The recipe for Pansit Malabon generally consists of cooked rice noodles topped with a hodgpodge of crushed fried pork skin, scallions, sliced hard-boiled eggs, shrimp, fried garlic and depending on the cook, other ingredients may come to play like flaked fish, tofu or squid, etc. The sauce is usually made up of shrimp juice, cornstarch (for thickening), fish sauce and/or soy sauce, achuete seeds for food coloring and again is subject to customization depending on the cook and/or the region they’re from. Usually the only green I see on my Pansit Malabon are green onions, so I was surprised to see the dish arrive with pechay (also known as bok choy).
With or without the veggies, I was disappointed in the Pondahan version of the Pansit Malabon. It wasn’t very flavorful. I didn’t get much shrimp or salty/fishy taste from the sauce, which is key to this dish. As for the Pansit Canton Guisado, which is just thicker noodles sauteed with veggies and shrimp and/or pork, I didn’t find it that memorable, but I should also mention that even when my Mom cooks this same dish, I generally pass it by. I prefer the Filipino noodle dishes when the thinner rice noodles are used in the recipe like Pansit Bihon.
The next dish that came out was a definite hit with the group and it was the Eggplant Omelet, but the way it was presented was different than I’ve seen it before. Usually, the whole eggplant is wrapped in the omelet, but in this case, the eggplant was already chopped. Personally, I think the presentation of the whole eggplant is more interesting; but an eggplant omelet by any other name or configuration can still be quite tasty and this one was. I enjoyed the well doneness of the egg and how the eggplant filling had a little bit of juiciness to it.
Also on the menu was Pinakbet, which is a vegetable dish cooked in shrimp paste sauce. Sometimes you’ll see it with our without shrimp, but this was the first time I’ve had it topped with deep fried pork and that was a good thing. How can you go wrong with deep fried pork, people? I loved all the veggies from the okra to the squash, the bitter melon to the beans and the only thing I think it lacked was more shrimp paste. Pinakbet is known for having pungent flavors to it, stemming from the shrimp paste and in this case, more would have been better.
We also had garlic fried rice, which delivered in garlicky goodness. Our last six dishes were as follows: Boneless Grilled Milkfish, Crispy Pata (deep fried pork leg), Kare Kare, Bicol Express, Chicken Adobo and Beef Steak. Of the six, the Bicol Express and the Beef Steak weren’t that impressive. The Bicol Express is seafood cooked in spicy coconut milk, but there was no spice to be had plus there wasn’t any creamy richness to the sauce, which was watered down. The Beef Steak was plain boring with the meat not tender enough.
I enjoyed the Boneless Grilled Milkfish, which I can tell had been marinated in vinegar. That bit of sour and tang was just what my Filipino palate needed. By the way, milkfish is indigenous to Southeast Asia and while the fish meat can be mild and tender, it’s so bony that eating it is sometimes more pain than it’s worth. To to be able to order it and have it prepared without the bones is a truly wonderful thing. There’s not much to really say about the Crispy Pata. It’s a pork leg that’s been deep fried with the skin on and unless it’s been over fried, it’s a dish that generally everyone will want seconds or even thirds of. While not great for the arteries, everyone enjoyed each and every single bite. Actually, the one I should mention is the Crispy Pata was served to us already cut. While much easier for eating purposes, there’s something to be said for the whole leg presented on a plate with a knife sticking out of it. It makes such a dramatic entrance when it’s put on the table that I’ve seen people oooh and ahh over it.
Last but not least were the Kare Kare and Chicken Adobo. Kare Kare is oxtails cooked with vegetables in a peanut sauce. Hands down, this is my favorite dish and whenever I have a craving, I’ll do whatever it takes to bribe my Mom to make it. Of everything I had heard about Pondahan, it was the Kare Kare that everyone raved about so I was definitely looking forward to checking it out.
At my first look, I could already tell it was a little different from my Mom’s recipe. The sauce looked thicker than I grew up with. It’s a preference thing, but I like my kare kare sauce to be a little thinner. After my first taste, I still thought the sauce was too thick, but there was a strong, rich peanut taste that actually did it for me. When I poured it over my rice, I was able to enjoy as is and that’s the sign of a kare kare sauce done well. The only other nitpick I had was while the dish was generously filled with vegetables, you got more oxtail tendon than oxtail meat, which was a let down.
Finally, there’s the Chicken Adobo, which is chicken stewed primarily in soy sauce and vinegar with bay leaf thrown in for additional flavoring. I think of Chicken Adobo as a great Filipino starter dish because it represents a lot of the flavors that are a part of Filipino Cuisine. Our palate loves the tangy, the tart, the pungent, the sour, the salty of the foods we eat, which you can see from our liberal use of shrimp paste, vinegar, soy sauce, fish sauce in a lot our recipes.
Chicken Adobo isn’t a complicated dish to make, but sometimes the seemingly easy dishes are also the easiest to mess up because you could take it for granted when you’re making it. For me, if a Filipino restaurant can’t prepare this classic dish well, than it’s a red light for me. Thankfully, I liked the Chicken Adobo at Pondahan. Like the Kare Kare, the soup part or what we refer to as sabow was also a little thicker than I would have liked. Perhaps a heavier use with the cornstarch in the kitchen? Even with the thicker sabow, the flavor was there. I could taste the vinegar and the soy sauce and again, it went perfectly on my rice as is.
Overall, it was hit and miss at Pondahan. When it was a miss, it’s probably something I wouldn’t order again, but even the hits could have used a little more tweaking, at least to satisfy my particular palate. Is Pondahan good enough for me to not miss my Mom’s cooking? Nope. So far, only two restaurants have even come close: Alejandro’s in Eagle Rock, which unfortunately closed and Magic Wok in Artesia, which would probably cost me more to drive there, then the actual meal itself.
However, Pondahan would definitely do in a pinch, especially for the opportunity to have a meal at a nice sit down restaurant instead of turo turo take out (e.g. steam table). When you take into consideration, fast service, good size portions and variety on their menu, I’d say that Pondahan is good enough for a return visit. In fact, after I told my Mom about the pechay on the Pansit Malabon, which is something she’s ever seen or had before either, she wants to check Pondahan herself. Dutiful daughter that I am, of course, I’ll take her and maybe, discover dishes that will wow more the second time around.
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