Welcome to Dining On A Dime, a feature in which Lucas Kwan Peterson surveys LA's cheap eats—often obscure, ethnic, unsung restaurants—proving that dining on a dime is alive and, well, quite tasty in this here city. Where do you want us to go next? Do share.
We’ll begin at the end this week, and start with a conversation I had with a Filipina friend after a meal at Ateh’s Kitchen in Van Nuys. I’d never eaten Filipino food, and was telling her that I was bit nonplussed by the dessert I’d eaten, a kaleidoscopic assault on the eyes called halo-halo. "You’re supposed to mix it! Didn’t they tell you to mix it?" I shook my head no. She laughed and said, "that’s why it’s called ‘halo-halo!’ It means ‘mix-mix!’" A-ha. That explained why the dessert, which started out with a sweet, earthy scoop of radioactive-looking ube (purple yam) ice cream, became steadily more confusing as I ate further down the tall cup it was served in, turning into layers of pure ice, then colorful jellied fruits, then beans and corn. My friend was still laughing as I described perplexedly eating mouthfuls of fermented red beans, and went on to explain that the mixtures of different flavors and textures in halo-halo represented the different cultures and countries that influenced Filipino cuisine: Chinese, Malay, Spanish, Japanese.
All right, so I messed up the dessert. My pride was wounded; mixing was something I should have figured out on my own. But sometimes you need a little guidance maneuvering your way around new cuisines, and that lack thereof was a minor blemish in what was otherwise a wonderful experience dining at Ateh’s Kitchen. When I asked the young male server about any specials, he rattled off several names in Filipino and then looked at me, expectantly. When I told him I wasn’t familiar with Filipino dishes and would he mind please explaining to me what they were, he seemed slightly annoyed, and struggled to find the words to explain in English. I felt bad, but I still had no idea what the specials were. Eventually the matriarch, who runs the restaurant, yanked him to the side and (mostly) cleared things up.
Like with my halo-halo fiasco, this disconnect made perfect sense, in retrospect. At Ateh’s Kitchen, there’s not much precedent for customers’ ignorance of dish names. Patrons who came into the restaurant while I was dining greeted those in the kitchen and behind the register (mother, children, various uncles, aunties and cousins) in a very familiar manner. If they wanted something, they’d frequently ask for it, wait a second, then march back to fetch it themselves. Why would anyone need to know how to explain what galunggong or petsay wombok are? (FTR, that’s mackerel and Napa cabbage, respectively.)
Appetizers tend to be fried. The lumpiang Shanghai, small eggrolls stuffed with carrots, celery, and ground pork, are narrower than your typical eggroll. The pork is finely minced and well-seasoned, and each piece is flaky and crunchy. Twelve small pieces cost $4.75, and it’s a good way to start the meal. Another fried starter is the chicharong bulaklak, made from the mesenteries (fancy word for membrane) of pig intestines and is for the slightly more adventurous. Each piece is a gorgeous, crispy, brown ruffle tasting deeply of organs and fat. They’re intense, and best when cut with the sour jalapeno vinegar that comes at the table. A plate of these beauties, which you will most likely not finish, will set you back $6.45.
Main dishes are not much more expensive than the appetizers. $6.95 will get you a plate of chicken adobo, slow-cooked in vinegar and soy sauce. Despite its Spanish namesake, adobo is indigenous to the Philippines, and considered the unofficial national dish. Ateh’s Kitchen serves a dry adobo, as opposed to a more saucy version, and it’s terrific. The vinegary tang balances the umami taste of the soy sauce, and the meat is dark and tender. Sisiglog is another dish that plays with the mixture of sour and savory. The word sisig means "to snack on something sour" in the Pampango dialect. Sisiglog is pork that has been marinated in lemon juice and vinegar, served sizzling hot with diced onions, bell peppers, and a big fried egg in the middle. At $8.95, it’s a massive helping of food and is served with portion of rice, the underside of which gets that pleasing soccarat-like crunch from the scorching cast-iron plate. Last but not least, don't miss out on some of the more typical street-food style dishes: fried fishballs and the (in)famous balut, a partially developed duck embryo that is boiled alive and eaten in the shell.
— Lucas Kwan Peterson
Ateh's Kitchen is located at 6322 Van Nuys Blvd. in Van Nuys. Phone number: 818-904-3441
Open Tues. through Thurs., 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., Fri and Sat., 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., and Sun. 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
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