As a child, I split my vacations between staying home in Alaska and traveling to the Philippines to visit family. Every other year meant a long, arduous trip involving many heavy boxes, dozens of relatives and food. So much food.
I very quickly came to the conclusion that Filipinos love to eat, talk and laugh, in that order -- usually all at once and boisterously. Fad diets were an unknown concept, calories a complete mystery and special occasions required pork. I considered myself very lucky to be a part of this particular food culture.
Anchorage, while rich in Southeast Asian cuisine, lacks a proliferation of Pacific Island representation. Donna Manalo, who owns Shepherd's Asian Bistro & Grill with her husband Jerry, said the two saw a need to "provide the Filipino community with a taste of home and give others living in Alaska the opportunity to enjoy Filipino food."
Shepherd's started out as a small grocery store and take-out restaurant in 2009. In May of this year, the Manalos expanded and remodeled the space to accommodate a press conference for Filipino artists traveling to Alaska for a concert. From that point on, they decided to concentrate on the restaurant aspect of the business.
Donna grew up in Hawaii and, since leaving, has missed that melting pot of world flavors. While Filipino food is the main attraction, several other cuisines make an appearance to round out the menu. Hong Kong noodles ($10.95), coconut shrimp ($8.99) and island salad (with apple, walnuts, pineapple, chicken, greens and ranch, $8.95) are mixed in with traditional favorites like lechon (crisp pork belly, $11.99), pansit (rice noodles, $9.99) and pork adobo (pork marinated in soy sauce and vinegar, $8.95).
For my first visit, I ordered lumpia ($5.99), sio pao ($2.75 each) and kare kare ($11.95). Lumpia are a staple in every Filipino household. "My mom/aunt/grandma makes the best lumpia," is a frequent claim, so while I enjoyed these crispy, pork-filled eggrolls, that exact thought popped into my mind, but I recommend these as a strong runner-up.
Sio pao are steamed rice flour buns stuffed with a variety of fillings. I got mine with pork (of course) and loved the slightly sweet, soft bun, with just enough pork in the middle to add a burst of texture and flavor.
Kare kare may be a little harder for non-adventurous palates. A peanut stew holds a wealth of beef cubes, oxtail, tripe and chunky vegetables. Besides the tripe (which I've never learned to like), the stew was full of marrow flavor and given depth by the fermented bagoong (shrimp paste) served on the side. If you don't like strong, fishy smells, do not open the bagoong.
On my next visit, in Filipino spirit, I brought two girlfriends to eat, talk and laugh with. We shared sweet garlic chicken ($9.95), escabeche ($14.95) and Shepherd's fried rice ($10.95). The chicken was coated in thick, delicious breading and a sweet garlic glaze. The portions were meaty and wonderfully crunchy.
The fried rice was lightly seasoned with soy and accentuated with peas, carrots, garlic, onions, chopped chicken, Spam and sausage. Fluffy eggs adorned the mélange. Even though the rice had a lot going on, it was still the perfect accompaniment to all of our entrées.
The escabeche was a whole deep-fried tilapia served with a sweet and sour sauce and chunks of carrots and pineapples. The flesh was moist and tender, and in my head I could hear my mother saying, "Eat the eyes! That's the best part!"
Filipino cuisine is not especially known for its desserts, but there is one classic that makes my eyes light up. Halo-halo, which I've never seen offered on American soil, was brought to our table, resplendent in all its weird glory. My girlfriend stared and asked, "Is that corn? In the ice cream?"
Yes. Corn, sugar palm fruit, tapioca, caramelized sweet potato, boiled sweet kidney beans, coconut, ice cream, shaved ice, evaporated milk and a few Rice Krispies for good measure. Sounds disgusting, tastes like heaven. Eat around the corn if you have to.
Usually, reviewing a restaurant specializing in one's childhood cuisine is tricky; this dish doesn't taste exactly the same, or that rendition isn't really traditional -- but Shepherd's brings back old memories and helps create new ones.
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By Riza Brown
Daily News correspondent