The strip mall, that ubiquitous aspect of American architecture, is often derided for its ugliness and impersonality. But the structures supply a proliferation of affordable space where entrepreneurs can take a chance on adventurous, food-focused establishments.
Sure, the failures greatly outstrip the successes, but in Anchorage strip malls have brought the foodie community such diverse gems as Jens', Hott Stixx, Villa Nova and Middle Way Cafe.
And when a discerning friend told me about a fantastic meal eaten at Kubo, a Filipino restaurant tucked into the L-shaped complex behind City Diner, I was excited to discover another dining diamond in the rough.
Locating Kubo wasn't the easiest, as the mall signage is deliberately similar and a Monday lunch rush had the parking lot packed. Upon entering, my two friends and I were greeted by an empty fish tank and an even emptier dining room with an empty stage, ostensibly for karaoke.
Our server had us seat ourselves and we perused the menu, which has 50-odd options of mostly Filipino fare with a sprinkling of American and Chinese dishes.
My companions and I decided to share a family style feast of lumpiang Shanghai ($6.99), lechon kawali (half order $9.99/ whole $12.99), pork adobo ($11.99), pansit chicken ($10.99) and garlic baby bok choy ($7.99.)
When I was growing up on an Air Force base, my Filipino friends' houses were the place to be, thanks to the authentic cooking coming from their moms' kitchens, especially fresh lumpia. To this day, it's some of my favorite comfort food.
Kubo's lumpia, eight piping-hot pork-and- vegetable stuffed slender egg rolls, didn't disappoint. The three of us savored the crispy rolls with unnecessary swipes into the accompanying sweet and sour sauce as I flashed back to my teenage years.
The lechon kawali is slices of pork belly boiled in a seasoned water and then deep fried. The crispy bottom acts as a texture foundation for the tender chunk of pork fat. Kubo's house sauce, a mango chutney-like concoction, helps balance the saltiness with a sweet finish.
A generous serving of pork adobo came without rice, so we ordered a few sides ($1.50) to complete the dish. The marinated bite-sized pork pieces were fork-tender and packed a flavorful punch: the tartness of vinegar, a gentle spiciness from black pepper and the floral notes of bay leaves.
The pansit -- starting with a heaping pile of rice noodles accompanied by sauteed chicken, Chinese sausage, fried egg, green beans, cabbage, carrots and bell pepper -- was a melange of items that reminded me of something I would make on-the-fly for hungover friends, and the dish's name is apparently derived from a Chinese word meaning "something conveniently cooked fast." The wonderful marriage of flavors and textures is best with a squeeze of lemon juice and a few dashes of soy sauce.
Ordering the baby bok choy was our attempt at feeling a little better about the richness of the rest of the meal, but garlicky, stir-fried Chinese cabbage stalks are a far cry from steamed vegetables. Regardless, they were a nice change of pace.
I returned a week later with my roommate for dinner on a Monday night and we found the restaurant in a similar state: no other customers, the family that owns the restaurant spread around the space, with "Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations" silently projected onto a screen while various dubstep, house and Top 40 songs played. Not our ideal dining ambience but we hoped the food would help us forget.
Service was a bit spotty: Everyone seemed relaxed by the fact that we were the only customers in the restaurant.
To start, we ordered the coconut shrimp ($8.99) and the chicken wings ($8.99) followed by an adventurous and familiar pairing: sinigang pork ($11.99) and sesame chicken ($9.99).
The seven shrimp were golden-fried with a panko-and-coconut flake crust. I grew judicious with the mango-cream cheese dipping sauce, as a little goes a long way. We decided a little Sriracha would've helped the richness of the dish, but our server wasn't readily available.
A plate of seven chicken wings -- fried to a dark golden like the shrimp -- were served with a side of ranch, which made us think they might be hot wings. Instead they were like miniature pieces of fried chicken, which was a bit disappointing and left us craving some Sriracha.
The sinigang grew on me: The sourness of tamarind in the broth overwhelms initially, but the pork, green beans, okra, spinach and carrots make for an experience with each slurpy spoonful.
The sesame chicken was a step above the Carrs deli, but it was noticeably colder than everything else, as though it had languished in the kitchen for a bit. We also had to order a side of rice to complete it .
Once we finished, we leaned back in our chairs, joked about the dubstep tunes and waited for the check. And waited. Our server even walked by once and we assumed he'd be back with check. We assumed wrong and ended up flagging him over.
Kubo offers what you'd hope for in a strip mall dining experience: a taste of something different, in this case authentic Filipino cuisine, with generous and flavorful servings. With countless dishes and options available, you could try something new even if you visited for a month straight.
Where Kubo lags behind other strip-mall standouts is its service and ambience. The servers could stand to gain a bit more formality and promptness, the music could come down a few notches in volume and style, and rice could be incorporated into the dishes that obviously deserve it.
Once Kubo fills the fish tank and loses the dubstep, I could see myself coming back regularly. Until then I'll only stop by when I'm in the area and craving adobo or lumpia -- and maybe only to pick up my dinner to go.
By Barry Piser
Anchorage Daily News