The point is that unusual ethnic restaurants face similar challenges to the watering holes that attract, well, an alternative clientele. The venue either quickly finds a loyal audience or it expires with barely a whimper.
Because a Filipino place couldn't make it in midtown Kansas City, which boasts a veritable United Nations of culinary options, it seems like a stretch that one would succeed up in the northern suburb of Gladstone. It's not exactly a mecca for international dining, unless you count the Chinese buffets and Mexican taquerias.
But two Manila-born sisters, Lina Sequerra and Leila Bush, took a gamble and opened a tiny café in the middle of a strip mall on North Oak Trafficway. For the past two months, La Filipina Café has been introducing the cuisine of the Philippines to the northland community and anyone else willing to make a foray to Gladstone.
I was game for an eating adventure. I hadn't eaten in a restaurant serving Filipino dishes since I stumbled into a little place in Washington, D.C., over a decade ago. I remember the server telling me that he'd bring me something I would really like. I don't know what I expected. Rice, perhaps, or boiled fish? Noodles?
After all, Filipino cuisine has been influenced by two cultures: the Chinese traders who introduced soy, noodles and fried foods to the native population and, later, the Spanish who occupied the islands for centuries and brought along their tastes for stews, grilled meats and rich desserts. The Filipino restaurant I visited in the nation's capital leaned more to the Spanish sensibility, and I was served a juicy steak with roasted potatoes and, for dessert, a soothing flan.
At La Filipina, there's more of a crazy quilt of culinary cultures. And that's a big part of this joint's quirky charm. I can't think of another local menu that offers menudo (but made with cubed pork instead of tripe), chicken cooked in curry and coconut milk, chop suey, bitter melon sautéed with egg, cream of corn soup, and barbecued pork with french fries.
The explanation on the back of the menu puts it this way: "Chinese merchants ... married Filipino ladies and taught them how to cook noodles and other dishes using local condiments, creating indigenous dishes."
These indigenous dishes may not have the visual appeal or sensuous allure of other pan-Asian fare (Thai and Vietnamese dishes, for example), but they are certainly worth exploring, particularly during the lunch hour, when La Filipina offers an inexpensive lunch buffet. It's not an elaborate array of dishes, but it's a good introduction to what the owners consider to be the "greatest hits" of Philippine cuisine. Once you step past the more gruesome "American" items on the salad bar (canned fruit, Jell-O cubes, macaroni salad), the buffet is laden with Filipino fare.
Unfortunately for novices to Filipino cuisine and that includes me only half the dishes are labeled. With or without a sign, it's easy to recognize chicken adobo, presented here as little braised drumettes simmered in a dark, tangy sauce of vinegar, soy and garlic. There's a vat of tiny, meat-filled egg rolls and another with vegetarian ones that are the thickness of a fat Crayola crayon. One metal tray has a mound of saffron-colored rice with carrots and peas; another a hefty pile of sotanghon, bean thread noodles stir-fried with bits of cabbage, carrots and celery. Another was piled with muffin-sized, spongy rice-flour cakes. The contents of two trays, both heaped with slices of overcooked meat, onions and potato slices, look surprisingly similar. One is identified as "Filipino Pork Steak," the other as "Filipino Beef Steak." They taste the same, too. Blah!