Asian Delight

Via Montebello, 66, Lazio, Rome, Italy. Tel: (06) 3249217715

While enjoying all of the freshly made Italian cuisine, by the fifth day of our Roman adventure, we – well, I, at least – began craving something different on our palates and by different, as an Asian and lifelong rice-eater, I mean rice and some kind of ulam (Tagalog for dish); something from home, like Adobo or Afritada, on top of steamed white rice or some deep-fried fish (the saltier the better, of course) served with sinangag (garlic fried rice).

So, to that end, I jumped online and searched for the nearest Asian restaurant. Originally, I searched for a Chinese spot; not craving for Japanese, Korean, Thai, Indian and not even thinking a Filipino joint would be anywhere nearby. I found several but, to be honest, I wasn’t sure, even with Google Maps, if they were easy to get to from our hotel. More importantly, I also had no way of knowing if the 3 1/2 to 4 1/2 star reviews some of these restaurants got were accurate or not. I was raised in Hong Kong. Gastronomically, that’s a blessing and a curse. Having lived in there for sixteen years and eaten some of the best Chinese food in the world, I’ve become a bit of a Chinese food snob. Sorry.

Anyway, back to the restaurant at hand.

Among the search results, there was a restaurant called Asian Delight. It got excellent reviews and was billed as “home cooking Filipino food.” That settled it. My wife and I widened our eyes and said, “Let’s go!” So, we put on our shoes and, with our son in tow, left the hotel and hailed a taxi. We told the driver “Via Montebello, sessantasei.” In minutes we were there and discovered that Asian Delight is actually only a few blocks and one roundabout from where we were staying, Hotel Quirinale on Via Nazionale. We hadn’t yet been in this neighborhood on this trip but our excitement levels escalated and we knew we were in for a treat when we saw a small Filipino flag flying at the eatery’s door.

Asian Delight is a small place with seven or eight booths lining the side walls and a small counter in the middle of the room. At the counter, are three stools probably for the solo diners. Directly opposite the door, sat Chris, a Filipino from Samar who has been living in Italy for six years. His Italian has a Filipino accent to it and his English has what almost amounts to a Portuguese one. (Is that what happens when Tagalog marries Italian? Hmm.) And Chris’s Italian sounds, well, Italian like how one of my ex-girlfriend’s father sounded when he and his sister talked in their native tongue at holiday meals.

Enticing customers like a carnival barker at the town fair (think Gordon McCrae in Carousel), Chris is as much entertainer as he is proprietor. He runs Asian Delight with his Kuya (Tagalog word for ‘older brother’) Betts in the kitchen and another cook, who in uncanny fashion resembles Manny Pacquiao, the boxing champ, congressman, and hero of The Philippines. Ironically and iconically, there is a large sketch print of Pacquiao on one of the side walls overlooking a corner booth.

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Manny Pacquiao watches over the diners at Asian Delight

The menu at Asian Delight offers Chinese dishes and, of course, Filipino ones. We treated ourselves to some of the Filipino food and, to my son’s delight, there’s an entire section in the menu devoted to ‘egg rice.’ These are silog options; dishes like Tapsilog, Bangsilog, Ribsilog and, of course, his favourite, Longsilog. Basically, these are dishes made up of garlic fried rice (sinangag, hence the si), fried sunny side up egg (itlog means egg in Tagalog, hence the log) and some kind of meat. Tapsilog is beef tapa with garlic friend rice and fried egg. Bangsilog is the same but with fried bangus (white fish). Longsilog uses Filipino sausage called longanisa. The sinangag at Asian Delight is a little different than how I’ve had it at other restaurants. Most places and houesholds will fry chopped garlic and mix it into the rice in the frying pan. Some places will crown a lump of white rice with fried garlic. At others, the rice is browned in the frying process with browned garlic mixed in. At Asian Delight, it’s slightly browned with garlic mixed in but there are also slivers of sliced or ripped scrambled egg. This deviation from how sinangag is usually made was not an unpleasant twist.

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Longanisa at Asian Delight, Rome, Italy

As for the Longsilog itself, Rome must have the brightest gold-coloured egg yolks around. Cooked perfectly with the yolk covered by a white sheen without being cooked solid, the egg oozed into the rice as my son sliced the egg and mixed the two together. It made me imagine what Filipino risotto might be like. The longanisa was sweet – a little too sweet than I’ve ever had – but it was softly cooked and offered a nice cut and blend with the saltiness of the rice and egg. The sausage was also skinless. This wasn’t the first time I’ve seen skinless Filipino sausage but it was the first time I’ve tasted skinless Filipino sausage. To my son’s pleasure, it beats out the usual skinned sweet longanisa we eat in the US.

We also ordered a plate of Pork Dumplings.

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Pork Dumplings with  a dish of hot sauce

They were tasty and didn’t make or break the meal but they weren’t anything that knocked our socks off. They were a basic meat dumpling like the kind you can find in the freezer section of your local Asian grocery store. I wouldn’t order them again but, if someone did, I wouldn’t turn them away and I’d even have one or two bites.

For the rest of the meal, we ordered Pork Sinigang (Tamarind Stew) (pictured below, left) and Lechon Kawali (deep fried pork belly) (pictured below, right). Before we go on, you should know that Filipinos like their dips and sauces. There’s toyo (soy sauce) with or without chili; suka (vinegar), with or without chili peppers; bagoong, a fish or shrimp paste; and Mang Tomas, a condiment often used for lechon (roasted pig) and other grilled or barbecued meats. I guess it could be considered a kind of Filipino barbecue sauce or meat-based mayonnaise of sorts. And then there’s patis, a fish sauce that is used in many different kinds of Asian cooking from Filipino to Thai to Vietnamese to Indonesian. Often used in the cooking, patis is also used as a dip or condiment however in most restaurants it’s not readily available to the customer. At Asian Delight, though, Chris gladly brought out a small dish of patis for my wife when she asked for it. As for how the two dishes tasted – delicious. Part of their tastiness might have been due to the my palate’s need for different stimulation than what I’d been getting. The sinigang and lechon kawali  weren’t any better – and they certainly weren’t worse – than any I’d had before but they were spot on and tasted just like home. The sinigang had a nice bite to it thanks to the green chili that was added, something that is common with this dish but not something we always do at home. The lechon kawali was tender and the pig skin crispy without being burnt or overdone.

During our meal, thanks to all the sharing we were doing (a normal part of our meals, as a family, and among Filipinos), my son’s two longanisa turned into one so we ordered a side dish of longanisa so he could round up and balance his ‘Filipino egg risotto’ with the meat. The side order came with three sausages on a plate which I thought was generous. Comparing it to our dining experiences in the US, we got one more sausage than we’d get, say, a our local diner if we’d ordered a side dish of a regular pork breakfast sausage.

To round out my meal, I ordered a beer. Asian Delight offers San Miguel and Red Horse, two staple brews from The Philippines.

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Red Horse Beer, one of the staple brews from The Philippines

It’d been ages since I’d had a ‘San Mig’ so, naturally, I ordered one. Unfortunately, they were out of it so I settled for a Red Horse, which didn’t disappoint. For those of you who haven’t tried it, it’s akin to Heineken or Tsingtao.

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My wife, giving a thumbs up to the beer and to Asian Delight

At the end of the meal, we promised Chris that we’d return and we did, the following night, after our excursion to Venice. Asian Delight closes at 10pm and we got there at 9:45pm. There were two customers left who were paying and Chris and company were starting to clean up and shut down. We were able to get an order to go and he threw in a free order of white rice. My wife ordered Pancit Canton Bihon, which is a Filipino-style Lo Mein with added rice or vermicelli noodles to the lo mein noodles. My son ordered Longsilog again and I went with the day’s special and one of my all-time favorite Filipino dishes, Kalderatang Kambing (Filipino goat stew).

There are other dishes on their menu, of course – Sisig, Adobo, Halo Halo, Leche Flan, Dinaguan and others – that we didn’t get to try but one doesn’t go to Rome to try Filipino food, after all. You can, though, bet your last Euro that the next time we’re in Rome (and we will be back because my son threw in only one coin into The Fountain of Trevi which, according to legend, means we’ll return) and we’re craving a different taste to our palates a trip to Asian Delight will be added to our itinerary.

Asian Delight’s name is spot on. The food definitely satisfied the change my taste buds needed and it did so at a reasonable price. The meal we had was around 30 Euros (about US$37), which is about the same we’d pay for the same meal at Pandan in Bloomfield, New Jersey. In addition to the tastiness of the food and the charm from our host, Chris, Asian Delight triggered memories, as food does, of summers in Manila and family meals in Hong Kong. The emotional and psychological warmth was more than welcomed and a pleasant surprise to our impromptu Filipino dinner. Being there, I was also offered the opportunity to speak a fifth language on our vacation and practice my Tagalog, which is functional but far from good. (In and around our trip, I’d already had the chances to speak English (which I speak fluently), Italian, French and Spanish – none of which I speak fluently but can manage in small doses and in a pinch.)

Chris was a joy to meet, as well, and the coziness of the place offers a certain intimacy, without ignoring personal boundaries, that made me feel like we – the various customers, even though we had our own meals and conversations, were all together enjoying the deliciousness of the natural fusion that is Filipino food and the happy, welcoming charm that is the Filipino spirit. So, for anyone who needs a change of pace from the deliciousness of Italian cuisine but, especially, for my fellow Filipinos, do pay Asian Delight a visit if you find yourself in Rome. You won’t be disappointed. Oh, and say “hi” to Chris for me.

Rating: 1 1/2 bites

0 bites = Don’t bother. I suffered for you.
1/2 bite = I enjoyed it enough – I had to eat something, after all – but I wouldn’t recommend it.
1 bite = Good. I’d have it again but I probably wouldn’t go out of my way to get it.
1 1/2 bites = Very good/super tasty. I’m definitely going back and I’m bringing friends. If I weren’t married, it’s somewhere I’d take a first date to. That’s how good it is.
2 bites = Unique, I’ve never had (and probably won’t ever have) better than this, this is what I’d want if I were going to be executed and I could have whatever I wanted for my last meal, Epicurean Orgasm!

 

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A Forgotten Treasure – Tuptim Thai Cuisine

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Picture courtesy of Manoavino.com

The last time I ate at Tuptim Thai Cuisine, in Montclair, NJ, was when I completed my graduate studies in 2006. It wasn’t graduation day (that was held at The Meadowlands). Rather, it was the Graduate School Convocation which was held in the amphitheater at Montclair State University.

I had the opportunity to eat there again last Sunday. My wife had some lululemon (it’s all she wears; she’s a former professional ballerina and now she’s a pilates, Gyrotonic© and dance instructor) gift cards that her clients had given her for Christmas. Afraid that she’d be want for sizes or styles if she waited for another shopping opportunity, we decided to hit the new lululemon store in Montclair.

By the time she’d finished shopping, the sun had settled, drivers had turned on their headlights and my wife and I were famished. Thai food has also been on our minds, thanks to some new friends we’ve made – parents of one of our son’s classmates in kindergarten – because the father is Thai-American. Incidentally, the wife is Vietnamese-American. Between the four of us, we’ve spoken about where the good Asian food spots are. By good, I mean authentic and by that I mean the kind of Thai places Thai people would go to, the kind of Filipino spots my fellow Pinoys would hit, the dim sum restaurants I and my fellow Hong Kong-raised foodies would frequent and so on.

Montclair has two such spots when it comes to Thai. There is Thai Chef and Tuptim, both of which are located on Bloomfield Avenue. Thai Chef, at least by the virtue of the sturdy silverware and the thick snow white table clothes and the shiny brass statues of Buddha, appears to be the more chichi of the two eateries. Thai Chef also proudly hangs a picture of the queen of Thailand on one of its walls and signage that boasts it as the queen’s choice of Thai restaurant in the entire United States. Apparently, she goes there whenever she’s in America. I’ve eaten there on several occasions and the food is flawless but I prefer Tuptim over the queen’s choice.

In sharp contrast to Thai Chef’s glamour, Tuptim’s tables are covered in colourfully woven table cloths; the kind a tourist might pick up from the inexpensive street hagglers as gifts when returning home to America or Europe. The furniture is wood, and dark wood to boot, that gives Tuptim a rural feel. There’s something ‘peasantish’ about Tuptim’s ambience that enhances the enjoyment of the food. Bear in mind, however, that in its ‘peasantness’ it doesn’t lack sophistication. It also reminds me of the humbler spots I grew up enjoying in Hong Kong and Manila.

With regard to the food, and that’s what we’re really interested in, Tuptim’s chef has mastered balance – in flavour, quantity, and texture. We ordered a whole flounder, fried and flavoured with their garlic chili sauce, Paad Thai shrimp, and Thai barbecued chicken for our son, who is the Mac ‘n Cheese-Chicken Nuggets-Waffles Champion. And for dessert, we had the Fried Banana. For starters, we had a simple Goong Satay (shrimp barbecue). 

Let me start with the chicken. Like I said, my son is a picky eater. Outside of what I listed in the paragraph above, the most he’s ventured to Asian cuisine is char shiu (roast pork) which he calls ‘Chinese chicken.’ So, when we ordered the Thai chicken, I asked if it were spicy (it’s not) and we ordered it because it seemed like the most generic thing on the menu that he might eat and, actually, enjoy. The pieces were largely from the chicken’s white parts but they came to the table well seasoned, without being overwhelming, and without being dry. Our son ate quite a lot of it before he got full. So, if you’re a parent and your kids are a little picky, Tuptim does have something for your little ones while you enjoy the richer dishes.

As for the Paad Thai and the fish, both were perfectly flavoured. The noodles had just the right amount of saltiness and heat that I was able to taste the naturalness of the shrimp, which were generously large. The noodles, also, didn’t get lost in the dish. When a noodle dish is over-flavoured, the noodles are just a slimy addition to the what you’re eating. In this case, without being tasteless, the chef managed to maintain the noodles starchy blandess thus allowing the noodles to absorb the soy, the peanut flavour, the chili sauce, and the other ingredients that give Paad Thai its unique taste. Additionally, the serving size was quiet generous making my wife and I think that Tuptim caters more for families or family-style eating. In Asian culture, it’s common to reach between each other’s plates, after all. Lastly, the Paad Thai was abundant with bean sprouts, scallion and chopped peanuts to round it out – if you’re not allergic to peanuts or other nuts, that is.

The flounder was equally delicious. It was fried perfectly, giving it just enough crunch/crisp around its edges without giving it a body of fried armour. Moreover, the garlic chili sauce was absolutely divine, the chef maintaining the integrity of the recipe and his (or her) own palate. In a word, the balance brought my own palate to life – and as a foodie and home cook, I like to think mine is pretty astute and vibrant. The garlic awakened my taste buds and the chili made them dance. The flash frying process by which whole fish is cooked, before seasoned with a sauce, allows the fish to remain light and prevents it from becoming weighed down by the sauce. When a fish isn’t cooked correctly, sitting in the oil instead of the oil being poured on it, and it drowns in the sauce and becomes heavy, it sits in your stomach after eating and you regret eating it. Essentially, it ruins the natural texture of the fish and destroys the health benefits of eating seafood. With this dish, none of this was the case. The flounder was just the right size, deftly fried and expertly flavored that what we thought was a dish for which we’d have leftovers turned out to be something we finished at the table.

For dessert, the Fried Banana was so exquisitely presented that I almost didn’t want to eat it. The shell around the banana was thin, almost like a wafer, and wasn’t oily the way some other fried desserts or spring rolls are. Drizzled with sesame seeds and what I thought might be syrup, but turned out to be honey, made this heavy-sounding dessert sweet enough to cap a meal nicely and light enough to prevent any guilt from developing.

I’m mentioning the appetizer last, not because it’s not worth writing about but, while it was delicious, it was relatively basic and something that may not necessarily be unique to Tuptim. The shrimp satay was well cooked, which is a plus for shellfish since it can get overcooked  easily, and, like the shrimp in the Paad Thai, full of size and flavour. The number of skewers was generous also – four sticks, about nine inches each, filled from end to tip. Accompanying the satay was a small dish of peanut sauce and a chutney of diced cucumbers and onion.

I wouldn’t call Tuptim unassuming. It has a pink facade, after all, that is well lit and hard to miss in the main downtown area of Bloomfield Avenue. It is, however, simple and, when it comes to taste buds, simple neither means lacking in creativity or sophistication nor lacking in flavour. In fact, when it comes to food simple is often best.

It was, then, with great pleasure that we went to Tuptim for dinner last Sunday. It was almost like coming back home to an auntie’s kitchen. In the 1990s, Tuptim was a place I went to often; so close it is to where I used to find myself – the Taekwondo schools In Bloomfield then Cedar Grove, Montclair State University, chilling with friends who used to live in Verona and Glen Ridge. Nowadays, I find myself going to those parts of New Jersey less – much less – than I used to. I’m glad, though, I found myself there this time. I was reminded of another place to go for dinner with my wife, son and friends, I got to reminisce a little of some of the ‘good old days,’ I got some material for this blog (haha!) and I got to share one of my old stomping grounds with my son. I’m definitely not going to wait another seven years before I go there again and, when you’ve had your fill of holiday food and are looking for something that’ll challenge your taste buds not to stir, make sure, unlike I did, you don’t forget Tuptim.

P.S.

Tuptim is located at 600 Bloomfield Avenue, Montclair, New Jersey

Tel: 973-783-3800.

Lunch Hours:

Tuesday – Friday  11:30am to 2:30pm

Dinner Hours:

Tuesday- Thursday 5:00pm to 9:30PM

Friday – Saturday   5:00pm to 10:30pm

Sunday                11:30am to 9:30pm (Dinner menu only)

Tuptim is a BYOB and there’s a liquor store directly across Bloomfield Avenue. I recommend a sweeter wine or rose with Thai food; something like a Riesling or a Muscatel.