1634 Front St., East Meadow
SERVICE: Warm, with an occasional language barrier
AMBIENCE: Brightly lit and no frills, with two rows of wobbly tables, shelves full of Filipino groceries, and a steady takeout trade for the hot bar.
ESSENTIALS: Open daily 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.; handicapped accessible.
Walking through the door of Kabayan Grill in East Meadow can feel disorienting. A few dishes on the steam table look familiar, such as skewers of charred pork, but others — sticky golden pouches filled with banana, misshapen omelets, mounds of shredded fish in various shades of rust and coral — are downright mysterious looking.
Though Filipino food has been taking flight across the United States, many people, myself included, are still unacquainted with its components, from sinangang and lechon to milkfish and pig intestines. Filipino food is as fusion-y as it gets, drawing on the myriad cultures that have either traded or colonized this sprawling archipelago over the centuries, from China to Indonesia to Spain.
Fortunately, the staff here is both warm and patient, fielding questions like old hands. And not all is unfamiliar: Once you take in Kabayan’s bright lights, terra-cotta tiled floor and retro window arches, a sense of déjà vu might creep in. Have I been here before?
Maybe, because for 40 years this was a Taco Bell. After it closed last year, Filipino-born Cherry Castellvi took over the place, yanking out the anchored tables and replacing them with rows of wobbly tables for two, shelves of Filipino pastries and that steam table of hot dishes, from tubs of garlic-flecked rice to fried plantains shimmering with gooey, caramelized sugar.
Kabayan Grill opened in May, and while the takeout trade is steady, diners also can grab a seat for friendly, swift table service of made-to-order dishes. This is Castellvi’s third location; the other two are in Woodside, Queens, a mini-chain founded with her now ex-husband, Nel Castellvi. He is the chef here in East Meadow, where there is a flourishing Filipino community around St. Raphael Parish.
The Castellvis both hail from the province of Pampanga, often called the Philippines’ culinary capital. Pampanga is also the birthplace of sisig, a quintessential Filipino dish. At Kabayan, it arrives as a cast-iron platter of sizzling, spitting pork bits — ears, snout, a mince of brains — tumbled together with scallions, chili, lemon juice and garlic. While sisig is often crispy, a dollop of mayonnaise lends creaminess to Kabayan’s version, and each bite smolders across the tongue.
Pork and seafood reign supreme in Filipino food, and pig parts pepper Kabayan’s menu, sometimes in more successful ways than others. Decent enough is the lechon kawali, a crackling pile of deep-fried pork belly whose skin is brittle, its undersides loose and fatty. Better is the chicharon buklaklak — nut-brown slices of pig intestines deep fried into porky chips that spring to life when doused with the addictive garlic-infused vinegar that adorns each table. However, the pork belly hunks in Kabayan’s sinangang na baboy, one of a handful of cloudy, tamarind-based soups, are pale, undercooked flotsam bobbing about the punchy, sour broth.
Those seeking more familiar frontiers of flavor should gravitate to one of Kabayan’s pancits, or sautéed noodle dishes that channel Chinese flavors. Pancit sotanghon, an inoffensive tangle of vermicelli with shredded cabbage, scallions, chicken and tiny shrimp, will sate but probably not stick in your memory. Neither will the kare kare, a classic Filipino stew of braised oxtail and tripe in peanut sauce. While satisfying fatty bits cling to the oxtail’s edges, there is little harmony between the meat and the tepid, golden, peanut-buttery sauce, even when it’s amped up with dollops of super-pungent shrimp paste called bagoong. And the only clues that another signature Filipino dish, adobo chicken, has been marinated and boiled in vinegar, bay, garlic, and pepper is its brick-like color; the flavors are strangely muted.
Better are smaller, less grand dishes: caramelized skewers of soy-garlic marinated, roasted pork, served with a side of garlic-speckled sticky rice. Dainty, finger-length lumpia, tiny spring rolls filled with jicama, turnip paste and cabbage, then deep-fried to a crackle. Flattened slices of eggplant called tortang talong have been dredged through eggs and fried into velvety, scrumptious amoeba-like morsels. And a stir-fry of bitter melon with scrambled eggs, minced shrimp and bits of tomato called ginisang ampalaya is unusual and bright in all the best ways.
To wash down this jumble of flavors, Kabayan’s fridge is stocked with Filipino and American lager, plus water and fresh-squeezed fruit juices. A cold case of pastel-hued flans and pastes stand at the ready for dessert. For dramatic flourish, you could instead end the meal with halo halo, a hill of shaved ice topped with vanilla ice cream, bean paste and fruit that should be twirled with your spoon into an icy mess. Like much of the food at Kabayan, it’s both exotic and no-frills, a (cold) fusion of East and West.