In past issues of this infernal rag, we've called for the annexation of Artesia (and its prettier sister Cerritos) as part of OC to claim Magic Wok, arguably the best Filipino restaurant in California. Sometimes confused with the Chinese-takeout chain of the same name, every dish at this Magic Wok is cooked to order, priced no more than 10 bucks per plate, and imbued with an inimitable homemade flavor as though someone's nanay was in the kitchen. During Christmas, a line extends out the door for takeout orders of the house specialty: the crispy pata, a whole deep-fried, bone-in ham hock, served with its chicharrones still attached as rind, covering blubbery fat, chewy gristle and stringy flesh–a dish that reminds us the best way to eat pork is never when it's branded as the other white meat.
I've been a loyal customer of Magic Wok for a dozen years. I've witnessed it go through at least one fire that nearly destroyed it, a remodel that changed it from a dive to a dive with a newer coat of paint, and a few unexplained closures that lasted weeks at a time. But last fall, it looked as if the restaurant shuttered for good. As the doors remained closed through the holidays, there were hints on its Facebook page of trouble behind the scenes. But then, just as suddenly, the restaurant re-emerged a few weeks ago, now as Crispy House. When I went, I found that not much had changed. The room still had its squeaky red Naugahyde booths. The plastic that covered a menu printed in a plain font was still grimy. Even the familiar absence of music remained. And though the prices were slightly higher and the front-of-the-house staff was new and inexperienced, everything that mattered was still the same.
Most important of all: Crispy House still served sisig, something I've long considered an even better pork dish than the crispy pata. It's an opus of pig that starts with brined pork belly that's deep-fried; chopped into fingertip-sized fragments; then tossed with a liberal squeeze of citrus juice, diced ginger, a few bits of onion and peppers for color. When you eat this divine hog hash, you encounter slips of quivering blubber, crispy shards of skin and crunchy chunks of meat. But as you shudder and moan in induced ecstasy, you realize you're capable of devouring the whole plate, which is equivalent to eating a whole pack of bacon by yourself. And that may be the magic behind Crispy House's sisig: Even though it's made of 99 percent pork and constitutes a whole week's worth of your recommended intake of fat, it's extraordinarily light on the palate. You never get sick of eating it.
If you dare take in more pork, Crispy House also serves lechon kawali, nugget-sized cubes of deep-fried pork belly you dab with a brown, goopy, sweet-and-sour liver sauce made specifically for this purpose. But even if you're not trying to eat pork, Crispy House revels in pig: Some of the vegetables dishes tend to have pork in them. The ginisang ampalaya is bitter melon stir-fried with fingers of pork, the sweetness of the meat balancing the bracing bitterness of a gourd whose many health benefits might possibly include canceling out the effects of the pork.
For soup, Crispy House's most popular stew–the sinigang na baboy–has gobs of fatty pork belly simmered with a few slices of daikon, green beans and onion, brought out in a metal pail. Customarily, you consume it by dousing the tamarind-soured soup over rice. But you could just sip it in between bites to wipe your palate clean of the grease left behind from the fried entrées.
I could go on and on about every dish I've eaten here over the past 12 years: the wok-seared simplicity of the bistek tagalog, thin slices of beef stir-fried with garlic, soy and tossed with onions hoops; the yogurt tang of the deep-fried milkfish the Pinoys call bangus; the bungee bounce of the clear noodles of the pancit sotanghon. They're all still great. But no visit to Magi–er, Crispy House is complete without the pinakbet, a stir-fry that eats like a stew, overflowing with almost every product found in the Asian produce aisle but whose most essential ingredient is bagoong, a stinky, pungent purplish paste made from fermented brine shrimp that flavors the gravy.
And, oh, the “Special Combo” breakfast is served all day. If you count the egg, it includes contributions from cow, pig, chicken and fish–a veritable species sampler. So, c'mon, let's start the campaign to annex Artesia! Plus, when we succeed, we get Little India as part of the booty.
Crispy House, 11869 Artesia Blvd., Artesia, (562) 865-7340. Open Tues.-Sat., 10 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sun., 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Meal for two, $20-$30, food only. No alcohol.
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.