The first time I had the arroz caldo at Irenia, the streets of Downtown Santa Ana were slick with rain. From inside the restaurant, the soft sounds of cars driving through pools of water drifted past the windows. It was an afternoon begging for a warm bowl of caldo.
The dish carries a dose of nostalgia for Filipinos. In my home, my lola could always be counted on to have a tub of it ready on the stove whenever my brother or I got sick. The thick rice porridge would have whole, tender chicken drumsticks simmering in it, which lola would ladle into our bowls and top with fried garlic, chopped green onion, and calamansi. If there was ever a silver lining to the flu, her savory, pungent lugaw was it.
Irenia’s interpretation of arroz caldo is a bit more subdued. The toppings are simple and elegant. Sliced brassicas and green onion are neatly piled to one side with bits of fried garlic, fresh grated ginger, a wedge of calamansi, and dabs of chili oil. Chicken skin, similar to pork chicharrón, serves as a delicate garnish and has an acidic saltiness to it that I’ve decided I can eat by the fistful. When mixed into the rice porridge, these toppings transform into a beautiful, tangy dish that is oh-so Filipino. When squeezed, the calamansi and ginger lift the umami-rich fish sauce in the porridge, while the aromatic garlic and chili oil deepen it. It’s a push-and-pull of ingredients that mark so many classic Pinoy dishes.
The only thing I find wanting are tender pieces of chicken to break up the thick texture of the lugaw. Still, I find myself scraping the bowl for the last bits as a Filipino couple walks in and takes a seat at a table. The waitress asks the husband if he has any allergies, and without skipping a beat, he says, “I have an allergy to work.” His laugh is big and full, and I grin, because that’s just the thing my dad or uncle would say.