At a recent Jo Koy concert in Brea, the Filipino American comedian lamented how Filipino food hasn’t yet permeated into the American culture, an age-old gripe shared by Filipinos and Filipino-food-lovers alike. Once he made his case for why Filipino cuisine should be as popular as Chinese and Vietnamese, he riffed on specific dishes he loved as a kid. It culminated with a story on how his mom used to make him a school lunch of rice and monggo, which, to his embarrassment, she would pack for him in a repurposed Cool Whip container. He had the audience in stitches.
Koy’s musings on Filipino food were not only hilarious, but also timely. And it got me thinking: How much longer will it take for adobo to become as ubiquitous as sweet-and-sour? Though there have always been Filipino restaurants that cater to Filipinos, in recent years, only a few restaurants in Orange County have tried to market Pinoy food to the mainstream. Leading the charge is Ryan Garlitos, whose Irenia Restaurant is the first eatery in OC to serve Filipino cuisine for an American audience. I say it’s the “first” even though I know that Mix Mix by Ross Pangilinan technically predates it by a few months. But as I said in my review (see “Ross Pangilinan Brings Pinoy Flavors to His Global Cuisine With Mix Mix in Santa Ana,” Jan. 12, 2017), Pangilinan’s Mix Mix isn’t a Filipino place, per se. It’s post-Impressionist Filipino—world cuisine painted by an abstract Filipino artist. You have to pay attention to find where Pangilinan has hidden the patis and the calamansi.
But when Pangilinan decides to cook straight-up Filipino dishes—namely the pork cheek adobo that he lays atop sinangag, Filipino garlic fried rice—it’s unapologetically authentic on the flavors. The rice was so decadent and perfumed with garlic, it stunk up my breath for hours. And the two falling-apart footballs of pork were tangy, salty, peppery and garlicky—hitting all the requisite notes of vinegar, soy sauce, garlic and black pepper that make up every Filipino mom’s secret adobo recipe.
Now comes Mix Mix’s spinoff, Terrace, located within the Crate and Barrel Wing of South Coast Plaza. Built inside the gorgeous shell and outdoor patio of what used to be Zcafe, this is an enviable space, arguably one of the best spots in South Coast Plaza to dine outside without being outside. You’re always shaded by the building’s overhang, and above you, the twinkle lights dangle and swing from the breeze.
But as good as the location is, for some reason, Terrace is even less Filipino than Mix Mix. Of the 20 dishes on the menu, I saw only two that were Filipino or even Filipino-inspired. One of them was the pork cheek adobo, but somehow, this version tasted like a faded carbon copy of the original. The rice was still slicked with grease, but it wasn’t garlicky. The pork was fall-apart tender, but it was neither salty, tangy nor much of anything other than flat. And the chicharrones I remember being served for free instead of bread at the Santa Ana restaurant were a no-show; they aren’t even offered on the “Snacks” menu.
Instead, I started with pork rillettes, a decent if overbuttered plank of toast spackled with a creamy pork spread, dabs of mustard and house pickles. It left my fingers shiny and slick and me realizing I’d never eaten or seen it at Mix Mix. I did, however, remember having a similar albacore tostada there—a crispy, fried corn-tortilla disk topped with seared albacore covered in Sriracha mayo, avocado mousse and Japanese dressing. But I also recalled that Mix Mix’s version was more generous with the fish.
I did love Terrace’s roasted shrimp served with gremolata, Korean chili and root vegetables so well-baked it turned to caramel, but the lobster risotto was a disappointment. The dish looked promising at first, sporting a molecular gastronomic head of foam, but the rice was inexplicably watery. It didn’t help that the lobster meat on top of it was also rubbery and bland. I considered asking our waiter for lemon and drawn butter, but I didn’t. I ate the rest of it in silence.
As with Mix Mix, Terrace offers a four- or six-course prix fixe option in which you get a slight discount over ordering à la carte for smaller portions of the plates. And as with the original, Terrace features a tropical verrine for dessert, a coconut panna cotta topped with mango sorbet, nuts and fruit that’s supposed to emulate halo-halo, the parent restaurant’s namesake. But despite this, I kept thinking there was still something missing at Terrace, something lacking, something that wasn’t there. And when I snuck a peek into the kitchen, I realized what was absent: chef Ross Pangilinan.
Terrace by Mix Mix, 3333 Bear St., Ste. 316, Costa Mesa, (657) 231-6447; www.terracebymixmix.com. Open Mon.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sun., 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Dishes, $8-$38. Beer and wine.
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.