If you’ve had the Filipino dish sisig in OC, chances are it’s the version that has deep-fried pork belly hacked into fingertip-sized chunks, then tossed with citrus juice, onions and peppers. The new MFK By Aysee—the acronym stands for Modern Filipino Kitchen—serves it the old-school way. It starts with crispy bits of pig chopped up to the point of tartare, then spread thin onto a sizzling cast-iron skillet with a raw egg cracked into the middle. The Anaheim restaurant is an ambassador of the Aysee brand, which has a handful of eateries specializing in the dish back in the Philippines.
The first order of business when owner/chef Henry Pineda brings out your sisig is to take your plastic spoon and immediately whisk the egg into the mixture so that it cooks. The result is a miraculous union of crispy piggy scraps, calamansi, onion and the scrambled egg. The texture is not unlike the well-seared corned-beef-hash breakfast at your local greasy spoon, except that in this dish, the crunchy bits come from fragments of pig skin.
Aside from the sisig, whose rice comes on the side, almost everything else Pineda serves comes as rice bowls—yet Yoshinoya this is not. Take his lechon kawale bowl, which is by far the best version of this deep-fried pork belly dish I’ve had. Pineda fries his pieces until the outside is as crisp as rendered bacon while the interior remains as feather-light as cotton candy. To finish, he drizzles the whole bowl in Mang Tomas, a bottled sweet-and-sour-ish sauce designed for lechon kawali. When you need more sauce, there’s a communal squirt bottle along with vinegar and patis (Filipino fish sauce) next to the soda fountain. MFK is that kind of place. It looks like what it is: a fast-food joint in a strip mall.
If you’re not keen on deep-fried pork but are still open to the cholesterol, Pineda makes a magnificent bowl of slow-braised pork belly over rice for his take on sinigang. It’s not for the faint of heart. When you’re eating it, you’re consuming whole hunks of jellied subcutaneous blubber so meltingly soft you won’t know where it ends and the meat begins. And the broth that comes on the side—which is actually the intensely tart tamarind-soured soup from which the dish is named—is not to be sipped, but rather doused over the rice and meat.
There is adobo, of course, in chicken or pork iterations, but also bistek Tagalog, beef marinated in citrus, shallots and soy sauce that rivals a Philly cheesesteak on tenderness. Apart from the rice-bowl delivery method, the only thing really “modern” about MFK’s menu is the tater tots offered with a choice of meat, shredded cheese and Sriracha. In fact, since Pineda is—as far as I know—the only Filipino chef to offer kamayan in OC, MFK is actually decidedly more rooted in the traditional than Ryan Garlitos’ Irenia and Ross Pangilinan’s Mix Mix.
Kamayan is the Tagalog word to describe the act of eating with your hands from a communal pile of food laid out on a table covered in banana leaves. We did MFK’s seafood kamayan one night and realized that it was not only too much food for our party of four, but it was also too much food for six or even eight souls to consume in one sitting. Around a mountain of rice that could’ve stood for a model railroad Kilimanjaro, Pineda arranged sautéed whole shrimp, clams, mussels, breaded rings of squid and egg rolls. On its summit, Pineda planted two whole deep-fried fish: a tilapia and a butterflied milkfish whose white, flaky flesh had the tang of yogurt. This is a seafood tower.
But the food didn’t stop there. Throughout the meal, Pineda’s crew brought out more dishes, including dilis, anchovies bifurcated lengthwise and deep fried to the crunch of potato chips; a milkfish version of the sizzling sisig; and young mangoes dipped in a funky shrimp paste called bagoong.
It should be noted that MFK’s kamayan isn’t cheap. It’s an elaborate affair requiring at least 72 hours’ notice, a credit-card guarantee and a cost that rises every time I check the website. As of this writing, it’s $40 per person for the meat version, $50 for the seafood, or $55 for the combo. It’s becoming so expensive it might be too much for MFK’s core audience, most of whom are content to stick with the $7 rice bowls. Yet when it comes to making all your Filipino Facebook friends envious, nothing can compare with the kamayan for its look-what-I-ate photo-op. So if you’re intent on doing just that, bring the money and the selfie stick. And wash those grubby hands, for God’s sake!
MFK By Aysee, 2620 W. La Palma Ave., Anaheim, (657) 337-5288; www.mfkaysee.com. Open Tues.-Sun., 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Rice bowls, $7; Kamayan service starts at $40 per person, two-person minimum, reservations required. 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.