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It's one of those little places that are so easy to miss -- just one more Asian restaurant among many in the West End. But one of the three words on the sign outside got my attention. "Chinese" and "Vietnamese" were the other two, but both of those cuisines are common enough. Not "Filipino," though. Not, at least, in a setting that offers food that is made to order and served at table. There's no battling over the buffets at Rice Bowl.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 14/06/2008 (5283 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It’s one of those little places that are so easy to miss — just one more Asian restaurant among many in the West End. But one of the three words on the sign outside got my attention. “Chinese” and “Vietnamese” were the other two, but both of those cuisines are common enough. Not “Filipino,” though. Not, at least, in a setting that offers food that is made to order and served at table. There’s no battling over the buffets at Rice Bowl.

It’s a family-run place — modest but tidy, with a few Asian artifacts on the beige and brown walls. The family, it turns out, is a mixture of Vietnamese and Filipino, reflected, not coincidentally, in a Pan-Asian menu that includes, as well, a number of Chinese dishes. To tell the truth, there were times when I wasn’t sure which cuisine I was sampling, but in the end it didn’t matter since I liked almost everything.

There are only five appetizers, but the two I tried were terrific. I’ve had Filipino lumpia many times, but often they have tasted mass-produced, with skimpy fillings. Not these crunchy, deep-fried rolls, with an uneven shape and a flavour-packed, meaty filling that denotes human hands at work. They were among the best I’ve ever had and, what’s more, a steal at $4 for a heaping portion.

The other is the Chinese-style spare ribs, a creation of chef Harry Mogatas, and which, despite its name, is actually a fusion of Filipino, Vietnamese and Chinese influences, with a dab of five-spice and hints of lemongrass in the sweet and tangy glazed surface. A bonus for me was that, instead of those ubiquitous chopped-up bits of rib, these are the locally rare big, long ribs, with plenty of juicy meat to the bone (three for $6.75).

I didn’t get to the calamari ($5.50), chicken wings ($6.50) and salad rolls ($4.50). However, I did have the pork skewers, which, although listed elsewhere — under Asian Grill and BBQ — are also basically a starter, marinated in a slightly sweetened soy glaze (three skewers for $4.50). I also tried the wonton soup — a big bowlful for $4, with a flotilla of plump dumplings, in a broth that was darker than the usual Chinese consommé, and a flavour that was intensified by dark shiitaki mushrooms.

Even for Asian food, the entree prices are almost ridiculously low, with most from $6.25 to $8.50. Our calderata, for instance, was a mere $6.25 for a hefty helping of long-simmered, fork-tender beef with potatoes, carrots, green peppers and peas in a rich brown sauce, with hints of tomato and vinegar. It’s not overwhelmingly spicy, but there is the occasional blast of heat from a single whole Thai red chili, which those with asbestos palates can crush, if they wish, to fire up the entire dish.

It doesn’t include the traditional liver because, I was told, most Canadians wouldn’t like the flavour, and they were probably right. Those who hate liver won’t miss it, and although I’m not one of them, I didn’t miss it either. On the other hand, I would have liked to try the classic soy and vinegar-based adobos of pork or chicken, both of which, although they appear on the menu, are no longer served, also in deference to supposed Canadian tastes.

However, there are other plenty of other interesting choices. Kare kare, for instance, a peanut sauce-enriched stew of oxtails and short ribs that yields as well several non-routine veggies — firm, green long beans, for instance, plus chunks of eggplant and bok choy. Also something truly fascinating that mystified me. It looked like an elongated artichoke, and had a similar flavour, but, as I eventually learned, was a banana blossom.

One of the standouts is listed simply as pork with aubergines, more Chinese than Filipino, but a winner whatever its origins — chunks of eggplant mixed with minced pork that was pungent with garlic and slightly salty from dried Chinese anchovies. Stir-fried garlic shrimp were big, moist and meaty, if not all that garlicky, albeit with several strips of shiitaki mushrooms and hints of fresh coriander to heighten the flavour. We also had a small, sweet-fleshed tilapia, deep-fried whole, with crisply edible skin. It comes with two kinds of sauces, one soy-based with fresh coriander and green peppers, the other gingery with chunks of tomato and a dash of Vietnamese fish sauce.

The only disappointment was the far-from-deluxe “deluxe” chow fan, which tasted as though it had been slapped together in a hurry. Not only was it soupy, with surprisingly few of the flat rice noodles — and most of those clumped together — but the meats came in big, overcooked, stewy chunks that seemed left over from some other dish.

The menu is due to change soon, adding even more Filipino dishes, but there are a number of others on the present one that, alas, I didn’t get to. Among them a few Vietnamese pho soups and spicy chicken with lemongrass, as well as such intriguing items as hot pork belly, sinigang — a tamarind-flavoured broth with pork or seafood — and dinuguan, a pork blood stew that’s similar, it is said, to English blood pudding.

Presentation of the food on handsome white platters is unusually attractive, and the service is charming, attentive and very helpful. Note: be careful when negotiating the makeshift step outside.

marion.warhaft@freepress.mb.ca

641 Sargent Ave. / 779-2777

Unlicensed

No wheelchair access

4 out of 5 stars

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