Desiccated Dreams

Given the star-rating of this restaurant, I'll anticipate the critics-of-the-critic: Why did I eat at Ben's 1615, and why am I reviewing it?

To answer the first question: About a year ago, a colleague who is a friend of the Filipino doctor who owns Ben's (cardiologist Benjamin O. Camacho) sent me a menu and urged me to try the place. I Googled it and found that one of my favorite local Asian-food blogs (source of many good tips, thank you, "mmm yoso") had praised it enthusiastically.

I was jazzed, because I love the bold, far-out flavors of Filipino food and there isn't nearly enough of it locally. For many years my day gig in San Francisco was in civil service, where at least a quarter of my colleagues were Filipino. Holiday potlucks included wonderful lumpia (spring rolls) and pancit (resembling soft-fried chow mein), sparking my appetite for more. Then came recipe-sharing: A lovely Medi-Cal eligibility princess taught me how she trimmed the heads and stringy tails from bean sprouts for her lumpia, leaving only the good crunchy part. Eventually came friendships, including eating out at some of the fine Filipino restaurants in south San Francisco.

Filipino food turned out to be fascinating -- one of those "original fusion cuisines" that differs from all others in the cuisines that it fuses. The first inhabitants of the islands are thought to be Malays, who brought their indigenous cuisine, including coconut milk, fermented fish sauces, seafood, pork, and native vegetables, often combined in stews like the popular kare kare (meat and vegetables with peanut sauce). Many Chinese traders had settled in the islands permanently by 1400; they became so entrenched that Filipinos (pinoys) of Chinese ancestry have nicknamed themselves chinoys. Their contributions include lumpia, pancit, and soy sauce. Other dishes and ingredients were borrowed later from neighboring Malaysia and Indonesia (including hot peppers -- which arrived in Asia in the 16th Century -- and curry dishes). Spanish colonizers were a huge influence, bringing olive oil, garlic, beef, perhaps vinegar, along with numerous full-blown recipes -- for instance, Spain's cocido, a chicken and sausage stew, was easily transformed into the islands' pochero. Seafarers encountering Filipino hospitality often grew as enchanted as Odysseus's men on the island of Aeaea, marrying and staying for life, bringing touches of other national cuisines (e.g., bay leaves, annatto seeds, and tomatoes from Mexico, which administered the Philippines for Spain, with regular two-way ship traffic). More recently, servicemen from the U.S., and even homesick tourists from Japan and Germany, have added to the mix.

But here I am now, 700 miles south of "South City," and the only Filipino restaurants I know about are turo turos -- "point-point joints," the equivalent of the 99-cent Chinese takeout eateries, everything ready-made and wilting on the steam tables. (Dear readers, if you know of other serious local Filipino restaurants, please e-mail or even snail-mail me with the info.)

Ben's 1615's menu, compared to point-points, is exciting and ambitious. It offers creative takes on Western dishes (tilapia cordon bleu, salmon papillote in banana leaves), pan-Asian dishes (Thai green curry mussels, Hainanese chicken), and fusion (pork adobo pesto, chicken satay stuffed with cream cheese). Best of all, at the heart of the menu is a section called "Traditional Filipino Dishes" that used to include my favorite, Sinigang (sour tamarind soup). No dinuguan (pork blood stew), but hey, even in South City the upscale restaurants didn't serve that.

By the time I got around to eating at Ben's, the menu had changed. Goodbye Sinigang, but hello Bangus, the popular (locally rare) "milkfish." About half the appetizers had changed, too. Odds are, the chef has changed as well since that year-old glowing blog entry. When I called Dr. Camacho, he was gone for the weekend and then "too busy" to talk to me -- and so was the restaurant manager (who failed to return three messages, with the deadline specified). But the doctor's receptionist mentioned that a second location had recently opened in the Gaslamp. That may well explain our unhappy meal at the National City address. Dollars to diniguan, the original chef is now cooking at the new outfit while a line-chef he trained has taken over the kitchen on Sweetwater Road. I'd also bet (but caveat emptor) that the Gaslamp newbie is likely to be turning out food that's better than merely "fair." There is nothing wrong with the recipes for the dishes at Ben's 1615, but they were wrecked in their execution.

Ben's 1615 is located in a strip mall dominated by -- Ben. Two doors down is a flashy street-level cardiology office, B. Camacho, M.D. Next door is B.C. Travel (I wonder whose initials those might be). Above the restaurant is an attached bar-lounge with multicolored revolving disco lights visible from the parking lot. By 8:30 on a Thursday night, the lounge was filling up with twentyish Filipinos, although the restaurant was still sparsely populated. I suspect the lounge of being the secret of Ben's longevity -- like the salsa nights at Habana (reviewed two weeks ago) and the after-dinner discos at a lot of Gaslamp joints that serve up so-so grub with their hot singles' scenes.

Our posse settled at a table at the attractive restaurant, with small Asian sculptures in niches along the walls. I was impressed that Ben's had gone to the trouble of finding fresh pandan leaves (with an addictive, vanilla-like scent), so I started with pandan iced tea. The pandan flavor was drowned by copious sugar.

The best of our appetizers was a "Shanghai" version of lumpia (this is a Filipino standard), stuffed with a mild, pleasant forcemeat of ground pork and carrots and served with a glutinous sweet dipping sauce. Not a thrill like great lumpia, but satisfying like a breakfast at Denny's (just down the road). We also enjoyed Sotanghon soup, a mild, soothing reddish broth filled with slippery mung bean noodles, chicken, shrimp, and dainty whole quail eggs, their firm whites enclosing delicious hot liquid yolks that squirt into your mouth when you bite down.

[2009 Editor's Note: Ben's 1616 has since closed.]

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