Quite a Hike for Picadillo

Tita's Kitchenette

2720 E. Plaza Boulevard, suite E, National City

I’ve got to thank the MTS for this find. They canceled the 962 night-bus service on weekends from the Eighth Street trolley to Spring Valley and back. Who knew? And I’ve just missed the last 962 heading for the coast, the 7:27. That’s gonna mean about a three-mile walk westward. Had been thinking of hitting Lourdes, that great old-fashioned Filipino restaurant and karaoke bar on National City Boulevard. Probably be too late now.

So, I’m yomping downhill on an empty stomach and on feet that really want to be getting in the way of some football match on TV when I notice a shadowy group of people clustered outside a fluorescent strip–lit eatery.

I climb up across the little parking-area gardens to go see what the fuss is about. “Tita’s Kitchenette, Family Restaurant,” the sign says. Inside, the place is packed, rockin.’ I recognize the clippety-clop rhythms of the Tagalog language. Most people here are Filipino. Count nine tables and four booths, all bulging with folks sharing polystyrene boxes of rice and stews and blackened sticks of BBQ kabobs. Plus, there’s a line at the steaming-hotplate counter.

At one table, you can see four generations all eating together. A dark stew and rice. Renaida is the grandmother — Renaida Banzon. Then there’s Mary Ann, and her daughter Mary Grace and her kid Branden, who’s 11. I dunno. Feels unusual. I’m kinda jealous. “What’s that you’re eating?” I ask.

“It’s dinuguan,” says Mary Ann. “Pig’s blood stew.”

“Tastes like chocolate,” says Branden.

“This is the one we all love,” says Renaida.

“I’ve eaten Filipino food all my life,” says Daniel. He’s a Caucasian guy standing with his buddy in line in front of me. “I grew up here, National City, Paradise Hills. I like this food, the sharing of the food, the family feel, how you call anyone older ‘auntie’ or ‘uncle.’ ”

Daniel’s buddy J.C. is from Manila. “You should come tomorrow,” he says. “Sunday, they do lechón, roast pig. They get lines around the block.”

’Course, meantime, gotta eat tonight. A dozen chafing dishes bubble and steam away along the counter behind glass. Man. Beef steak, adobo (pork braised in coconut milk), pork menudo (this ain’t your Mexican tripe soup, but something completely different, a stew made of pork and pork liver, and potato, carrots, pepper, with lots of ketchup). Then they have teriyaki chicken, chicken chop suey, the dinuguan pork-blood stew. There are no lumpia, the Filipino spring rolls — they’re out, apparently — but they do have the other standby, pancit, stir-fried noodles that remind you of Japanese yakisoba. Ooh... And that delicious-looking pork picadillo — ground pork with spuds, veggies, raisins, and, hey, quail eggs. Gotta have some of that.

The menu board above all this is surprisingly simple. A combo plate, with rice and two entrées, costs $6.50. Mini combo is $5.49. Pork-and-chicken barbecue on a stick costs $2.75. And great to see the costs include tax.

If I was a real man, I’d go for the dinuguan. But there’s no way I’m not going to have the picadillo. Plus, this customer behind me, Alice, sees me dithering. “Always go for pancit,” she says. ‘ ’Specially if it’s your birthday. In the Philippines, you never have a birthday without pancit. With its long noodles, pancit means long life. It’s good-luck food.”

That’s good enough for me. I order the combo with picadillo, the pancit, and rice and toss in a pork-and-chicken barbecue stick.

First thing is those quail eggs and the ground pork. So-o-o delicious. Could eat that all night long. The pancit’s great, and I appreciate the luck and all, but kinda wish I’d gone for the pork-blood dish now. I tasted it once awhile back, and Branden’s right. It did taste a bit like chocolate.

I’m not making much of a dent in the pancit and rice. That’s partly because the $2.75 BBQ stick is so scrumptious, with a sweet tangy flavor, I almost chew it down in one. “The Philippines is a mixture of influences,” says J.C. “Chinese noodles, Spanish stews, and spices from their American colonies, and foods from the Malays. We are a crossroads, so our food’s always interesting.”

Amen to that. And we’re not over yet. Daniel says I should check out the ice creams. They’re a dollar a scoop. Lordy. Choices such as purple yam, corn, cheese, green tea, avocado, jackfruit… I go for the purple yam, with samples of green tea and avocado.

At the cash register, I see these long dusty things in a plastic box. “Very Filipino,” says Susan the waitress. It’s called espasol and is $3 for the box of six. I have to try it. It’s made from galapong, a flour made from glutinous rice, grated young coconut, sugar, anise seeds, and a dusty flour coating.

So, big breath: start my three-mile tramp to the coast. When I finally make it to National City Boulevard, I go see if Lourdes is still open, just for the heck of it. Oh, no. Not only closed, but closed down. Moved to Chula Vista.

I head for the trolley along National City’s main drag, National City Boulevard. Deserted! Saturday night! On the other hand, what do you expect, if you’ve got no MTS…

The Place: Tita’s Kitchenette, 2720 E. Plaza Boulevard, suite E, National City, 619-472-5801
Type of Food: Filipino
Prices: Combo plate, with rice and two entrées, $6.50 (including tax); mini combo, $5.49; combo items include beef steak, adobo, pork menudo (pork and pork liver stew); teriyaki chicken; chicken chop suey; pork-blood stew; lumpia (Filipino spring rolls); pancit (stir-fried noodles); pork picadillo with quail eggs; pork and chicken barbecue on kebab, $2.75
Hours: 6:00 a.m.–9:00 p.m., seven days
Buses: 962, 963
Nearest Bus Stops: Plaza Boulevard and Euclid

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