If you go to Aroma Cafe for dinner, I have one piece of advice: Eat a salad beforehand.
Aroma Cafe specializes in Filipino food, which at its best and worst is rich and pungent, meaty and sharp -- "the soul food of Asia," according to a co-worker whose wife comes from the Pampanga region. Filipinos love to play meaty against sour, but they make the Germans look like wusses. Germans love a little sauerkraut and mustard with their wurst. Filipinos dip deep-fried pork belly in vinegar.
That said, Filipino food can be just as homey and gut-satisfying as pork chops and eggs, or hamburgers and fries. Aroma offers both. The four-year-old restaurant, which bills itself "Filipino American," is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The American half of the menu lists standard diner fare, but more interesting are the Filipino cognates. Don't get the Denver omelet: Try spamsilog (fried Spam with eggs) or longsilog (longganisa, or sweet pork sausage, with eggs) instead. BLTs or hamburgers cost the same as tilapia or barbecued pork over rice.
Don't let the building, tucked away off Concord's Market Street across from a row of car dealerships, deter you. At night, Aroma projects a seedy-diner air. Only half of the fluorescent lights are turned on, casting a gray-green glow over the bare, rectangular room. Daytime light keeps the cafe cheery, but once it fades, an Edward Hopper-esque forlornness creeps over the room. The walls that don't have windows are covered in mirrors, so it's hard not to catch glimpses of yourself hunched over your food, looking creepy and old.
The mirrors are designed to enhance Aroma's karaoke and variety shows, which start at nine o'clock every Friday and Saturday and pack the house. Big families surround tables packed tightly with platters and large bowls: fried half-chickens, stews with bones peeking out, whole fish atop mounds of rice. With a few exceptions, Aroma's food is some of the best Filipino cuisine in the East Bay. It's just a little short on vegetables.
On my first visit, my friends and I started our meal with cigar-shaped, crispy lumpia (egg rolls) stuffed with ground pork and lechon kawali, which our waiter described as "fried pork." Chunks of pork belly -- like thick cross-sections of bacon -- were deep-fried until most of the fat sizzled away and they became all texture: half crunchy, half melting. Strangely enough, they didn't taste fatty, or rather they just didn't taste as fatty as we expected. We couldn't stop dipping the chunks in a rich sauce made with pureed pork liver and vinegar.
Next came deep-fried milkfish, a bony river fish. The mild freshwater-fish murkiness of the meat was tempered by a pre-fry dunking in vinegar, and its firm flake didn't dry out in the fryer. The best part was the zippy, spicy rust-colored crust. We ate chunks of it over a solid rendition of pancit, rice noodles stir-fried with celery, onions, and cabbage with a little soy, garlic, and black pepper.
More than a few States-raised Filipino-American friends have told me they don't like dinuguan, so when my tablemates wanted to order "chocolate beef," as the menu translates it, I warned them that it's seasoned not with chocolate but blood. They forged ahead. However, I forgot to tell them that the "beef" in this case was offal. Though tasty, the combination proved just a bit too foreign for our palates. With each bite of the black, grainy stew, a jolt of vinegar hit the tongue first, followed by a piney, herbal fragrance and the sweet richness of the blood. The chunks of meats ranged from soft to rubbery, depending on the organ.
We cleared our palates with two big glasses of halo halo, the quintessential Filipino dessert and one of my favorite sweet treats. The waiter first filled the glasses with white beans, kidney beans, strips of jackfruit, and purple ube (sweet potato). Then he packed each glass with shaved ice and poured in enough coconut milk to make everything soupy, followed by a drizzle of sweetened condensed milk, which congealed into golden, custardy clumps. Halo halo is served with a long, skinny spoon, which you use to stir up the mixture and hunt down your favorite ingredients from the bottom of the cup. Americans who can't get around the idea of beans for dessert are missing their creamy, marzipan-like texture.
Our lopey, shaggy-headed waiter looked like he should have been surfing. He had a "Dude, have a brew" friendliness, but it took a couple tries to order because he kept wandering off each time we paused to confer.
But the server on my second visit was excellent. She asked, "Have you had Filipino food?" right off the bat, and then helped my friends and me look over the menu, translated the specials, and made recommendations.
She explained that most of the appetizers are actually bar snacks. A beer seemed like a perfect accompaniment for the tokwa/baboy, deep-fried tofu. It came mixed up with more lechon kawali. I let my friends have at the deep-fried fat -- the novelty had worn off -- while I dunked the crunchy tofu into an addictive, sharp, soy-vinegar sauce.
The tocino, which our waitress told us was one of the dishes non-Filipinos like best, could have come from anywhere in Southeast Asia. Thin cross-slices of grilled pork loin were brushed in a sweet glaze, less gummy than teriyaki sauce but sweeter and simpler than Vietnamese and Thai barbecued meats. The sauce kept the meat tender. My chicken adobo could have done with less salt but otherwise turned out marvelous. Chicken thighs were stewed in a fragrant broth of soy, vinegar, bay leaves, and black peppercorns until the mahogany sauce thickened and infused the meat to its core. The chicken pulled apart with a fork. Unlike with some versions of adobo I've tried, the vinegar accented and intensified the flavor of the meat and spices instead of muscling its way to the forefront. Inexplicably, the adobo and rice came with a heap of freezer-bag carrots and peas, which we left alone.
Instead, for our vegetables, we picked pinakbet, another classic of Filipino cuisine, from the specials menu. Long beans, eggplant, bitter melon, and winter squash were stewed with shredded pork in a thick, peach-colored sauce pulsing with funk of bagoong -- a salty paste made with either fermented shrimp or anchovies. Aroma's shrimp bagoong was pungently present.
The surprise of the evening was another special: sinigang na hipon. Pork ribs were stewed until the meat could be scraped off the bone with a spoon. Potatoes, sweet potatoes, and mild jalapeños were added later on to the tart, meaty broth, whose flavor came from tamarind and spices; a couple sprigs of basil were tossed in before service. The light, clear flavors of the stew were a rare treat.
Though the traditional Filipino diet centers on vegetables and rice, centuries of colonization and immigration by the Chinese, Spanish, and Americans have shifted it far meatward. Aroma specializes in succulent, bombastically flavored pork, beef, and fish. You'll simply have to find your fiber elsewhere.