At Marylou's Homemade Delights in Hercules, there are no names on the dishes. No menu to choose from. Just whatever Marylou Murphy decides to cook up that day.
Luckily, her husband, Art, a slim fiftyish guy who is all thick glasses and friendly grins underneath his baseball cap, is generous with the samples. "What would you like to taste?" he asks my friend and I, waving a ladle over the row of aluminum containers behind the counter. He describes the dishes instead of giving their Tagalog names, and fills up little plastic tubs with two-bite tastes. "This one is made with pork that's grilled and marinated with vinegars and chiles. This one is tofu with cabbage and vegetables."
A few of the containers get skipped, including a cocoa-colored stew. "What's that?" I ask, pointing, though I have my suspicions.
"It's, um ..." Art fudges, searching for a way to describe it.
"Dinuguan?" I hazard.
"You know dinuguan?" Art asks, perhaps a little relieved at not having to explain it.
"What's dinuguan?" Peter asks.
It's a stew of offal cooked with pork blood and vinegar, I explain, and Art nods. "I love dinuguan," he says. "But I have gout, so I can't eat it so often anymore."
At the age of six, Marylou's Homemade Delights is the best-known Filipino restaurant in Hercules, one of the fastest-growing towns in Northern California and home to a thriving Filipino-American community. (Marylou and Art, who is one-quarter Irish, are both from different corners of Metro Manila.) The tiny counter-and-six-table restaurant stays open only until 7, but in its final hour of business, the cheery blue and yellow room fills with businesswomen picking up Styrofoam containers on their way home from work and young families looking for an easy early dinner. English and Tagalog mix freely, often within the same sentence, and half of the tables who stuck around to eat draw someone on the staff for a sit-down chat.
Marylou's Homemade Delights is a turo-turo restaurant, which means "point-point" in Tagalog and "steam table" to you and me. There are good steam tables and bad steam tables. Okay, maybe 90 percent of the world's steam tables are bad steam tables. But in the Philippines, they're nothing to sneer at, and Marylou runs one of the best turo-turos in the East Bay. No matter the day, I found dishes there I've never tasted before -- fried things, skewered things, stewed things, pickled things, most without English names and all cooked with a sure hand.
Main dishes are sold à la carte -- pints, the smallest tub size, cost from $3.50 to $5.50 -- or on two-item plates with two scoops of rice, which the cooks microwave to make sure everything is good and hot. We ate uncomfortable amounts of food, with extras to go, for $10 a person.
Though it's been sitting around, none of the food tastes stale. You can still taste the smoke on the grilled pork, diced and mixed with onions and green chiles in a vinegary marinade. Skewers of pork and chicken varnished in a sweet soy marinade have enough fat in them to stay moist under the heat lamps.
Given the country's history of colonization (by the Spanish, Japanese, and Americans) and trading (with Chinese, Indians, and Arabs, among others), Filipino food is as much a cultural mishmash as our own. My friends and I could taste the Chinese influence in the pancit, thin noodles stir-fried with cabbage and celery, and the "red-cooked" ham hock -- just the meatiest parts of the ankle, thank you -- braised in a sweet, anise-tinged soy broth until the meat stuck to the bone only out of a sense of inertia. One day, we even scored some salmon (slightly overcooked) in sweet-and-sour sauce. It was dyed red, sure, but just a little sweet and a little sour, not the goopy candy coating your local cheap Chinese delivers.
Only the Spanish could have contributed to a three-inch-round omelet stuffed with ground pork and boiled potatoes, a straightforward-tasting play on the tortilla española. On other days, I could taste the European influence in a stew of beef and potatoes with tomatoes and in an oversized fritter made by roasting eggplants -- we're talking the big, purple European eggplants, not smaller Asian varieties -- and then peeling each one, dredging it in eggs, and frying it into a gigantic baba ghanoush omelet.
The food isn't evenly excellent. For her adobo, which holds one of the few permanent spots on the steam table, Marylou braises pork and chicken together with soy sauce, vinegar, black peppercorns, and bay leaves. In the best adobos I've tasted, these aromatic, sharp tastes alloy with the meat, forging flavor so strong you can sense it two tables away and daydream about it days afterward. In Marylou's, they came together weakly. And though vegetables are a welcome counterpart to the meat-heavy fare, one day's vaguely gingery stir-fry of cabbage, celery, tofu, and onions and another day's green beans cooked with shrimp didn't transcend their good intentions.
Filipino food doesn't attract outsiders quite like Chinese or Japanese food does, and the owners are conscious of trying to please newcomers' palates. On both of my follow-up visits, Art asked which of my guests had never been to Marylou's. "After the meal, tell me if he's still your friend," he'd say, pointing at me.
Some of the dishes proved too foreign, like the kare-kare, oxtail and tripe braised with baby bok choy and long beans in a golden broth thickened with peanut butter and toasted rice. The cooks stewed the oxtail tender and the tripe almost gelatinous, but the traditional way of serving kare-kare, by underseasoning the broth and serving it with packets of lemon juice (a substitute for kalamansi lime) and bagoong, a salty paste of fermented shrimp or anchovies with blowout flavor, proved the breaking point. Okay, maybe it was the tripe.
But sometimes the owners were being too cautious. One of the dishes Peter and I had to prod Art to describe to us, lilac-hued shredded jackfruit, became our favorite. Ripe, jackfruit turns golden and tastes like a muskmelon-mango-passionfruit cocktail. Unripe, it's used as a vegetable -- think hearts of palm and artichokes -- and Marylou stewed it in coconut milk with ginger and the faint funk of bagoong. That combination of pungent and rich makes some Filipino dishes hard for me to love (which is partly why I give dinuguan a pass), but in the jackfruit it was handled with such a light touch that I kept spooning more onto my plate.
Marylou's makes its own desserts, and on any given day you can find three or four wrapped in cellophane out front; some are pastries, like the Chinese style mung-bean cakes, others chewy sweet-rice cakes and jellies. It also sells pork crackling and home-canned jars of achara, a sugary, chutney-like pickle of vegetables, raisins, and glass noodles that Art says is great over fried fish. And on weekends, folks stop in throughout the day for breakfasts of garlic rice, salted fish, fried eggs, and sausage.
Confronted with dozens of nameless dishes over the course of my three visits, I felt like a guest at a big cocktail party. Was that reddish stew of pork with peas from visit three the same as the one I tried on visit two? I remember tasting green peppers, but where? And would I ever encounter that chicken with coconut milk and black peppercorns again? In the end, there was nothing to do but relax and trust the hosts. With dozens of nameless Filipino dishes to choose from, Marylou's diners are in the hands of their hosts.