Dim sum with Filipino food? Yep, that's the idea behind Flip Sum at Isla Manila in Seattle. It's a fantastic concept, with an impressive array of dishes for the fixed price of $14.99 on weekends. (It's one dollar less weekday nights, and $10.99 for lunch, though with fewer dishes on offer.) In addition to soup to start and dessert to finish, the items in the dim sum cart are all-you-can-eat, so you can be as adventurous as you dare with unfamiliar food, or just focus on your favorites. The quality is quite good overall, with the small portions of stewed dishes holding up well in the steamer baskets. (The noodles are another story.)
After a starter of Bone Marrow Soup (unhealthy and delicious, the server said proudly—and accurately), the dim sum cart comes to the table. The server will typically start by giving you a generous portion of Lumpia with sweet and sour dipping sauce, as these fried spring rolls are universally loved. Pictured with the lumpia is Pork Steak with lemon, soy sauce, and fresh garlic. The strong citrus notes made this simple dish one of the surprising favorites of the day.
The quartet above features the dark and mysterious Dinuguan, one of my absolute favorite Filipino dishes—and one that even many Filipinos don't care to eat. The server will ask if you want "pork blood stew," which sounds scary to some, though Isla Bonita's recipe doesn't have the pig liver, heart, and intestines you might find in other versions. Still, this dinuguan has chewy stomach and crunchy pig ear stewed in pork blood that has an earthy, minerally flavor I find extremely captivating. (The side of white rice can help cut the intensity.)
Clockwise from the dinuguan is Barbecued Pork, the popular Pancit Bihon (made with rice noodles), and Kare Kare, an oxtail stew that includes beef tripe and pork hocks with long beans in peanut sauce. I like the combination of tough-to-eat meats, though I wish the peanut sauce had just a little more complexity to it.
At the forefront of the trio above is Bicol Express, another of my favorites. This is a type of ginataan dish, meaning cooked with gata, Filipino for coconut milk. This stew has big chunks of kabocha squash, smaller pieces of jackfruit, and taro leaves (nutty and earthy) along with grilled King salmon that's "crushed" into small pieces and topped with a grilled shrimp. Thai chile provides heat at the end of each bite. Clockwise from the Bicol Express is Tilapia Escabeche, vibrant with sweet and flavor, and Beef Kalderata, the Filipino version of beef stew. Tomato paste provides brightness, and the stew contains a variety of interesting ingredients: pineapple chunks, bell peppers, roasted potatoes, and black olives.
Rounding out the 13 dishes from the cart is this final foursome. Top left is Double-Fried Garlic Chicken, not overly strong but still full of flavor. Clockwise from there is Pancit Miki, another stir-fried noodle, this time with made with wheat noodles. This pancit was prepared meat-free for the Filipino holy holidays, but is typically made with chicken, and also contains celery, carrot, and cabbage. Next is the ubiquitous Pork Adobo. The meat is extremely tender, with vinegar and soy sauce flavors featuring prominently. Last is Pinakbet with pork, made with mixed vegetables cooked in housemade shrimp paste. I enjoyed the variety of vegetables, including okra, squash, eggplant, string beans, and bittermelon.
The variety of dishes in the cart makes Isla Manila's Flip Sum a fun interactive meal. You can eat to your heart's and stomach's content, but leave a little room for dessert. On this occasion, dessert was a nice piece of Cassava Cake, made with jackfruit, coconut milk, and condensed milk, and topped with toasted coconut. At once spongy and springy, this moist cake isn't oversweet, instead providing a refreshing finish to the Flip Sum experience.
About the author: Jay Friedman is a Seattle-based freelance food writer who happens to travel extensively as a sex educator. An avid fan of noodles (some call him "The Mein Man"), he sees sensuality in all foods, and blogs about it at his Gastrolust website. You can follow him on Twitter @jayfriedman.