The dish Bicol Express is named after the overnight train from Manila to southeastern Luzon, where the Filipino palate turns to coconut milk and uncompromising chiles. At Tama, pork belly is cooked sous-vide for the best part of a day, then bronzed a la plancha, cut and arrayed like fallen monoliths over a sauce that’s nearly curry, with curative whiffs of galangal and lemongrass and, as weaponry, Thai bird chiles and bagoong alamang (fermented krill).
Nothing is taken for granted. Not lumpia Shanghai, spring rolls as skinny as cheroots, the ground pork inside flecked with deliquescing fat. Not rice, which might be flipped in a wok with runoff from adobo until it’s velvety and carnal, or boiled with pandan, whose flavor is so delicate that it registers as a distant memory of a freshly mowed lawn. Not even banana ketchup, which Filipino restaurants tend to serve, nostalgically, from a bottle of Jufran (the indigenous Heinz); here it’s homemade, from chipotle-infused cane vinegar and bananas caramelized in coconut sugar.
Mr. Reña butchers whole chickens in Tama’s minimal kitchen, reserving thighs for adobo and chopping white meat down to popcorn-size nuggets, which are doused with patis (Filipino fish sauce), dusted with cornstarch and fried until burnished and perfect. They come stuffed in red Chinese takeout bags with “Chinese food” crossed out and rewritten as “Pinoy pood” — joking slang for “Filipino food.”
I wasn’t as keen on a version of lumpia with a limp, doughy crepe around pickled green papaya and Cameo apples; it cried out for salt. And champorado — a chocolate rice porridge that Mr. Reña returns to its Mexican roots with a mole-like sauce of cinnamon, cloves and smoky chiles — tasted irresolute, not fully committing to the entanglement of bitter and sweet.
Both Mr. Reña and Miguel de Leon, an owner, grew up in the Philippines and immigrated to the United States as children. The Spanish imprint on Tama’s menu — ancho chiles humming in a finely balanced adobo; arroz caldo (rice soup), unexpectedly thickened by a flurry of grits — may be traced to more than three and a half centuries of colonial rule, but it’s also personal: Mr. de Leon was the general manager of the Spanish tapas bar Casa Mono, and Mr. Reña was a cook at the haute Mexican restaurant Cosme.
Because they hope to persuade a neighborhood largely unfamiliar with Filipino food to love it, nothing costs more than $12. And the service aims higher. The man working the cash register delivered each dish to my table with a scholarly description of how it was made. He even tried to replace my compostable fork between courses.
In the front window sits a cluster of money trees and sago palms, along with what Mr. de Leon calls an “experimental” planting of garlic and onions. “We want to see if we can integrate them into the food,” he said. All day, sun pours through the glass, waiting for the bulbs to grow.
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