The first time I ventured to Joel’s Asian Grill up near Lake Norman, I missed out. I’d heard good things about the Carolinas’ only Filipino restaurant, but I found a menu with mostly American “beach bar” food.
Turns out you gotta ask for the special Filipino menu.
Food from the Philippines is hot right now, showing up on lists like “10 Huge Food Trends You’ll Devour This Year.” No wonder – it’s a mixture of Thai, Japanese, Spanish and more. Traders and colonizers from all over the globe swept through the Pacific island nation over the centuries. Their foods have swirled into one joyous cuisine.
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But Joel’s is not riding some hipster wave. Joel and Julie Jose opened back in 2001. While jovial Joel greets customers, Julie in the kitchen supervises the cooking.
“I taught Filipino cuisine at a local community college before coming to the U.S,” she says. “My culinary education is based on experience, learning from my mother’s, aunties’ and grandmother’s cooking.” Family gatherings featured generous feasts, and her mother also sold to neighbors. “My brothers are still doing this, although they now have a storefront in front of our house back home instead of peddling around the neighborhood.”
At the top of Julie Jose’s traditional menu, don’t miss the lumpia – the favorite snack of the Philippines. It’s a plumper cousin of the Chinese eggroll. I get the un-fried, vegetarian version called lumpia sariwa. An airy egg crepe is rolled around a finely chopped mix of crisp cabbage, sweet potato, carrot, garbanzo beans, onions and snowpeas, then drizzled with a peanut sauce.
My wife Carol often seeks out an unfamiliar-sounding dish to try. We enjoyed discovering laing, described as taro leaves in a creamy coconut sauce. It’s a comfort-food casserole that reminds me of spinach dishes from India – saag paneer or murg saag. That may not be a culinary coincidence. Traders from India visited the Philippines for centuries before the Spanish arrived.
For dessert, I’m going back to try halo-halo – shaved ice doused in syrups and fruit. Sounds perfect for this hot summer.