I’m at Kusina Filipina on a Sunday morning, and I’m staring at two giant, golden balloons numbered 6 and 0 off to the side of the dining room. It feels like these balloons are here every time I come to this restaurant, although suggesting that feels paranoid. Cheap “Happy Birthday” decorations are hung up on the back wall behind a stage with a microphone stand, amp, and stool.
Kusina is quiet at 11 a.m., and as I’m looking around, I notice an antiquated clamp-on spotlight situated craftily in-between the ceiling tiles. Through the speakers, Filipino singer Imelda Papin bellows out a melodic and sad sounding love song, “Kung Ikaw Lang Ako” (If Only You Were Me) over a generically simple karaoke track.
The restaurant begins to fill up as the time approaches noon, and a table next to me is served their canton noodle pansit, which has no trouble filling out an oversized oval dish. It is a staggering amount of noodles, and the price of the pansit, I see, is completely reasonable. Then again, everything here is. This is a friendly restaurant serving sincere food. The vibes at Kusina Filipina are decidedly Sunday, although it’s not the one I grew up with. This is somebody else’s Sunday, and I feel lucky to be a part of it.
With 70-plus items on Kusina’s menu, there’s a lot to try at Jun Miranda and Gareth Cafirma’s restaurant, but it’s perhaps best to begin with the Filipino hits — starting with the wildly addictive crispy pork sisig. The pork cheek is rendered perfectly — fatty yet still crispy, and served with chile, caramelized onion and scallions. No egg on top — instead it gets cracked and fried on the bottom of the skillet before the pile of pork lardons are added.
The egg-on-bottom approach explains everything you need to know about Kusina, and it’s why I love this place. Yeah, your Insta pic might lose a few likes without that seductive and oozy egg posing for your followers, but blindly topping everything in egg yolk these days is an easy substitution for creativity, and Kusina Filipina isn’t about trends.
Pork and lemon might not seem like bedfellows for the sisig uninitiated, but Filipino food is all about utilizing acidity and sourness. Use it and you’ll never be able to eat pork fat without squeezing a lemon wedge first again. For $13.99, you get a meal that, if you add rice, comfortably feeds two. Kusina isn’t a pricey restaurant brought to life by a restaurant group — they exist to feed you.
The sauce that comes with the chicken adobo, dark and acidic and thick, is outstanding. It’s packed with so much deeply developed flavor that trying just the adobo sauce with some white rice is a meal itself. Order the aforementioned pansit with choice of noodle (egg, rice, or Canton), and you can expect a fresh tasting noodle without added salt or oil.
Jun tells me it was a conscious decision in his cooking not to add MSG or too much oil. “ Me and my family are going to eat this, too,” he tells me as if to say, “Why on earth would I sabotage my own body with vegetable oil?”
You’ll notice the lack of grease on everything Jun and Gareth serve, and that’s intentional. Kusina also does right by halo-halo, a sundae dish filled to the brim with Jell-O cubes, beans, corn flakes, flan, purple potato ice cream, evaporated milk and crushed ice — it looks superfluous and is definitely a little hazardous to eat, but it’s rare that just the mere sight of a dessert makes you laugh joyfully. I challenge you to find a more fun dish than halo-halo.
Filipino food has been championed as “the next big thing” for years now by chefs, authors, and TV hosts — which, dirty little secret, just means that it’s the next cuisine to get elevated and sold at a high price. Declaring a culture’s food as the haute new ticket, as a lot of Filipino chefs will tell you, is usually hasty and reductive. While it’s undeniable to ignore the trendy appeal of dishes like pork sisig and oxtail kare kare, it’s also interesting that Filipino food exists in this curious grey area where it’s being elevated before most people have even grasped the traditional concepts and flavors.
I know a lot of people who are totally green to Filipino food, and they’re headed to Ma’m Sir to get the slender and golden lumpia made with shrimp mousse and sea urchin. While they are delicious, those lumpia also run 14 bucks compared to Kusina’s $9. Start at the spots with humble roots, the down-to-earth family restaurant selling dishes at an affordable price — the place with the makeshift stage, eternal 60th birthday balloons, and rigged up speakers blasting Imelda Papin.
Kusina Filipina, 4157 N. Eagle Rock Blvd., Eagle Rock; (323) 229-0228.
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