I have stopped by Sari Sari Store five times in the last three days, and I'm not sure if I should be admitting this to you or to a therapist.
On Monday, I walked over with Times Food editor Amy Scattergood, my Sari Sari Store enabler, and tried the arroz caldo, the sisig fried rice and also the adobo fried rice. On Tuesday morning, Amy texted me to say a section meeting was already underway at Sari Sari Store, so I found myself back at the counter with an order of lechon manok — spit-roasted chicken — as well as a cantaloupe slush and a few forkfuls of buko pie. Late that afternoon, I came in for an early supper of grilled pork ribs, silog made with homemade "Spam'' and a taste of tortang talong, which is grilled eggplant dipped into beaten egg and fried. Wednesday's breakfast (Amy's choice, again) was another bowl of arroz caldo, and I breezed through again a few hours later for halo-halo and a coffee with condensed milk. I've given up my fidget spinner. I have Sari Sari Store instead.
My colleagues and I have probably adored Sari Sari Store a little too much lately, partly because we're as likely to become crushed out on a new restaurant as a 14-year-old is on the latest Zayn track, and partly because the idea of a Filipino-style lunch counter run by République's Margarita and Walter Manzke is just too much, especially in downtown L.A.'s Grand Central Market.
Deputy food editor Jenn Harris swooned over the buko pie this week. So I won't say that much more about it, other than to say that Margarita Manzke comes close to baking the best, darkest pie crust in Los Angeles, that the custard is as dense as pastry cream because it is pastry cream, and that while you would think that the jelly-soft layer of buko, young coconut, might pull the dessert toward the exotic, it ends up tasting like the kind of coconut cream pie you might find at a roadside diner in Oklahoma if you were very, very lucky.
Amy loves the halo-halo, a layered dessert of jellied coconut, ice cream, fruit, crushed ice and other things, although I will act the purist for a moment and insist that the purple yam, omitted here, is an essential part of the experience, and that the Sari Sari Store version may bear a closer resemblance to the chewy, icy Vietnamese desserts called chè you find at sweet shops in Little Saigon than it does to the halo-halo at the old-school Filipino places. There is a place for them both.
But Sari Sari Store is basically devoted to the Filipino rice bowl, a hybrid form made popular here at places like Rice Bar and Oi, a savory, salty, nominally healthful dish of silog — a toss of meat, vegetables and aromatics — served over pickle-spiked garlic-fried rice. There is always a fried egg on top. And the Manzkes, whose refined French cooking has been revered in Los Angeles for years, are masters of balance — you may notice the subtleties before you blast them into the umami zone with fish sauce, Sriracha and chile-infused vinegar. (You may have self-control, but I am kind of a peasant.)
It may be an odd thing to say about a restaurant, but at Sari Sari Store it really doesn't matter what you order. If you get adobo fried rice, you will find a bit of sweetness from the pork belly's marinade; the sisig, fried pig's head, is crunchier and more assertively salty; and the grilled eggplant is smokier, richer, more tart. The grilled pork ribs tend to smack more of the backyard Weber than of the pit, if that's a factor, and the chewiness is not quite tamed. The slices of housemade "Spam," soft and fluffy, seared almost black, are pretty wonderful, especially if you were expecting the high salt-sweet flavor of the actual trademarked meat in a can.
Chef de cuisine Don Dalao brines his chicken — the meat is almost bouncy — before cooking it slowly on the rotisserie the restaurant inherited from Bar Moruno, the former occupant of this corner of Grand Central Market, and the sweetish sauce inhabits the skin, which is more sticky than crackly; more bronzed than charred. In the arroz caldo, a lunch favorite at République, the rice is seethed into a loose, hot porridge, fragrant with ginger and fried garlic, thick with chewy mushrooms and little cubes of pork.
The inevitable egg is poached sous-vide to the soft, runny consistency of the eggs you find in ramen. A squirt of lime and a dash of fish sauce transform the flavor — not necessarily better, but different, with an extra level of depth. You're ready for the morning. And Sari Sari will still be waiting for you when you return for a post-work slice of pie.
Sari Sari Store
A new Filipino food counter at Grand Central Market.
Grand Central Market, 317 S. Broadway, Los Angeles, (323) 320-4020, sarisaristorela.com
Savory dishes $11-$13; sweets $6-$8.
8 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily. Beer and wine. Credit cards accepted. Validated parking in lot next door.
Arroz caldo, "Spam" silog, buko pie.
MORE FROM JONATHAN GOLD