What you see is what you get at turo turo restaurants, a concept developed in the Philippines. Turo turo means "point point" in Tagalog, and that is how you deal with the ample selection of food on display. Point out what you want, and a generous spoonful is placed on your plate. At Greenhills on Beverly Boulevard, a combination meal includes two choices from the steam table, a large serving of rice and a bowl of broth for $3.25. The broth is usually drained from sinigang, a tartly seasoned soup that combines vegetables with meat or seafood. Or it might come from chicken tinola, a mild, ginger-flavored concoction of boiled chicken and green papaya.
Turo turo restaurants offer fast service, which makes them popular with workers on tight lunch breaks. Between noon and 1 p.m., Greenhills is so crowded that getting a seat seems impossible. But people eat quickly and leave, so a spot usually opens by the time you've paid the cashier.
The choice of dishes varies from day to day. The last time I was there, the high points were bangus (milkfish) poached in vinegar with ginger and garlic, and soupy mongo guisado, as tasty a bowl of beans as I've ever had. The tiny mung beans were cooked with pork, shrimp and loads of garlic.
Other dishes were equally good but suffered from being prepared in advance and allowed to stand. Skewers of glistening barbecued pork had many takers, but the meat was cold and, consequently, more chewy than it should have been. Filipino-style chop suey included a variety of crisp vegetables, sliced sausage, meat and quail eggs in a ginger-flavored sauce. Its only flaw was the temperature, which ranged from cool to barely warm.
Other dishes that might be on hand include laing-- spinach in coconut sauce with shrimp and pork. It's a spicy specialty from Bicol, the region of the Philippines that dotes on chiles. Chicken adobo is usually available. Or there might be squid adobo with a sauce blackened by the ink.
Other seafood dishes served at Greenhills include catfish in coconut sauce with spinach, fried fish (Filipinos like it solidly cooked rather than light and tender) and bangus braised Spanish style with tomatoes, onion and garlic and then combined with eggs. The other day main dish servings of soup (pinangat) included a small whole pomfret.
Filipinos are accustomed to eating variety meats, so these appear in some dishes. Or there might be the uniquely Filipino kare kare. The name sounds like curry, but there the resemblance ends. The dish is composed of oxtails in a peanut sauce that is bland until alleviated by a dash of the strong tasting shrimp-based condiment, bagoong. Filipinos also admire the sharp taste of bitter melon, a requisite in the vegetable combination called pinakbet.
As alternatives to steamed rice, there could be fried rice or fried noodles (pancit). Like the chop suey, these reflect the Chinese contribution to Philippine cuisine. Fresh lumpia (spring rolls), a lettuce leaf emerging from each soft wrapper, usually sit atop a counter. And there are appealing desserts, which apparently are ordered from outside, for I saw the restaurant name on labels attached to the containers.
Purple, white and orange make a striking color scheme for sapin sapin, a three-layer gelatinous dessert of coconut milk and rice flour. You dig out your own serving with the help of a spatula and sprinkle crisp toasted coconut over the top. Biko, a rice cake colored violet with ube paste (ube is a purple yam) was embellished with bits of jackfruit. And maja blanca, a cornstarch-thickened coconut pudding, contained corn kernels.
Greenhills, named for a district of Metro Manila, is plain but neat. At rush hour, there is a valiant attempt to wipe off the tables between customers, and that's about the extent of the service.
Greenhills Restaurant, 2745 W. Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles. (213) 487-4224. Open daily from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Cash only. No reservations. Park in shopping center lot (there is seldom space during the lunch rush) or on the street.