Halo-halo is the colorful dessert of indecisive stoner dreams, filled with a hodgepodge of sweets so silly sounding to Westerners that it's taken decades to find a following in the U.S.
In the Philippines — where it's all but the national dessert, perfect for cooling off during the country's long, sweltering summers — no one bats an eye at a glass sundae cup loaded above the rim with strata of up to 20 ingredients, no less than half of which are beans, fruits and vegetables drenched in caramelized sugar.
Essentially a serving of shaved ice plopped atop whatever other Filipino sweetness is lying around (think: jackfruit, fermented coconut water, seaweed jelly and evaporated milk; a dollop of flan and a scoop of ice cream made from ube, the purple yam, rest atop), halo-halo is a study in textures, flavors, colors and temperatures.
The dessert's name, which translates to "mix-mix," could easily be a metaphor for the entire country's cultural output. It's also an apt name for chef Ross Pangilinan's month's-old, chef-driven restaurant, another exciting entry currently cementing downtown Santa Ana, the post-post-modern culinary hub of Orange County.
At Mix Mix Kitchen Bar, which occupies the old Little Sparrow space on 3rd Street and Main, Pangilinan presents his own take on its unapologetically messy namesake dessert. In doing so, he reinforces the global mezcla that permeates his entire approach to cooking and demonstrates the glory possible when East meets West goes beyond stale fusion.
Drawing as much from his own Pinoy heritage as it does from his time spent at Michelin-star restaurants in California and France (most recently he spent seven years serving South Coasters at Leatherby's Cafe Rouge), Pangilinan's halo-halo gets reenvisioned as a "tropical verrine" — a European-inspired structured stack of coconut flan, nubs of lychee jelly, preserved kumquats and passion fruit sorbet. A crunch of macadamia nuts ties the dish together.
This kind of international reframing — from France to the Philippines to California and back again, picking up sweet, savory and tangy along the way — happens in every bite at Mix Mix, where studies in textures, flavors, colors and temperatures go beyond desserts.
For starters, there are nibbles as light as a roasted cauliflower stir fry and as rich as crispy pork trotter, all of which are $2 off during happy hour. Tossed with slivers of citrus and cashews, the cauliflower could almost be a SoCal take on Cantonese cashew chicken if not for the swipe of Korean gochujang sauce on the other side of the plate. The sauce allows you to douse the concoction with heat.
The trotter dish is a take on the Filipino delicacy crispy pata, pig's feet prepared with a puffed rind protecting a moist, fatty meat inside. Instead of the usual soy-vinegar dip to go with it, though, a brick of Pangilinan's crispy pata sits atop a hazelnut romesco sauce, with the gangly arms of an expertly charred Spanish-style octopus beckoning you to dig in.
Mix Mix's larger dishes veer from distinctly Asian flavors to displays of Pangilinan's skill in cooking a traditional hangar steak and his affinity for making fresh pasta. For the latter, which rotates frequently, he recently created a giant, CD-sized raviolo drowned in browned butter and salty guanciale that oozes like a good soup dumpling, with egg yolk and herb ricotta. Another pasta dish, a fettuccine lamb bolognese, could have been plucked from an Old World Italian sit-down if not for the foamy Parmesan air (made from the cheese's rind with the kitchen's futuristic aerator) bubbling atop.
The only explicitly Filipino dish in the whole restaurant is the so-called Filipino ceviche, which differs from Latin American versions of the raw fish dish by using vinegar, not citrus, to "cook" the yellowfin flesh. Thai chilis and a coconut lime froth could also pin the dish to the cuisine of any number of Polynesian islands.
Everything is available a la carte for casual nights or, if you crave a more concentrated exploration of the chef's powerful statements, as a prix fixe three- or four-course menu, which if you choose wisely can save you a good amount of money. Better yet, grab a crew and make reservations in advance for the extra special $65 Oui Chef menu, an omakase-style dinner held at the counter, which looks directly into the open kitchen. Here, Pangilinan himself will deliver and explain each dish.
If you opt for the Oui Chef experience and seem surprised by the mash-up of of intense flavors presented on artfully plated dishes or act confused by the occasional use of pork rinds to add a meaty crunch to an otherwise Euro-centric statement, Pangilinan will likely remind you that even though he is Filipino, Mix Mix is not a modern Filipino restaurant (go to Irenia for that straight-forward goodness).
Mix Mix is, however, the home of unexpected expressions from a Filipino chef in his creative prime. Free from the shackles of corporate cooking, Pangilinan is halo-halo-ing the heck out of the world. All you have to do is eat it.
Mix Mix Kitchen Bar is at 300 N. Main St. in Santa Ana. For information, call (714) 836-5158.