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Two restaurants in California made me proudly Pinoy

By MARGIE MORAN FLOIRENDO, The Philippine STAR Published May 26, 2022 5:00 am

If you ever find yourself coasting along the many Southern California freeways, hop on to the 14N and enter the city of Santa Clarita, which boasts big, brand-new homes and a growing commercial area of popular stores and offices.

A welcoming corner of the local commercial center is a sign that is sure to perk up Filipinos: a branch of the Island Pacific Supermarket chain, with a restaurant within its premises that may well already be a popular destination all by itself.

Dungeness crab 

It's a dining place with the witty name familiar to Filipinos, called Crab Mentality—a frame of mind that you may very well acquire once its bountiful dishes are set before you.

Amid the banter of old friends and happy introductions of new faces, we soon eased into place. We were anticipating a hearty feast of assorted seafood cooked in a variety of pleasantly savory sauces, all reminding us of the flavors of home on the other side of the Pacific.

Maine lobster in Cajun sauce

Crab Mentality is known for its crabs, of course. But they served prawns, clams, oysters, mussels, crawfish, and shrimps, creating a medley of tasty, popular dishes that can give the famed Crustacean Restaurants in Las Vegas and Beverly Hills a run for their money at half the prices. 

I focused on the crab submerged in butter, garlic, and pepper until I was stuffed and satisfied. We ate with our hands wrapped in plastic gloves, free to relish the finger-licking good fare while our eyes eagerly chased the new dishes that kept coming to our table and held us captive for more. Even the staple of any expatriated Filipino feast, the trusty classic pancit guisado, held up very well. The sauces that the main food dishes simmered in were given a variety of accompanying ingredients: potatoes, corn, sausages, and various spices. Each meal seemed to be a decadent concoction of the previous, a piece de resistance.

But if you want to have all of the restaurant's fresh offerings in one go, ask for the Fisherman's Bounty. Like everything else on the menu, this one competes for the top-of-the-list position and is a prime palate pleaser, a steal at under $60.00. The rest of the menu costs even less, thus inviting customers of all appetites and budgets.

The restaurant and the supermarket, Santa Clarita's pride, are owned by the most generous and engaging young couple, Nino Lim and his wife, the former Philippine movie star Krista Ranillo. Krista's parents, their various Tupaz relatives, and a couple of other Philippine movie celebrities joined our group, adding a definite luster to a most memorable evening.

Matey Alberto, famed Hollywood and Las Vegas couturier David Tupaz, the author, owners Krista Ranillo and Nino Lim with their son Tara Monsod, Animae’s executive chef, fire up San Diego

Matt Ranillo and his wife Linda Tupaz, who heads the planning of the excellent fare, are Krista's parents. Together with the new manager, former Singapore resident-actress Donita Rose, they made sure everyone was happily well-fed.

A Crab Mentality social gathering: Seated are the author and Matey Alberto; standing are Tim Evans, Linda Ranillo, Naty Pappas, Maritess Tupaz, and the author’s brother, Sebastian Moran.

Famed Couturier for Hollywood and Las Vegas, David Tupaz, and Immigration Officer Tim Evans were entertaining. Meanwhile, through that boisterous melee of hungry gourmands-for-the-evening, I achieved the primary purpose of my trip, which was to reconnect with dear friends Matey Alberto and Naty Pappas.

The author with former actor Matt Ranillo and his grandson

We were pleased with the perfect food and boisterous company on that one nippy and happy spring night in Santa Clarita, California!

Another Filipino to be proud of is chef Tara Monsod of Animae Restaurant in San Diego, California—a high-end Asian fusion eatery owned by Brian Malarkey and Chris Puffer.

As an executive chef, she immediately added Filipino food to the menu while still in her entry position at the establishment.

Short Rib Kare Kare with long beans, eggplant, and bagoong peanut oil

I included Animae in my trip to the States this year, eager to taste everything on the menu. In addition, I wanted a solid justification of why the restaurant preceded its reputation among the best gourmets I know personally. In short, I came prepared to enjoy every intriguing dish that I should try.

It was a great pleasure that I gave in to my gastronomic desires.

The Tuna Kinilaw was incredibly delicious. It had coconut, calamansi, cilantro, chili oil, and a crispy secret ingredient.

I had Tuna Kinilaw mixed in coconut, calamansi, cilantro, and chili oil, for starters. My main course was Short Rib Kare Kare with long beans, eggplant, and bagoong peanut oil. Lastly, for dessert, it was Pandan Malasadas, a concoction of pandan custard, lemon curd, and ginger sugar. The medley of familiar tastes laced with a hint of something pleasantly different was indeed a superb personal experience.

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Chef Tara included other Filipino fare in her Asian dishes: Lechon Kawali with apple paté sarsa, fig, shiso; Salt Spring Guinataang Mussels with coconut, Kabocha squash, baguette and lumpia with wagyu, and roasted peppers with a dipping pear sawsawan. And not to be missed is the Ube Sundae that capped my already unforgettable gastronomic adventure.

A gourmet corner at Animae: The author’s friend, Shirley Townley-Smith and executive chef Tana Monsod

An excellent restaurant must have no less than exquisite and vibrant cuisine. The quality of the food and its presentation is essential for it to affect people positively. And the chef must live for the moment that her new concoction touches the tongue and perks up the taster's entire face into one big, satisfied smile.

The author’s friend of 50 years, our host, Fritz Friedman: He was senior vice president of Worldwide Publicity of Sony Pictures and currently the commissioner of the San Diego Commission for Arts and Culture.

Chef Tara has placed Filipino food on the international culinary map, judging from the full-house attendance of an all-American group of diners that filled Animae that evening. We have this sense of pride in our country when, halfway around the world, we get to dine in a restaurant where people other than ourselves enjoy the cuisine we grew up with!

Proud to be Pinoy!