Kusina Pilipina: Filipino Home Cooking on Route 27
Route 27 stretching from Kendall Park through North Brunswick has been home to a continuously evolving string of modest ethnic eateries for as long as I can remember (which is several decades, going back to the well-remembered A-Kitchen and Sitar). The newest ethnic group to be represented is Filipino. Last week when I drove by the sign announcing Kusina Pilipina – located behind the Dunkin Donuts near Beekman Road in Franklin Park – I knew I had to check it out. In part, because I was consumed with guilt.
As a restaurant critic, I am often asked if there’s any particular cuisine I dislike. I always answer no, that if it’s authentic and capably prepared, all of the world’s cooking is delicious. But in my head I had to admit that the few times I had sampled Filipino food – always at pan-Southeast Asian chains or at a modest storefront grocery/take-out place like this one – I hadn’t enjoyed it. Too dense, soggy, muddled, oily, and/or boring, with too much sourness or, if not that, then either overly sweet or salty.
Kusina Pilipina is none of the above. Dishes with clear, clean flavors and uncharacteristically light textures shine in what seems more like Filipino home cooking than restaurant fare or fast-casual take-out. In fact, proprietor Maria T. Morales (known as Mae) uses recipes she learned growing up on the island province of Cebu, where her parents had a small eatery.
Her inexpensive noodle, bbq, and stewed dishes are made fresh on site each day, from quality ingredients (especially noticeable in the meat and vegetables). They are light and nuanced when called for, earthy and full-bodied other times. Nothing I sampled was overly salty or sweet. Even these skewers of sticky boneless bbq pork (I literally smacked my lips over it) and brown sugar-coated plantains (a must if you like plantains) didn’t cross the sweetness barrier:
As for sour and salty, it mostly comes on the side, as in the tiny cup of shrimp paste, below, that accompanies an order of kare kare (extreme right). Kare kare is the signature Filipino stew of oxtail and tripe in peanut sauce, here also made with bok choy, eggplant, and green beans:
At top left is the Philippine’s famous stir-fried noodle dish, pancit, here light and fluffy and without any trace of oiliness. In case you can’t make it out due to my dubious photographic skills, it contains two kinds of noodles: cellophane & vermicelli. I also brought home a container of stew made from boneless chicken, bitter melon, and strands of beaten egg which, like the kare kare, is meant to be spooned over white rice. Since it is not especially photogenic I’ll spare you my sad attempt to capture it. Ditto for an excellent dessert: turon, a crunchy, deep-fried (but greaseless) spring roll filled with slices of plantain and jackfruit cooked almost to a custard and sweetened with brown sugar.
In the year that it’s been open, Kusina Pilipina’s takeout fare and catering options have amassed a well-deserved following among both Filipinos and the larger community. The downside is that its website is still under construction, but Ms. Morales promises it will soon be fully functional.
Central NJ Gets a New Farmers Market
To be honest (again?! as if the above confession weren’t enough!) I really thought that by this time the Princeton area had enough seasonal outdoor farmers markets. But once I reviewed the specifics about the Princeton Forrestal Village Farmers Market, which debuts on Friday, June 6, I reconsidered.
First off, it’s held on Fridays, from 11 am to 2 pm. That means it won’t compete with my other favorites – West Windsor on Saturday; downtown Princeton on Thursday. Second, among its 6 farms are a couple you don’t find participating elsewhere ’round these parts: Rolling Hills (“beyond organic”) and Double Brook (the folks behind Brick Farm Market in Hopewell.) Third, among its non-farm offerings are the award-winning wines of Unionville Vineyards, the incomparable baked goods of Jen Carson of Lillipies (perhaps you’ve enjoyed them at Small World Coffee), and the unique condiments of Herb n Zest (caramelized apple champagne mustard, anyone?).
To recap: the Princeton Forrestal Village Farmers Market runs on Fridays from June 6th through September 26 (except for July 4th), between 11 am and 2 pm.
And now, your moment of zen (with apologies to John Stewart)
Nothing food-related…nothing anything-related except that it reflects my continuing amazement at what a great area we are privileged to live in. Last Saturday I walked the wildflower trails at Bowman’s Hill outside of New Hope, PA. A smattering of the wonders I encountered is pictured to the right and below, thanks to my guide and friend, wildlife expert Carolyn Edelmann, whose blog is njwildbeauty.