No Spring Chicken, Manila Cafe Is Still a Rare Bird

Regardless of where it's parked, it has always attracted a crowd.

Seattle is a hotbed of Asian-American cuisine, beginning and ending with the can't-miss International District, where it's nearly impossible to find a less-than-satisfying eatery. Founded in 1953, Fernando Martinez's Manila Cafe was part of this multihued fabric for nearly 40 years, attracting diners from far and wide with signature dishes such as beef inihaw. Among its Asian brethren, the Manila Cafe was something of an anomaly: It served Filipino food, a cuisine that's still perplexingly underrepresented in Seattle today. Upon leaving the ID in 1990, Martinez moved his restaurant to West Seattle's Delridge corridor, where it remained open until his death a few years later. Martinez's granddaughter, Renee Bell, revived the Manila Cafe in West Seattle's Morgan Street Junction in 2004, before recently moving to its current location in a strip mall on East Marginal Way, just north of Boeing Field. "It's a lot more centrally located for our older customers who remember us from the ID location," says Bell, who reports that lunch business has been brisk since the move last May, buoyed by the high concentration of warehouse, municipal, and aerospace workers in the area. "Asian soul food" gets tossed around quite a bit when referring to, say, Korean barbecue, but the shoe fits best when applied to Filipino cuisine. Part of this has to do with Filipino food's relative simplicity and affordability, but a bigger part of it likely has to do with the island country's mutt culture and embrace of Americana. Bell's recent addition of comfort foods such as roast turkey sandwiches and mashed potatoes to her menu only serves to enhance this notion. The Manila Cafe is the northernmost of four businesses in a strip mall along the dank industrial corridor that is East Marginal. Its neighbors—a Chinese restaurant, a doughnut bakery, and a convenience store—are all connected to one another, à la a food court or truck stop. (One can purchase knives and adult videos alongside corn dogs and $1.99 Avril Lavigne posters in the convenience store.) As nondescript as the Manila Cafe's exterior is, its tidy, earth-toned interior is evocative of a cozy Hawaiian barbecue joint. Half the menu would be right at home in a sports bar; it features onion rings, gizzards, fried zucchini, chicken strips, wings, and popcorn shrimp, for instance. The other half is pure Philippines, with the inihaw (basically little chunks of tender, salty steak served with rice over a bed of salad) as strong a draw as ever. But, man, the chicken adobo: spicy, dripping wet, and sliding off the bone, this is a dish that should be tried and retried by any true bird lover, and not just adventurous ones. In fact, if Ezell's and Manila were to hook up in the sack...er, shack, you'd have the poultry equivalent of Brangelina in terms of genetic perfection. mseely@seattleweekly.com

 
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