Kyle Nabilcy is, among other things, a food writer. Jenni Dye is, among other things, a Dane County Board member. We'll be visiting a restaurant, cafe, or bar in each of the county's 37 board districts in a feature we're calling...The Hunger Danes.
A little over a month ago, Jenni and I lost a good friend, Phil Ejercito. He was best known in the Madison area as a superb photographer; he had an eye for extreme weather events, and a passion for liberal politics. He produced some amazing artwork as a result of those and other interests. But in addition to his skill behind a lens - and being a crack LOST trivia team member, an avid disc golfer, and all-around good dude - he was proud of his Filipino heritage, especially as it related to food. I remember a conversation I had with Phil about embutido, a meatloafy sausage studded with hard-boiled eggs and other goodies -- a classic dish of the Philippines.
It was a coincidence of sad import that Jenni and I had drawn District 4, home of Madison's only Filipino restaurant, over a month before Phil's death. When we re-convened after the last Hunger Danes post to pick a spot, it was an obvious choice: we'd go to Mabuhay, in a small nod to our friend. After all, if he was here today, he'd probably have come with us.
Mabuhay is a buffet-service restaurant on South Park Street, in the space that had most recently been briefly occupied by Smiley's II. (So brief was its tenure that a Google search of the address, 1272 S. Park St., doesn't return its name until the end of page two.) South Park continues to hog many of the landmarks of Madison's burgeoning multicultural dining scene, and with Mabuhay, it offers something to be found in no other area restaurant: the spit-roasted pig preparation known as lechon.
So, of course, the day we went was not the day lechon is offered. Sorry.
Jenni and I were joined by friend (both of ours and of Phil) and Isthmus staffer Kristian Knutsen. We reminisced about Phil, we talked politics (okay, Jenni and Kristian talked politics, but I listened intently), and we ate. Mostly in solitude, we ate, as there was only one other party in there with us until the very end, when a family showed up about 15 minutes before closing. Normally, this late arrival would probably have been an annoyance to the kitchen, but 1) it's a buffet, so they're probably happy to move more food out, and 2) the staff-of-one (and, I presume, owner) was just about the nicest person you'd ever meet working a solo restaurant shift.
Sadly, by the late hour in which we arrived, some of the food had started to suffer from its stay on the steam table. Things were drying out, getting crunchy around the edges, and at least one set of tongs was literally too hot to handle. But there were some great dishes, and the shadow of faded glory even on the ones that had heated past their prime.
We all loved the basic beef stir fry, with multicolored bell peppers. As with many dishes of the Philippines, there was a strong vinegar note to the seasoning, but the sweetness of the peppers and richness of the beef soothed that acidic hit quite nicely. Everyone loaded up on lumpia Shanghai, the egg/spring roll of Filipino cuisine that in this variety is skinny and deep-fried. Think of them more as breadsticks than spring rolls; the filling is minimal, but the overall effect is a crunchy, savory accent piece. On the sweet side of that coin, the deep-fried, banana-filled egg roll called turon was a crowd-pleaser.
From there, opinions differed, as they are wont to do. Kristian and I loved the dark adobo pork, served in golf ball-sized hunks, with a rich layer of fat between meat and skin. Admittedly, some of these pieces were too dried out to really savor, and this impacted Jenni's appreciation of the dish. Luck of the draw, there. The adobo chicken was equally tasty, and less dried out than the pork.
A couple noodle dishes (generally called pancit, though I wasn't sure on the specific varieties as there are no labels on anything) were a mixed bag. Both had shrimp; the vermicelli version was the better of the two, but the noodles were starting to scorch. The version with thick (probably egg) noodles included bean sprouts that brought a welcome nutty element to the dish, but was, again, a little dry.
It should be pointed out that there are many, many sauces and condiments available at Mabuhay, but we all steered clear of them for lack of knowledge in applying them, and also to get a feel for the dishes on their own. Such adulteration is, of course, important to the experience of Filipino food, so we'd recommend just taking a few chances. It's a buffet; you can't really go wrong.
There is a separate table for desserts, which include the aforementioned turon. The maja blanca, a sweet corn pudding with the consistency of a firm flan or panna cotta, made everyone around the table happy. The cassava cake, which is flavored with coconut, was dense and delicately sweet, but could have been better either warm, or with a sauce of some sort. (Again, pretty sure it was cassava cake; no labels for dessert, either.) If you see the swiss cake roll-lookin' things, those are called pianono; the purple one is flavored with yam, and they're pretty good.
I'm saving the best for last here, because the appearance at our table -- unrequested -- of three hot, fresh steamed buns exemplifies the best that Mabuhay has to offer. The large, softball-sized buns, called siopao bola-bola, are nearly identical to Chinese bao and came filled with a firm pork meatball. Siopao asado were also available on the buffet table; these smaller buns were filled with a saucy pork mixture not unlike Chinese barbecue. The asado in particular were terrific, especially dosed with a little soy sauce, and in retrospect lend some credence to my thought that Mabuhay might succeed better with dim sum-style service. (More staff would surely be required, but probably not as many as by-order service.)
Now, I generally don't like to speak ill of another area food writer, but I was pretty disappointed with the treatment given to Mabuhay by 77 Square. The review ran way too close to dismissive on a couple occasions, and the last word of the sidebar statement "Not a lot for vegetarians or children" really bothered me. Implicit in that line is the pickiness of some children, or the presupposed pickiness imposed on children by their parents. More worrisome is the cultural tone-deafness; what have children in the Philippines been eating for centuries? It sure isn't mac and cheese or prefab mini tacos.
There's plenty of parking at Mabuhay, which is right next to the Copps on South Park. Plenty of seats, too, even if more are filled than were during our visit. The buffet is inexpensive and diverse, and the vibe is charming. I imagine Phil would have loved it, and if I ever see embutido on the line, I'll have a slice for him. And I'm definitely going back some Friday for the lechon.