Let me start by confessing the sum total of what I know about Filipino cuisine:

1) Adobo chicken. Love at first bite.

2) Halo Halo. Years ago, I had the great good fortune to live in Honolulu for a year, where I had the great good fortune to stumble upon a Filipino restaurant and order the dessert. It’s made from a mishmash of strange – to Western palates – ingredients like jellies, sweet red beans, shaved ice and sweet potatoes. Likewise, love at first bite.

3) Pandan cake, although I couldn’t swear that the slices I have tasted (and loved) are from the Philippines and not some other Southeast Asian country.

My ignorance made me feel nervous about going to the new Buena Vista Filipino Food Market on Main Street in South Portland and rendering any sort of judgment; the grocery store opened in July. On weekends (for now), it sells prepared, heat-and-serve meals from a refrigerated case by the door. As it turns out, curiosity is the secret sauce, and I had plenty of that.

On the Sunday afternoon last month when I stopped by, there were six prepared items in the refrigerator to chose from, all clearly freshly made and priced between $10 and $15. The menu changes each week and is listed on the store’s Facebook page. Based solely on the ingredients list – pork, long beans, buttercup squash, onions, garlic, tomato, coconut milk, spicy shrimp paste, fish sauce – I brought home the Ginataang Stitaw Kalabasa ($15), a dish I can’t pronounce but was eager to eat. Based solely on whimsy, I also got a takeout container filled with Filipino Style Spaghetti ($10).


I found the kalabasa – which I ate with jasmine rice that I cooked when I got home – mild, very creamy and pleasant. The dish was light on spice and light on the pork, but the squash was so meaty and dense, I didn’t miss the meat. The dish was rich, probably from that coconut milk, so I was able to get two meals out of it.

The Filipino Style Spaghetti at Buena Vista Filipino Food Market. Photo by Peggy Grodinsky

Compared to the spaghetti I’m familiar with, the Filipino spaghetti was sweet, and it had a taste I couldn’t identify (the Filipino spaghetti sauce or maybe the Filipino ketchup on the ingredients list?). It was punctuated with ground pork and delicately sliced hot dogs. It tasted a bit like an exotic American chop suey.

My favorite item was taho ($4.25), which I’d spied in the back room of the store, sitting in a plastic cup on a tray. I ate it for dessert, though I later read on the internet that it’s a classic breakfast in the Philippines. Let me tell you, it beats the pants off cold cereal. Irregular clumps of silken tofu were topped with big tapioca pearls and doused in sugar syrup. But it was light and refreshing, not the least overly sweet like about a million American desserts I could name.

Taho, for snacking or breakfast, at the Buena Vista Filipino Food Market. Photo by Peggy Grodinsky

If you’re interested in Filipino food, allow yourself extra time to roam the immaculate grocery store. According to its website, the store “offers a variety of delightful goodies that are product creations proudly made by Filipinos.” Here is a very partial list of the items on the shelves of Buena Vista that intrigued me (there is a small array of non-food items, too): small-batch avocado ice cream, small-batch purple yam ice cream, purple yam porridge, purple yam jam, crab paste, hot and spicy banana sauce, instant mung bean in coconut milk dessert, spiced coconut vinegar, smoked vinegar, instant coconut-pandan flavor jelly cubes, and adobo roasted peanuts with garlic. If I hadn’t been embarrassed by surreptitiously jotting down notes and snapping photographs on my smartphone as other customers merely shopped, this list would be twice as long.

Comments are no longer available on this story