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Island Cornucopia

Filipino-Hawaiian grill offers a perfect setting for pure overindulgence

By Andrew X. Pham

THERE IS SOMETHING very attractive and innocent about unrestrained culinary indulgence. Recently, I found myself at Bahay Ihawan, a neighborhood Filipino-Hawaiian restaurant, surrounded by several separate families of Pacific Island decent. They were big-framed folks, jolly with full-bellied laughs and forthright with a vibrant appetite for the mountains of steaming food set before them.

I asked a man at the next table who must have had 200 pounds on me, "Are you all celebrating something?"

He laughed good-naturedly. "It's just our family weekly get-together. Sometimes we eat in, sometimes we go out." He popped another fist of calamari into his mouth and grinned.

The waitresses marched heaping dishes of food to the tables and the patrons dove into them with exuberant gusto. The sights, sounds and aromas of such feedings swept my friend and me up in the simple festivity of eating--the sheer joy of letting go and saying to hell with consequences.

We ordered several more dishes despite the fact that we were halfway through our meal. I was working on a grilled milk fish stuffed with a sauté of tomatoes, onions and cilantro, accented with a vinegary chili sauce. My friend was gnawing on one of her huge Hawaiian BBQ beef ribs.

We summoned some fried fish (a little dry) slathered in a tangy chile sauce called Eastern Daing ($4.99); a platter of bacon and shrimp tempura ($4.95); tokwa at baboy ($4.75), which was tofu and diced pig ears in vinegar (definitely an acquired taste); and a nice sauté of spicy squid and cilantro ($4.95). The food certainly was not haute cuisine, but it was cheap and plentiful, reminiscent of a few Hawaiian luaus we've enjoyed. And gorging was fun.

In truth, we really overdid it, and the check was a tad higher than we had intended. If we had behaved, this would have been a real "Bargain Bite" restaurant. The food is hearty, the portions large. Dinners here are $8.99 across the board, including a savory egg soup, steamed rice, pansit noodles and a choice of chicken, pork, beef, salmon or crab. At $2.99 for one item from a dozen choices ($3.99 for three items), lunches are the best deals.

Sometimes it's hit or miss at this joint. The cooks prep or precook many of the dishes, including the grill items. Once in a while, when you catch them cooking, the goodies that come hot off the grill simply burst with twice as much flavor. In any case, the food here has an honest home-cooked appeal that makes you feel as though you're eating at a friend's home.

Bahay Ihawan is located at 100 Dixon Road, Milpitas (408/945-9055). Send Bargain Bites tips via email or leave voicemail at 408/298-8000, extension 441.

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From the June 19-25, 1997 issue of Metro.

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