Learning the language of Filipino cuisine is as easy as a trip to Lakewood.
There, diners will find two new turo-turo restaurants that have opened at the edge of Lakewood’s Korean dining district.
Roughly translated, turo-turo means “point-point” and that’s literally what diners do at Dito Tayo and Mother Lily’s Kusina.
Like their counterparts in the Philippines, the steam table restaurants in Lakewood feature one-pot Filipino dishes ready to be taken away immediately. Just point at what you want and it’ll be bagged or plated with scoops of rice for a quick meal. Some items, such as lumpia, are made to order, but nearly everything is ready for takeout at a turo-turo restaurant.
Adobo, pancit and lumpia — three of the easiest Filipino dishes to find around here — are on the menus at both, but both also go deeper into territory hard to find in Pierce County. Diners will find the meaty oxtail stew flavored with peanuts called kare-kare, and the blood stew called dinuguan. Dito Tayo sells lechon kawali, the fried pork belly dish, by the pound.
Of the two new restaurants, my palate preferred the thick stews and flawless lumpia at Dito Tayo, but Mother Lily’s Kusina earned extra points for its whole bone-in tilapia, tinged with ginger.
Dito Tayo opened in December where Polynesian Grill once operated, next door to Cham Garden, the only Korean tabletop barbecue buffet in the region (and a personal favorite).
The heady scents of adobo, lumpia and dinuguan wafted from the steam table. But Dito Tayo’s dining room was in the middle of a makeover on my visit — the sign outside still said Polynesian Grill until this week — so give this restaurant time for the dust to settle.
This is a casual restaurant intended for quick lunches or take out, and it’s priced accordingly. Find a menu with more than a dozen offerings, mostly around $5.99-$7.99.
A restaurant’s success is in the details, and I appreciated what I saw. The steam table fare here tasted long simmered. Stews appeared uniform and well blended — no oily separation or funky textures.
I had my heart set on kare-kare ($5.99), the oxtail stew with a backbone of peanuts, but the restaurant had run out.
My Plan B was dinuguan ($5.99), the blood stew, which turned out to be a pleasant surprise. I’d get that dinuguan stew again in a heartbeat. A tweak of vinegar balanced the minerally back-note of the blood-based stew. And the portion served with two scoops of rice proved plenty for lunch and then some.
Pork adobo ($5.99) was heady with garlicky tang, and the thick stew tasted long simmered.
I would have preferred both stews served a bit hotter, temperature wise, but that was my sole complaint.
From the fresh menu, a six-piece order of lumpia ($4.99) was the best I’ve tried in the county (and that includes the excellent Northwest Lumpia and Lumpia World). Six cigar-length fried rolls were plump with a pleasing texture — the marinated pork was chopped thicker than I’m used to seeing in lumpia, with no annoying filler vegetables turning the fried roll soupy. The noodle dish pancit bihon ($4.99) came threaded with slices of Chinese sausage. Two other pancits were available, pancit canton ($4.99/$6.99) or pancit palabok ($6.99).
Service here was extremely friendly, with easily supplied explanations for everything on the steam table. Grab a tray and silverware upon entering and just point to what you want.
MOTHER LILY’S KUSINA
In the former home of Old San Juan is Mother Lily’s Kusina, a quick eats cafeteria restaurant serving turo-turo specialties straight off a steam table. Diners will find a hole-in-the-wall outfit with a cramped entry on the steam table side. A line might snake into the adjacent dining room, which was equipped with a flat panel television playing Filipino game shows and plenty of four-tops for parties large or small.
Like Dito Tayo, find value-focused dining in a casual environment. The menu changes frequently, which diners can track on the restaurant’s Facebook page ( facebook.com/motherlilyskusina, although it’s not updated every day). Find the menu written on a whiteboard just behind the steam-table counter. The fare here was simply presented and included most of the dishes found at Dito Tayo, with the addition of whole tilapia. Nothing on my visit was priced higher than $5.99.
Pancit ($4.99, large) was an interesting take with two kinds of noodles: The typical slippery rice noodles, but also a thicker Chinese style noodle.
Chicken adobo ($4.99) was the most unctuous I’ve ever seen this dish. It came with a sauce so oily, I couldn’t stomach more than a few bites. The hit of the meal was whole bone-in tilapia ($5.99), simmered in a gingery sauce with broadly sliced Chinese eggplant. The lumpia was lukewarm (60 cents each) and filled with dry meat, short on flavor, but also light on vegetable filler.
Friendly staffers were adept at answering questions, and dishes were shuttled to our table quickly. We were out in fewer than 30 minutes, and that left plenty of time for lingering.
Tip: Fans of Old San Juan can still find the sister restaurant OSJ International just down the street at 12822 Pacific Hwy SW, Lakewood; 253-301-2453.