“Let’s do a challenge while we’re in San Diego!” Jackie texted while I was in my office preparing a list of items that I needed to do before taking off for a short vacation.
“Ok, we should eat Filipino food every night since we don’t do this often!” I texted back.
“Yes! Let’s eat Halo-Halo!” Jackie replied.
“Ok, a halo-halo challenge then!” I responded.
Halo-halo is the epitome of what many consider as the Filipino dessert. My husband and sons think that halo halo is just not appealing, while my daughter who is more adventurous with her palate actually likes the dessert.
If you Google halo-halo, you’ll find that it consist of shaved ice over a variation of sweet beans (red, sugarified garbanzo), some jello like concoction, jack fruit, leche flan (an egg custard dessert in it of itself), and this is all topped off with either ube or coconut ice cream. Sometimes it is even sprinkled with a rice krispy-esque topping.
“It’s on!” Jackie texted.
Here’s the thing with my sister—when she commits, she commits. I, on the other hand, would be the first to call “uncle!” or “mercy” and give up when I could no longer take it. As children, she would be the first up for any challenges, and I would be the first to call it quits while using my “I’m the oldest, so I have the say when it’s done!” card. When we were growing up, I often used that card when it was to my advantage, and quite frankly, I was such the asshole oldest sister who was always in charge and controlled everything. On the other hand, Jackie always rose to the challenge and pushed her way past everything.
As we grew up, Jackie’s tenacity assisted her with everything she’s ever tackled on and she always accomplished all of her goals without complaint nor remorse. It was no wonder that she’s a Registered Nurse and an officer in the Navy. Props up, bow down to the Queen.
Agreeing to this halo-halo quest, I forgot that I’ll be doing it with the sister who won’t quit.
On my first night in San Diego, I waited for Jackie to return from her shift and after doing our happy dance of seeing each other and laughing like little girls instead of the grown ass women that we are, we decided to take on the first Filipino restaurant: Villa Manila.
Villa Manila is located in San Diego. The restaurant is nestled within several stores where building looked as if it was design by a German company who loved structures that you may find in Garmisch, Switzerland or the Black Forest in Switzerland. The restaurant prides itself with catering to kamayan eatery (quite honestly, I have no idea what its called—but, it consists of everyone gathering around the table laden with banana leaves and the variations of Filipino food laid out—everyone eats with their hands).
“Ugh. Why does everything have to include pork? Look at this menu: kawali pork, lechon, sautéed pork, pork lumpia, mang tomas sauce with pork,” Jackie said.
“I wonder if they have any vegetables, or salad to counteract all the fried dishes?” I asked.
“What?! Are you crazy?!? This isn’t a salad healthy place! You eat here to increase your cholesterol level!” Jackie responded. As a RN in the Navy, I don’t dare question her medical expertise.
We were interrupted by several children who decided to run around as if they had too much sugar as the adults at their table ignored them, and continued with their conversation.
Jackie and I glanced at our neighbor’s table, and immediately realized that we haven’t seen a group of Filipinos gather together in that way since we were children.
“Well, I don’t see that every day in Fairbanks,” I said.
“Me neither. I don’t see that at all in Connecticut,” she replied.
The truth is, the Filipino community exists in Fairbanks, and I often see them at church (when I am not being a heathen and actually attend mass) or at Fred Meyer’s grocery store (when I am picking up what’s for dinner that night, and I say hello and salamat po – thank you). Jackie’s interaction with Filipinos in Connecticut consists of sponsoring cadets at the Coast Guard academy, and maybe every now and then, through work interacting with Filipino nurses or Naval Officers.
The other truth is that my Dad’s powerful advice resonated with us for so many years. He used to say, “we’re not going to associate with the Filipino community because some of them are gossipers!” However, when we were growing up, we always spent our weekends with his Filipino friends and their families. So, while my Dad may have said this in jest–he never truly meant it because his actions said otherwise. However, his words stayed with us.
“I wouldn’t allow my kids to run around like they rule the place at a restaurant. Damn,” I said. Although, I wondered if our parents had let us run loose like that when they hung out at restaurants.
“Hell naww!! I’d have the kids sit their asses down until we are done eating!” Jackie said.
“This shit is just rude,” I said. I have to admit the kids were cute though.
After looking through the menu a bit more, Jackie and I decided to order a combo platter of fried bangus (fish), and pinakbet. The fried bangus is actually what many called milk fish, and it’s coated with some kind of flour and deep fried. The pinakbet, on the other hand, consists of the most fugliest (fucking ugly) vegetable known to the human race: ampalaya, or in English—bitter melon. Pinakbet is cooked with eggplant, green beans, and shrimp paste (bagoong). The only pinakbet I eat is the one my mother in-laws cooks and she cooks it with pork.
Jackie and I have always been turned off from any dish that includes the fugliest vegetable. For some reason, we feel as though that whenever you add ampalaya to any dish, it just simply fuglifies the cuisine. Period.
When we both decided that the fish was cooked in pork fat and that we were done with dinner, we went ahead and ordered halo-halo. Villa Manila’s halo-halo was served in an ice cream glass, the short kind and it was topped off with ube ice cream.
“Ooooh, it has ube ice cream and a cherry!” Jackie said.
“Oooh I haven’t had ube ice cream in a long time!” I responded.
“Where’s the jack fruit?” Jackie asked.
“Probably floating underneath all the ice,” I said.
“Uh, do you have a lot of the beans and the jello?” Jackie asked.
“I’m still fishing through the ice.’
“Whaaat? We shouldn’t have to fish for all the beans and the jello!”
“Well, I’m still fishing!”
“Is there any leche *plan in yours?” (*We’re pronouncing the ‘f’ as a ‘p’ since that’s the way we’ve heard it being said growing up)
“Oooh, yup! I found my little square leche plan!”
“I’m gonna rate all the halo-halo that we eat. I think this one might get…. A one,” Jackie said.
I couldn’t finish mine. Jackie finished hers.
We decided to get the hell out of Villa Manila before the kids start manifesting and evolving into little monsters.
The next day, we decided to visit our Dad, who lives in Anaheim. Our stepmom was working, and we told him that we want to eat Filipino food and some halo halo.
After our usual hugs, assessing one another–for me, it was to make sure my Dad was still functioning–a habit I developed after he had his stroke. And, I’m sure he was assessing his daughters for any signs of worrying over him. “What are you two doing?” he asked.
“Dad, Jen and I decided to go on a halo-halo experience. You know–to find the best halo-halo!” Jackie said.
“Yah, but our stomachs may not be able to handle all that fried food. I think we had to race to the bathroom last night. Jackie beat me to it,” I said.
We asked our Dad how he’s doing.
“I’m doing well. Trying not to get into trouble,” he said.
“How are your neighbors, Dad?” I asked.
“Oohhh, they are good. Except for this one old guy. He came to borrow my hose one time, and didn’t return it. And, when I asked him, he started to go crazy,” my dad said.
“What do you mean crazy, dad?” Jackie asked.
“Oh, when I asked him to give it back. He started cursing. So, I told him ‘fuck you, motherfucker! I lent you my hose, you need to give it back!” Dad responded.
Jackie and I looked at each other with our own versions of ‘what in the world’ look on our faces.
“Dad, how old is this neighbor?” I asked.
“Same age as me. 71 years old. I told him ‘motherfucker, if you come around threatening me, I’m going to kill you!'” he said.
“Dad, you are both senior citizens. What the hell are you both going to do? Battle it out with your walking canes? Are you serious?!? You can’t be getting into an argument over some damn water hose!” I said.
“My god, Dadddddd…. You don’t know if this old guy is going to come around and shoot you or something!” Jackie chimed in. I looked at my sister and was thinking: are they even capable? I mean their arthritis may be flared up to even shoot a gun, Jackie.
“No, no, it’s fine. I can defend myself,” my dad said shaking off our concerns.
“Well, you can’t be getting into a freakin’ fight with another senior citizen. You’re 71 years old, not 20-years old,” I said. As I said this that Kung-Fu Fighting song by Carl Douglas suddenly started singing in my mind.
I looked over at Jackie who had that look on her face as if she’s attempting to ponder how two 71-year olds would actually battle. I avoided the thought of picturing two 71-year olds battling with their canes, and how ‘fast’ they would be at their punches–I concluded it would be similar to that one gif meme where a sloth is attempting to climb up a hill.
We asked our dad where we should have lunch, and he suggested that we drive to a restaurant called Salo-Salo.
The restaurant is located in a little mall section, but their waiters wore the white buttoned down shirts with a black tie that you would find at higher scale restaurant. There were no crazy ass kids running around, and the aesthetics inside the restaurant consisted of all things Philippines.
We ordered the family platter of Filipino BBQ.
“I wonder if they have any vegetable dishes that isn’t fried, lightly fried, deep fried, sautéed with pork fat, and deep deep fried?” I asked.
“I told you they are not going to have fresh vegetables on the menu unless it’s sprinkled with chicharon!” Jackie said.
“Oooh, maybe I can order accharra on the side!” I said.
“Accha-what?!?” Jackie asked.
“You know, it’s like pickled papaya with sweetened carrots and stuff!” I replied.
“What the hell….” was all Jackie could say. She looked through her menu, “let’s order bagoong fried rice!” she said.
“Christ. Because what is more healthy than shrimp paste fried with rice?!?” I said.
“WE GOING ALL OUT!!” Jackie and I both laughed.
Salo Salo’s halo-halo (Jesus Christ, do Filipinos just repeat names to ensure that they heard it right the first time, Jackie and I both wondered) was fancier. It was served in a short ice cream glass-bowl, and it was topped off with coconut ice cream, and had a twill cookie on top.
“Ooooh, fancy schmancy!” I said.
“Do you see any jack fruit?!?” Jackie asked.
“I don’t know. I haven’t gone fishing for it yet.”
“I don’t see any jack fruit, and there’s so much ice,” Jackie said.
“Do you have any leche plan?” I asked.
“Yup, the leche plan check is checked,” she responded.
“It’s lacking something though,” I said.
“Yah, where the hell are all the beans and the jello?!?” Jackie asked.
“The jello and the beans are M.I.A.”
“Dang. I’m gonna finish this anyway,” Jackie said.
“The presentation is nice though, at least,” I continued to fish for more beans and kept coming up empty spoonded.
“Yah, it doesn’t make up for the fact that it sucks! No jackfruit!” Jackie proclaimed.
She finished her halo halo anyways, and I pondered how I’m going to beat her to the bathroom when we get back to the hotel.
When our stepmom arrived fresh from her work and still wearing her hospital scrubs, she asked what we have been up to.
“We’re on a halo-halo quest, Ruth!” I said.
“Oh, you two are eating halo-halo?” she asked.
“Yup, cause we haven’t eaten halo-halo in years!” Jackie said.
“And, it’s also because we love ube. Jackie loves ube everything,” I said. I can feel my sister look at me with her WTF-are-you-talking-about-face.
“Ooooh! Red Robin, and Jollibees have good halo-halo!” Ruth said. Then, she and my Dad started talking about the places that serves the best halo-halo. They kept listing all these places, as Jackie and I started to feel bloated from lunch.
“Why don’t Ruth get halo-halo?” my Dad asked us, “plus, I want some halo-halo cause I didn’t eat the one at Salo Salo.”
“Oooh, ok! I’m gonna go get some for you guys!” Ruth said. Before Jackie and I could protest that we are suffering from bloatation, and feeling as though we are about to be roasted at a lechon party, Ruth was quickly out the door.
My stepmother is the sweetest woman–always thoughtful and kind. She likes to buy things for the grandkids, and whenever she and my Dad would come up for a visit—she would always go all out with shopping for the kids.
When she returned, Jackie and I thought she bought the entire inventory of the stores she decided to raid. She was carrying bags of ube emsamadas, ube bibingka, ube cake, everything ube. She also picked up some palabok (noodles with shrimp sauce and toppings) meal that included fried chicken.
We ate Ruth’s bounty and talked about politics (not a good topic to discuss with Dad), how the grandkids are doing, what Jackie and I have been up to.
“Ohhh, this Red Ribbon halo halo is pretty good!” Jackie said, “are you going to eat yours?” she asked me.
I looked at my sister like she lost her damn mind. Here I was attempting not to blow up like Veruca Salt, and August Gloop combined and she’s on to the next halo halo!
“Are you crazy?” I whispered back. “I’m still fucking recovering from lunch!”
Jackie shrugged her shoulders, “pack it up to go then!” she said as she tried to suppress her laughter.
“Dad, I finished my capstone and I am done with my Masters!” Jackie announced. We talked about how Jackie and I finished our masters at the same time, and how our little brother is still working on his thesis for his masters. Jackie told us stories about her experiences at work, and how much training she has to commit to every year for the Navy. When we were done with our visit, we hugged our Dad and Ruth, and informed them that we will start visiting every year.
I felt that we have come full circle with the visit. As in, we used to visit our grandparents each summer when we lived in California, and they always looked forward to seeing their middle son, and his family. Time has now made its lineal presence where my Dad’s children are visiting him. My Dad and Ruth walked Jackie and I out–just as my grandparents walked us to our family van when we were leaving for our visit–my Dad has now become my Lolo (grandfather). Both he and Ruth watched us drive away and I watched them both wave at us until we had to turn the corner.
“Ugh, I can’t believe you told Ruth I love Ube! You’re packing that up to take home or I’m going to end up eating it all!” Jackie said.
“Fine. You can use the bathroom first when we get to the hotel, then.”
Our next stop involved what to have for dinner the following night. We decided to order for take-outs. Our plan was strategical: we would mean driving out to the restaurant and eat back at the hotel–this way, if we got sick–the bathroom was right around the corner and we didn’t have to worry about any possible embarrassing bathroom situations.
We decided on Manila Grill in National City since they boasted that they have the best halo-halo in the San Diego.
Jackie and I decided to order some lumpias along with another version of palabok that Ruth had mentioned. And, finally, two halo-halos.
We told the guy that was making the halo-halo for us that we were on a halo-halo challenge.
“Oh really! That’s cool! We have the best halo halo in San Diego!” He said as he packed up our order.
“That’s what we heard. We haven’t had halo halo in years, since we don’t live in California anymore,” I said.
“Oh really? Where are you guys from?” He asked.
“I’m from Connecticut, and she’s from Alaska,” Jackie replied.
“We’re here visiting so that’s why we decided to take on a halo halo challenge, and we’re taking photos of each one to see which is the best,” I chimed in.
“Ooohhh that’s cool! You want to take a photo of me with the halo halo?” he asked.
Jackie and I held our laughter because in our minds, we can hear our Dad’s voice saying, “Pinoys are proud and we also love getting our photos taken!”
“Oooh, would you mind? We’d love to take a photo!” I said.
He posed with the halo halos for us. We thanked him, and smiled as we packed up our loot left the restaurant.
When we arrived at the hotel, I began to feel as though this would be it for our quest. I was feeling overdosed with Filipino food, and just really wanted a damn salad.
“Nope, we’ve got one more to go!” Jackie said.
“What?!? What are you talking about?!? I don’t think I can eat anymore of Filipino food. My digestion isn’t used to this–although it should be! We grew up on this!”
“We’re going to see Ate Tina and her family tomorrow. One more halo-halo to go!!” Jackie said as she continued to eat her palabok trying not to laugh out loud at the look on my face.
“Ohh this isn’t too bad! There’s jack fruit!” Jackie said as she scooped up some of the jello.
“I think I only have slice of jack fruit, but there’s tons of jello sliced up in squares–which is pretty cute.”
“I don’t think I can eat anymore halo-halo. But, we might have to when we see Ate Tina.”
“Don’t finish the halo-halo,” I told her.
“I CANNOT NOT FINISH IT!! I keep hearing Mom and Dad tell us not to waste food! There’s children in Africa who are starving!” I watched my sister scoop the contents and eat the halo-halo. It was as if she was completely devoted to saving every last bit of that halo-halo. I was trying not laughing at her in fear that I would snort out a jello square out of my nose.
She’s the only one I know who can do this and can still bang out several push-ups without a problem. My mother once told me of a story of Jackie and a moment when her badass surfaced. They were doing laundry, and the for some reason the dryer door did not want to close. Jackie, fresh from basic training at the time, propped both of her legs and with a force kicked the door closed. My mother couldn’t believe her strength.
However, I could. After all, Jackie has witnessed the grossest things known to humanity in her profession. There’s something to be said about having the mental and emotional strength to be such a witness.
“I’m not going to finish mine. I can’t do it,” I said. “My gut is going to blow-up!”
“Bathroom is right there, you need to let that that bloatation go! You’ll feel better!” Jackie advised.
The following day, we drove up to Erlinda’s in National City to meet up with our cousin, Tina and her family. When we spent our summers in San Diego, I always looked forward to visiting Tito Peng (my Dad’s older brother) and his family. I used to love going to Ate Tina’s bedroom. She had a twin sized bed with a canopy, and I could still remember the yellow bedding and the canopy curtain. It was a bedroom made for little girls who dreamt of having a bed with a canopy.
I grew up sharing a bedroom with Jackie. We had a full size bed, and we oftentimes fought a lot about the posters that we wanted to hang up. I called her a nerd, and I know she called me names that a younger sister often make for their older sister who annoyed the fuck out of her siblings with her control issues.
As the oldest of five children, I craved for the privacy that any young girl who grew up with a big family. But, when I look back now, sharing a bedroom with Jackie as we were growing up was the best thing–it saved me from the loneliness that can creep up on someone unknowingly. Plus, two is always better than one when battling the monsters or the Mrs. Peacocks under the bed.
“This place looks familiar, Jacks. I think we ate here before with Dad and the girls,” I said referring to our twin sisters, Mia and Mae.
“I don’t remember this place! I would have remembered something like this!” she said.
“You were probably too young to remember. But, I think Daddy Ben and Mamang Goys brought us here,” I said. Daddy Ben and Mamang Goys was how I referred to my grandparents. I couldn’t say Gloria when I was younger, and I must have created a nickname for her that stuck.
Erlinda’s reminds me of a cantina that I’ve seen in Filipino movies our nanny used to watch. There’s a serving section for dessert, and it’s usually ice cream, and then you form a line to decide what food you would like to eat–similar to a cafeteria style of service. There were tons of food at Erlinda’s, and by the time Ate Tina, her husband Butch, and daughter Malia arrived, there was a line of Filipinos all ready to place their orders.
“Lawwwd, church must have gotten out! We need to get in line!” Jackie said.
While we were in line, Ate Tina, Jackie and I attempted to catch up with the years that Jackie and I missed by not visiting California.
As Tina and I got closer to the ordering our food, she asked me, “Jeng, they give you free sabaw here. You want some sabaw?”
“Sabaw?” I asked. I had to orient myself at first since I have not heard the word spoken in a long time.
“You know, broth to go with your rice? They give them to you for free here,” Tina answered. My cousin has never lost the prettiness in her face. If there were ever a person whose face always resonates a kindness, innocence, and patience–it has always been Tina. Even when we were younger, she had the ability to nurture and be kind to everyone. She is quite similar to her Dad who I recalled was the same way–which made me realize that I am also similar to my own Dad–who was a bit of a reckless rebel, and a smart-sarcastic ass some of the time.
“That’s ok, I’ll ask them for some sabaw for you,” Tina said. “Pwede po sabaw sa order?” she asked the lady serving the food.
When we were done eating, Jackie got up and ordered the halo-halo.
My stomach cringed.
“Yup! Testing time!” Jackie announced when she got back to our table. She plopped Erlinda’s halo-halo in front of me, and gave me her game on look. Christ, almighty. I was wearing my white jeans that was slowly starting to suffocate me as I sat there feeling the heat.
“You barely ate any of the lunch you ordered! So, you’ve got some room to eat halo halo! —hmm… where’s the jack fruit in this?” Jackie said. My sister is going to kill me before this trip is over with! I thought.
Erlinda’s halo-halo was how I remembered it growing up. It was served in a tall cup, and had tons of beans, jello, and all the fixings. I ate two to three spoonfuls.
“I give up,” I proclaimed.
“You’re not going to finish that, Jeng?” Tina asked.
“I seriously can’t, Ate. Jackie is killing it though,” I answered as I looked at my sister who was fishing for something in her halo-halo.
“Where’s the jack fruit? This is not going to rank high in the rankings,” Jackie said.
When all was said and done, Jackie and I ended our quest and I conceded in allowing her to decide which one was the best. They all started to taste the same after the second one.
Jackie decided that Jollibees was the best one because of the jack fruit, and I don’t recollect how she ranked the rest of them.
What I do recollect is the fact that for a brief moment, my sister and I got to be the children that we once were when we spent our summers in San Diego. We had a time where we weren’t bogged down by the structure of being a working, and a wife. Our schedules were of our own and we didn’t feel rush to get dinner going, or breaking up a sibling argument, or attempting to locate a shirt that our husband couldn’t find.
In a way, the term halo-halo to means “to mix together”–because the dessert in it of itself requires that the person eating it mix the dessert in order to combine all the flavors together. This is how I’ve seen many Filipinos eat the halo-halo. They take their spoon and mix the ube ice cream, leche flan, jello cubes, crushed ice, milk, and the beans together.
Jackie’s life, as well as my own have been the halo-halo kind. We followed career paths that took us away from the traditional paths oftentimes expected of Filipinos. We left California as soon as we graduated from high school. We live in states where the Filipino population is not as robust as California. Our children are also halo-halo somewhat–they’re part Caucasian, Latino, etc.
What Jackie and I may not practice culturally on a daily basis (i.e. speaking Tagalog, eating rice with sabaw, cooking Filipino cuisine), we make up for by teaching our children the importance of family, and raising them with the moral values that we learned growing up: possess a good work ethic, respect your elders, appreciate all that you have and never take anything for granted.
Most of all we teach them not only about these values, but also how to face the world bravely, and every now and then to embark on a quest to return to your halo-halo roots.
And.. in case, you’re wondering about that sloth gif meme: