But unlike the steam-tray joints I grew up with in Union City, the superior, old-school Filipino cooking here draws Filipinos outside of their homes.
The menu is extensive, not shying away from dishes that take more work to make, such as the kamayan-style dinners: a literal bounty of grilled and fried meats and seafood (squid, chicken and milkfish), a bright heap of mango, and, of course, pork lumpia arrayed around a mountain of rice on a family-style platter lined with banana leaves.
Patrons are given plates lined with banana leaves as well. Traditionally, the components are mixed together with rice and accompanying sauces and diners eat with their hands, although you don’t have to.
The kamayan-style meal can be ordered for anywhere between one and 10 people. My behemoth platter sized for six made for plenty of leftovers.
Anything grilled is good: The delicate, mild-flavored milkfish plucked of its many bones was opened and grilled white-flesh down. (The milkfish was also delicious fried, without batter, so its flesh crisps up.)
The grilled chicken was completely impregnated with a not-too-sweet marinade — Filipino food can be too sweet — while the pork’s thorough marinade in a black pepper-soy combination tricked one of my dining companions into thinking it was beef. The squid did appear to be a bit tough and was better cut into smaller pieces.
The lumpiang shanghai — finger-size egg rolls filled with pork and carrot — were the savory wonders one has come to expect at any Filipino party. Though not lushly filled, or with the embellishments one might expect in the P.I., they had plenty of flavor and were a steal at the price.
More complex was the miki bihon. Its mix of delicate noodles, diced long beans and meat was infused with pork essence. There was a sweet hint of shrimp in its aroma. Toasted garlic, scattered over the dish, gave it earthiness; fresh scallions tonified. It’s a meal in itself.
The restaurant’s sparse decor — tile floors, simple chairs and tables, fluorescent lighting — belie a familial cheeriness. Chef Josie Yumul visits customers while wearing her bright apron, beaming, and behaves as though everyone who comes is part of her family.
The place does have a lived-in feeling. On one occasion, a kid hung out at an out-of-the-way table engrossed in a laptop. On another, the same kid, dressed in a Catholic school uniform, waited for the restaurant to close while “Juan dela Cruz” — a low-budget sci-fi-fantasy television program that looked like someone had put “Star Trek,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “The Lord of the Rings” in a blender — played.
Pampanguena Cuisine is intimate and personal, and if hours are a bit uneven, or if menu items aren’t available, I for one can forgive it. Next time, I’m getting the lechon.
Location: 4441 Mission St., S.F.
Contact: (415) 586-8899, http://pampanguenacuisine.com
Hours: 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays
Price range: $6.50 to $14.95
Recommended dishes: Kamayan ($10-$12 per person), miki bihon ($8.75), barbecue chicken ($2.25), lumpiang shanghai ($6.50), grilled or fried milkfish ($13.95)
Credit cards: Not accepted
Reservations: Recommended for large parties