The best story to come out of December’s opening of the Philippine fast-food giant Jollibee in San Antonio didn’t come from the long line of cars at Jollibee. It came from another Philippine restaurant just down the road.
For Imelda Roberts, the manager of Sari-Sari Filipino Restaurant Market & Bakery in Leon Valley, growing up in the Philippines meant daydreaming about lunch at Jollibee. But a fried chicken combo at Jollibee cost 80 pesos, and she only made 70 pesos a day. So instead she set her sights on getting a job there, a coveted place for the cool kids to work.
That never happened, but Roberts came to the United States and made a career at Sari-Sari, one of at least a dozen Philippine restaurants in and around San Antonio serving the fried eggrolls called lumpia, the stir-fried noodles called pancit and the pork adobo she grew up with.
And while Roberts couldn’t get her Jollibee fix as a kid, she’s made of point of taking her own kids to Jollibee here. They were skeptical at first, she said, but now it’s one of their favorites.
Here’s a look at Jollibee, along with six other Philippine restaurants that aren’t Jollibee.
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Deco Cafe Filipiniana
If you’ve eaten Philippine food, it’s likely you’ve had pancit, a tangle of thin rice noodles with cabbage, vegetables and pork, chicken or shrimp. Deco Cafe has that, of course. It’s called pancit bichon. But they also carry pancit Canton for a change of pace, made with fat flour noodles like spaghetti, with cubes of roasted pork as bright as marble.
Round out your Deco experience with a rich, dark pork-blood stew called dinuguan, crispy fried lumpia and a breakfast dish called longsilog with fat little longanisa sausages and fried eggs. And if you’ve been looking to buy packets of instant Nescafé 3in1 (like I have since a trip to Nepal) this is your place.
6812 Bandera Road, Suite 101, Leon Valley, 210-734-3326, decocafefilipiniana.com. Dine-in and curbside available.
The cars wind around Jollibee like a coiled snake, and it moves just as fast. It’s drive-thru only until the pandemic eases up, and it has the kind of rosy-cheeked service you get at Chick-fil-A. “Have a jolly day!” they say, and suddenly it’s OK that you waited 45 minutes for a bucket of chicken.
That chicken, though. It’s called Chickenjoy, a fitting name to describe the feeling of crispy pieces with mild or spicy breading and all the juice you can handle. Get it with KFC-style mashed potatoes with gravy.
And you’ve got to try Jolly Spaghetti. Not mom’s spaghetti, but an acquired taste of something more like dessert, with sauce like chunky tomato pancake syrup.
There’s also pancit-style noodles called palabok, a good crispy chicken sandwich and a dry little McDonald’s knockoff Yumburger (it isn’t), along with starchy sides like steamed rice and shoestring fries. Fast food from another world, yet so much like our own.
5033 NW Loop 410, 830-328-4485, jollibeeusa.com. Drive-thru only.
Lily’s Philippine Bakery and Restaurant
Lily’s Facebook page yearns for the time when karaoke and dance parties were less fraught with worry. Golden Age show tunes rang out from the video screen all through lunch, creating a nostalgic atmosphere for a style of food that’s changed little over the decades since.
That’s OK, because there’s always a market for the sour fish soup called sinigang bangus, with a fat piece of ivory milkfish surrounded by leafy green vegetables. A sampler plate brought solid, familiar tastes of pork adobo, pancit and lumpia, while crispy pata made a big entrance with two hamhocks, deep fried and scored so they peeled apart like rose petals of pork.
8210 Glider Ave., 210-674-7007, Facebook: Lilys Philippine Bakery and Restaurant. Dine-in, curbside and third-party delivery available.
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My ChockDee Filipino Market
They’ve cleared the restaurant tables from the back of this grocery store and cafe for now, but the staff will dip from pans on a long steam line to fill up your takeout boxes after you’ve stocked up on Philippine banana sauce, Choco-Crunchies and Tiger Balm from the grocery aisles.
From that line came properly funky dinuguan, the peanut-sauce jolt of pork kare kare, springy fresh pancit noodles and the best lumpia of this report, rolled out, filled and fried right in front of your eyes.
115 E. Lindbergh Blvd., Universal City, 210-566-2210, Facebook: @MyChockDee. Takeout only.
Sari-Sari Filipino Restaurant Market & Bakery
At a wedding in 2019, I got to meet the extended family of a Filipino American friend. They were warm and welcoming, and they knew how to party. He joined me at Sari-Sari, and it felt like the party picked up where we left off.
We filled the table with crispy chunks of fried pork called lechon kawali in brown gravy, long skewers of grilled pork in sweet sauce, aromatic chicken soup called arroz caldo, lumpia as thin as tiparillo cigars, a breakfast of sweet bacon and garlic rice called tosilog, a big frosty bowl of halo-halo with shaved ice and a rainbow of sweet add-ons, and of course dinuguan, the best in this report.
Sari-Sari is my friend’s favorite Philippine restaurant in town. It’s mine now, too.
Editor’s note: After this story was written, a post Thursday on the Sari-Sari Instagram account announced that the restaurant would be closed for two weeks as one of the managers tested positive for COVID-19.
5700 Wurzbach Road, 210-647-7274, sari-sari-satx.com. Dine-in, curbside and third-party delivery available.
Susie’s Lumpia House
COVID-19 hasn’t killed off the buffet. It’s just taken the ladle out of your hand and put it in the waiters’ hands. And at Susie’s, they’ll fill your plate with fragrant little fried scrod, hot pancit noodles, fat pieces of chicken adobo, beef-shank stew like Mexican caldo and of course all the hot, fresh lumpia you can handle.
Susie Frane’s been in the business since 1986, a journey that’s taken her from Corpus Christi to Guantanamo Bay in Cuba and now to San Antonio for the past five years. It’s her house, and it’s good to be a guest at Susie’s table.
7914 Culebra Road, Suite 109, 210-616-4354, Facebook: @SusiesLumpiaHouse. Dine-in and curbside available.
Tabares Philippine Market
Tabares is as much of a neighborhood joint as you can get, with a maxed-out convenience store on one side and a cafeteria-style cafe on the other. A satisfying lunch plate comes with three main dishes, and I went with mild and juicy pork adobo, fat little fried lumpia and pancit with lean pork.
I also added a side of aromatic shrimp soup, an excellent pork-filled steamed bun called siopao and handful of tart little calamansi citrus from the market.
912 Pat Booker Road, Universal City, 210-314-6330, no web presence. Dine-in and takeout available.