One thing you might notice about the logo for San Leandro's newest Filipino restaurant — "PAREKOY" in jaunty cartoon letters — is that it bears a striking resemblance to the Party City logo. That's fitting: This is the Party City for people who want to stock up on delicious preparations of crisp-skinned pork belly instead of noisemakers or plastic mustache-sticks. Which is to say it's a whole lot more fun in my book.
Located in an unassuming commercial strip, Parekoy Lutong Pinoy has the kind of convivial atmosphere you'd expect to find at a place run by several of your favorite aunties — which it just might be if you happen to be a member of the Minor or Pacheco clans.
The genesis of the restaurant goes back about fifteen years to when co-owner Helen Minor reconnected with Ma. Socorro Pacheco, her high school classmate back in the Philippines. Their husbands, Arnold Minor and Julio Pacheco, struck a quick friendship, too — in fact, the two men are the parekoy, or "good buddies," that the restaurant's name alludes to. Annaliza Minor, Helen's sister-in-law, is the fifth partner in the business.
According to Helen, Minor/Pacheco dinner parties would be these big, blowout affairs. And, like many enthusiastic home cooks, the two couples always joked about opening a restaurant together. In March, they finally took the leap. Arnold and Julio are the main cooks, but this is the kind of family enterprise where everyone pitches in. And while Union City and Daly City get the biggest props as far as Bay Area Filipino restaurants go, I'm happy to report that Parekoy serves some of the tastiest homestyle Filipino food that I've eaten. Bar none. Particularly when it comes to the aforementioned cornucopia of crispy pork.
Readers who have a baseline familiarity with the East Bay Filipino food scene know about the preeminence of the steam-table restaurant, wherein heaping trays of adobo, pancit, and fiery Bicol Express are cooked ahead of time in big batches. These types of restaurants can be great. (I see you, Lucky Three Seven.)
The fact that Parekoy isn't a steam-table joint has a number of distinct advantages: For starters, the restaurant has a much more expansive menu than any of the Filipino spots in Oakland — expansive enough to make it difficult to decide what to get. (Once you factor in the generous family-style portions, you'll almost certainly order too much food. We always took home a ton of leftovers.)
But the main advantage is that many Filipino dishes just taste better when they're cooked to order — particularly when the food is meant to be crispy. At Parekoy, the star ingredient in six or seven different dishes is pork belly, a notoriously fatty cut that on-trend chefs have embraced in these post-"Other White Meat" days. With apologies to your neighborhood gastropub, I've always maintained that Chinese and Taiwanese chefs set the gold standard for mind-blowingly tender preparations of this cut. But for crispy pork belly? After my meals at Parekoy, I've seen the light: Filipino cooks are king.
If you order just one thing at Parekoy, let it be the pork sisig: skin-on pork belly that's marinated in soy sauce and citrus overnight, diced, and then deep-fried and tossed with chopped onions, green bell peppers, and scallions. The dish comes out on a stone platter — meat sizzling and steam billowing — and cuts dramatic enough an appearance that it's sure to elicit oohs and aahs. The crowning glory is a raw egg that the cook cracks on top at the last moment — a traditional addition that you stir into the meat at the table, imbuing each bite with an extra layer of unctuousness.
The pork belly itself is a marvel: The skin is outrageously crunchy, yet the pork manages to avoid the dryness and stringiness that you often get with deep-fried meats. Naturally, a big bowl of steamed white rice or garlic fried rice makes for the ideal accompaniment. But this sisig is so good, I've been known to snack on the leftovers cold, straight out of the takeout carton.
Just as enjoyable was the bangus sisig, which had similar component parts, only instead of pork, it featured deep-fried milkfish — a famously flavorful (and bony!) fish native to Southeast Asia. Conveniently, it was served boneless for this preparation, and after the fish was fried, the meat was chopped up and piled back on top of the skin, which was splayed out whole on the hot stone plate for even further crispness.
Let it be known that if you are the type who's squeamish about deep-fried food, this might not be the best restaurant for you. Many of the best dishes make liberal use of the deep-fryer. There were two different types of lumpia, or Filipino egg rolls: long, skinny vegetable lumpia stuffed with shredded cabbage and carrots; and pork-stuffed, "Shanghai"-style lumpia, which resembled fat little cigars. These come twenty to an order, but they go quicker than you think (If you have a child at your table, he or she might commandeer the whole plate. It's worth it to put up a fight.)
Another deep-fried dish was new to me: chicharon bulaklak, or fried "ruffle fat," which refers to a frilly-looking organ that's attached to a pig's small intestine. Eating these was akin to eating a plate of Southern-style fried chitterlings or Mexican chicharrones, but with an extra hint of livery richness. You dip each piece into a tub of chili-infused vinegar to help cut into the heaviness.
Inevitably, though, I kept going back to the pork belly. I fell in love with Parekoy's version of the preparation known as crispy binagoongan — "crispy B" for short, our server told us. Once again, the star of the show is deep-fried pork belly. Here, the belly cut into larger, fattier pieces, and the skin crisps up in the manner of good Cantonese-style roast suckling pig. Imagine that decadence, but infused with pungent, savory funk of Parekoy's house-made Filipino-style fermented shrimp paste. That's the kind of deliciousness we're dealing with here. The pork is served over a whole deep-fried eggplant, which soaks up the umami-rich sauce and meat juices, and then topped with slices of fresh mango and tomato — again, a bit of acid to help balance out the richness.
Filipino cuisine is, of course, also famous for its assortment of saucy, home-style stews, and you can get those here as well. Most notable, perhaps, was the dinuguan — the famous "chocolate meat" whose rich, slightly gamey, black sauce is made with pork blood rather than chocolate, despite its mole-like sheen. Again, I marveled at the tenderness of the pork — pork butt, in this case. Meanwhile, the kare-kare — a peanut-based oxtail stew — was the only real disappointment: The sauce was too thin and bland, and the accompanying vegetables — green beans and eggplant that were barely cooked — lacked the depth of flavor you get in versions of the dish where the vegetables are given a chance to soak up all that sauce.
And if you are a Filipino expat, or just an aficionado of the cuisine, you'll appreciate that Parekoy is the only place I know of this side of Union City that is a reliable source for traditional shaved-ice treats such as halo-halo (with its many-colored mix of sweet beans, jellies, and house-made leche flan) and cornflake-topped mais con-yelo — sweets that represent the comforts of home. If that's what you're looking for, you've come to the right place.