Rick was waiting in his vehicle on Queens Boulevard a few minutes before we were to convene at a Filipino restaurant curiously named Tito Rad’s. He was deep in text mode when I roused him from his stupor by banging on his side window. Startled, he juggled the cell phone before cradling it safely back into his hands after he noticed that it was only me and not a potential carjacker.
After missing practically six months of our eating adventures, Rick had been shamed back into circulation. Not that he was complaining especially after glancing at the menu inside Tito Rad’s that featured, among other Filipino dishes, grilled tuna jaw. We were at our capacity of six for the first time in a very long time and I planned accordingly, making sure I reserved a table. When we entered, the table we were directed to offered us a view of picturesque Queens Boulevard where there were police flyers on every post detailing an assault that took place in the very early morning hours just a few days earlier. It was still daylight when we entered so none of us were concerned with our physical well being. Our concern was what to order from the intriguing menu.
Once we were all in attendance, the hostess, who I will call “Sadie,” came over and in a soft, melodic voice announced that she was there to help us through the menu. To give us anything we might want—that she was very happy and honored that we had chosen Tito Rad’s. And then she looked at Eugene. “Where are all of you from,” she asked.
“White Plains, New York,” was his gruff response.
“Yonkers,” offered Mike from….Yonkers.
“Astoria,” Zio said.
Gerry, sitting across from Eugene and close to where Sadie was standing, mumbled incoherently. He had no desire to divulge his living information and before Rick or me, who were at the opposite end of the table could answer, Sadie was on to something else.
“I just like to know who is in my restaurant and where they are from,” she continued as we tried to be polite and listen to her while also taking peeks at the menu. We were hungry and anxious to order.
“I say that because we once were robbed and the other day there was an incident just across the street in the park,” she said, referring to the police flyers, her soft melodic voice turning now into an monotonous drone.
As she went on describing the robbery that occurred several years ago, I had decided on appetizers for our group.
“And we also had, you know, one of those house invasions, so you need to keep your eyes open…”
I couldn’t wait any longer. “I think we know what we want to start with,” I said, abruptly cutting her off.
Sadie, taking no offense at my interruption, departed and sent over a waitress with a t-shirt that read: “Got Tuna Belly.”
We started with the ukoy, fried bean sprouts, lumpiang Shanghai, Filipino egg rolls, and an order of barbecued pork on skewers. Gerry whispered to the waitress that he wanted another appetizer, but wouldn’t tell any of us what it was he ordered.
The appetizers came out quickly and even when it became known that Gerry’s order, chicaron bulaklak, fried pork intestines, also known as Filipino chitterlings, no one protested and dipped in the house vinegar sauce, was a nice start to the meal. The same, however, couldn’t be said about the lumpiang Shanghai. The egg rolls were dry, stuffed with an unidentifiable meat saved only when drenched in the accompanying sweet and sour sauce. Thankfully the tender, succulent barbecued pork was there to offset the onslaught of fried appetizers.
The entree options were vast and the choices many, but I quickly chose a Filipino standard, beef adobo, while Gerry went with my second choice, kare kare, oxtail in a peanut sauce, and Zio, also preferring beef, ordered the beef kaldereta, a supposedly spicy version of beef stew. Eugene is a coconut milk aficionado and ordered the manok sa gata, chicken with ginger in coconut milk.
Getting inspiration from our waitresses’ shirt, Mike from Yonkers chose the tuna belly also cooked in coconut milk and Rick, maybe because Mike from Yonkers already chose a tuna body part, passed on the tuna jaw and decided instead on the grilled Pampano, also known as “butterfish.”
While our appetizers were cleared, Sadie returned to ask how we liked the food so far. We, of course, told her we liked it very much.
“I am here to help,” she repeated. “Anything you need us to do to make you enjoy your meal here we will do.”
The restaurant was busy; all the tables occupied with Filipino couples and families. It looked like business was good at Tito Rad’s yet Sadie was working us hard. The appearance of our entrees saved us from more “small” talk from Sadie. I quickly dug into the slow cooked moist beef adobo, tangy from the vinegar sauce and then sampled Zio’s beef stew, also tender and falling apart, the peppers and olives giving it a Latin flavor that is typical of Filipino cuisine but minus the spice advertised.
“This is the best thing I’ve ever had,” Eugene said of the beef adobo after tasting it. We weren’t sure if he meant the beef adobo was the best of what we ordered that night or the best thing he had ever eaten. No one bothered to ask him to clarify his proclamation.
After tasting Eugene’s chicken in coconut sauce, I can safely say that it was not the best thing I’ve ever eaten…and not even close to the best thing on our table that night, but I never announced that. The oxtails in the kare kare were lean and the meat easily separated from bone and tendon, but the peanut butter sauce was just too bland for me. The addition of very pungent shrimp paste helped liven up the dish.
The tuna belly and pompano came out last. Anticipation was high. Zio took a piece of the tuna belly as did I. I chewed. He chewed. I looked at him. He looked at me. He shook his head. “This is bluefish,” he said in an uncharacteristically loud voice. “There is no way this is tuna belly.”
“It does taste rather fishy for tuna,” I said.
“I’m telling you, it’s bluefish…”
“Okay, don’t make a federal case out of it,” I said, noticing that Sadie was approaching and not wanting Zio to possibly upset our very good-natured host with his bold accusation.
Tuna belly or…
The Pampano was—butterfish and grilled simply. Rick making sure, as he always does, to dig out the tender cheeks for himself.
“I hope you liked our food,” Sadie said as she stood by our table, her tone never wavering. “We always want to make sure our customers like our food. We are appreciative that you have come here today and hope that you will come again soon…”
Zio nudged my leg under the table. I got the implicit message.
“What do you suggest we get for dessert?” I quickly interrupted her.
“Well that’s a good question, it depends on what you like…”
Zio gave me another look.
”I think he might want to try the halo halo,” I said, indicating Eugene.
Halo halo is part of the now 11-year lore of Adventures of Chow City. Back in the first year of our group’s existence, we gathered at a Filipino restaurant not far from where we were on this day called Ihawan, and for dessert, Eugene sampled the halo halo (see The Beans of Halo Halo). At almost every meal since that one at Ihawan, he has made it a point to state that the halo halo was the worst thing he’s ever eaten—as opposed to the beef adobo, which we learned today was the best.
“How can you put lima beans in a dessert?” he wondered incredulously.
Maybe sensing Eugene’s aversion, Sadie did not suggest the halo halo instead indicated that the “Tito’s Delight,” a sampling of three desserts, the avocado shake, and the fried sweet banana with ice cream would be a good choice for us.
Eugene was skeptical—especially about the avocado shake.
“In our country, we eat avocado like a fruit,” Sadie explained.
And in a shake it was remarkable; the best of the three desserts brought to our table. There was no halo halo revulsion, but the fried banana did get Zio to remark that it looked identical to the unfortunate lumpiang Shanghai.
“Who is Tito Rad?” Mike from Yonkers asked Sadie as we were reaching into our wallets to pay.
“Oh, one of those names is my nickname,” she answered coyly.
“Which one?” Eugene inquired.
“Well my friends know,” she said, a sly smile on her face. “But I don’t know you well enough to tell you.”
None of us pressed her on it, instead we handed her the check with our money and thanked her for her attentive service.
“I just hope you enjoyed our food. We really do try to accommodate all your needs. Anything you request we can adjust….”
But we were gone before she could finish.
4912 Queens Boulevard