At CK's Hot Shoppe, tucked inside a Central City corner store, chef Crispin Pasia serves the dishes of his homeland, the Philippines, to a small but steady customer base. The front of the business is a grab-and-go convenience store operation, and with the kitchen in back, it's an odd marriage that adds to the spot's ramshackle charm.
Pasia's culinary training and talent for discerning the nuances between flavors is evident, as he corrals the delicate powers of spice, acid and fat. Vinegar — a hallmark of the Southeast Asian cuisine — is used liberally, bringing to life dishes brimming with meat and the flavors of offal.
Shanghai lumpia are a Filipino staple, a type of egg roll deep fried until it boasts a dark caramel sheen. The thin, crunchy cigar encases a rich and seasoned mix of ground pork and carrots and is served with a sweet and tart dipping sauce.
Everything is made to order, and on slow nights when it's just Pasia behind the counter (he runs the space with his wife), diners can expect delays. It's worth the wait as Pasia tweaks traditional Filipino recipes with whatever fresh ingredients he has on hand.
Papaitan, a deeply fragrant and collagen-rich broth, carries a slightly bitter and sour tang. Traditionally, that sourness comes from beef intestines, but here, Pasia uses bitter melon to imbue a less aggressive flavor. Oxtail cooks for hours and slips effortlessly from the bone, the gelatinous fatty bits flavoring the broth while slivers of tripe have characteristic chewy texture. The soup carries an aromatic, soothing quality rich with garlic, ginger and lemon grass.
Pancit, the country's beloved stir-fried noodles, tastes light and fresh despite unctuous hunks of pork belly, which add flavor and richness. Thick carrot spears, large chunks of red onion and fat cabbage leaves add dimension and texture to the plate while a shower of black pepper and lemon wedges provides the perfect balance of spice and acid to cut through the richer notes.
There's no doubt the kitchen's showstopper is the crispy pata, a deep-fried pork leg that arrives knuckles and all, and though it costs $22, it could feed a family of four. The pork is braised for hours with garlic and star anise and then fried, producing a thick, crispy crust that gives way to knobs of fatty meat.
One could use utensils to carve the massive pork block, but the effort would be futile. It's better to tear away the thick, fatty pieces with your hands. An accompanying vinegar and soy medley provides a balancing acidic, sweet and salty jolt. It's a fantastically rich and entertaining dish to eat, and the communal aspect — greasy hands and all — is fun.
Pasia worked for the late Paul Prudhomme for 18 years, and he clearly is proud of it. Photographs and paintings of the late chef plaster the walls of the shop and his eponymous spice blends and products line the shelves. And although Prudhomme's influence is obvious, once the food arrives, it's clear that it's all Pasia.