You-Ka Cafe dishes a more modern approach to Filipino food 


Two weeks ago, we visited Mama's Kitchen, the city's second Filipino spot, which opened four years after Julie's Kitchen. Now comes You-Ka Cafe, the most modern of the batch, positioned in a long, bright storefront near Powers Boulevard and Carefree Circle. A colorful pastry display case greets you, then gives way to order and pickup counters, while an open kitchen and walls of bright Filipino food pictures gift a fresh and easy feeling.

You-Ka's menu includes just five simple main-course items, with a selection of canned tropical drinks like kalamansi juice ($1.49; a kumquat-orange hybrid that with additives tastes somewhat like a lemonade), and house "pearl coolers" ($3.75 each), which are like boba drinks with powder-based flavorings including mango, avocado and taro. The mango's most floral and bright, the avocado somewhat nondescript, and the taro an easy favorite with one of those earthy but sweet root-vegetable flavors that enjoys its own odd, sugary spot in the culinary world.

All five mains ($8.99 each) come with lumpyang Shanghai, thin, crunchy and pretty awesome eggrolls stuffed only with minced beef, onion, carrot and faint oregano, and served with a sweet chili Mae Ploy sauce thinned a bit in house. Chef/co-owner Emilou Savage says she probably rolls 2,000 a week, as she does them fresh throughout the day to ensure crispness, and three embark with every plate sold.

A big rice ball accompanies four of the five, too, and from there it's a lot of boneless chicken, pork or beef, plus a vegetarian option in the form of pansit bihon, basically Chinese veggies and noodles in a thin, mild stock that's as neutral as beige paint. The bistek Tagalog is your basic chuck-cut beef steak with onions, juicy and tender but only mildly seasoned with residual soy saltiness in the finish. The pork for either barbecue skewers or adobo comes from a cushion (front shoulder) cut, and Savage marinates it with a little soy and apple cider vinegar instead of the traditional white vinegar — it's less harsh and helps stylizes the dish, as does another pinch of oregano.

In the adobo form, chunks are perfectly tender and big, and like the steak fairly bland, with no sauce. A couple of the thinner, char-marked skewers (chicken optional) also accompany the pansit palabok BBQ plate, the most dynamic array with garnishing lemon wedges, hardboiled egg slices, a soy-onion-tomato sauce for dipping, chicharrón crumbles, and the centerpiece noodles with fish sauce, shrimp paste and ground beef flecks. It's odd and doesn't entirely reach cohesion.

You'll think you've left the Philippines with specials like an Ulam burger ($8.99), a patty with a mushroom cream sauce and sliced onions, served with a lovely, doughy house pork empanada, but Savage's delightful rotating desserts (50 cents to $2.25) bring you back with everything from potato gratin-textured cassava cake to a scrambled-egg-textured flan (minus the caramel sauce), light coconut macaroons, mini fruit tarts, tropical-flavored cupcakes like durian (a win, though from the powder) and rambutan (a lychee-like chap whose shell resembles a red Muppet), and Thai-like black rice pudding and coconut milk hardened into a rectangle.

The un-eco-friendly foam and plastic service could go, but Savage and her husband Gregg are personable and portions are generous at the price. Your third reason to try Filipino food, if you haven't by now, is at least the most user-friendly.


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