It crackles. It pops. It radiates heat and sounds like a bubbly white cracker that's come to life.
It's … um … what is it again?
If you live in a food city as rich and diverse and heartily explored as Philadelphia, there are precious few moments — like the Chicharron Moment at Sarvida in Fishtown — when savvy diners can encounter a dish that's as novel as this, or as delightful, despite what it's really made of: flash-fried beef tendons.
Don't let that little anatomy detail hamstring you from trying something new. Tendon is way underrated.
Pho aficionados already know that the slow-stewed beef tendons are the bonus bite when ordering a bowl of Vietnamese soup with all the offal works. But it translates to other cultures, too. And when those tenderized tendons are then dehydrated and deep-fried, as they are on Sarvida's menu of modern Filipino creations, they are positively irresistible, like the ultimate savory cracker scattered with crunchy scallions and tangy crumbles of kesong puti cheese made in house from goat's milk (rather than the usual water buffalo) separated by calamansi citrus and palm sugar.
Yes, the chicharron are the definition of exotic around here, even if I've had them in other cities. But in truth, they're also fairly accessible — and eminently likable — if you give them a chance. The same could be said for Sarvida and its chef-owner, Lou Boquila, who's on a mission to expose Philadelphians to the bold, unique Southeast Asian flavors of his native Philippines. This BYOB is act two in that process, following Perla, the BYOB named for his mother that he opened off East Passyunk Avenue in 2016, where the eat-with-your hands Kamayan weekend feasts remain a draw.
Locally, Filipino food was sorely underrepresented back then, and still is in the big picture. But there has been a welcome surge of new projects beginning to fill that void. The new LALO food stand is one of the most exciting food options at the recently renovated Bourse food hall, serving grilled inihaw skewers, homemade garlicky longanisa sausages and, my favorite, the crispy open-ended spring rolls known as lumpia Shanghai stuffed with lemongrass sausage that pay a compelling, handcrafted homage to Pinoy street foods. Don't miss the garlic rice. Essential.
Meanwhile, Boquila — who hasn't returned to the islands since he moved to Olney when he was 8, and who learned to cook in the mainstream kitchens at Twenty Manning and Audrey Claire — has always pursued a contemporary version of his family food memories, which are often updated with a personalized approach somewhat removed from traditional presentations. His take on ukoy fritters, for example, is less a dense sweet potato pancake embedded with shrimp than a wiry, free-form nest of sweet potato threads, at once crispy and chewy, that comes with tiny whole shrimp tangled up into the brambles. Drizzle a pinch with spoonfuls of tangy palm vinegar and it's a magnetic communal nibble.
Sarvida, however, which was his mother's middle name, tackles his vision of homier, more rustic dishes than Perla's, with a bolder embrace of pungent Pinoy flavors like the bagoong seafood paste that adds a ka-boom of secret funk to the long hot chili sauce that comes beneath a pile of deep-fried pig tails (binagoongan) and shredded green mangoes. Of all the dishes on Sarvida's menu, this one is perhaps the most challenging for newcomers to Filipino cuisine, as learning to love pig tails, more flavorful fat and slippery bone than actual meat, can take some practice.
Most of this menu, though, is as approachable as roast chicken. And the whole Jersey-bred bird that Boquila brines with lemongrass and kaffir limes, then roasts to a fragrant crisp is already a star, served alongside padron peppers and hunks of calamansi to squeeze on extra citrus. It's a beautiful, flavorful bird that has easy crossover appeal — as long as diners don't flinch too much at the $35 price for the whole chicken. It is, in fact, a fair price for a three-pound natural chicken intended as a sharing entrée. But I do wonder whether Sarvida's somewhat limited menu and relatively upscale prices, hovering in the high $20s to low $30s for larger plates, will scare off what is still a budget-conscious Fishtown.
But the seemingly endless work to repair a broken water main on East Girard Avenue right in front of Sarvida is more likely to blame for the nearly empty dining rooms I witnessed during my visits. In retrospect, I'll be glad I missed the crowds that can turn this small but sleek corner space with the open kitchen and oddly design-y angled ceiling into the noise box that was a feature in the former Girard Brasserie, too. Charming as they may be, Sarvida's well-informed and personable staff (not to mention its customers) will find it challenging to talk over that din.
Some of the food on this menu, though, is worth seeking out, especially for its window into how a skilled chef can weave local ingredients and seasons into international flavors channeled through a unique personal frame of reference. The lumpiang ubod, for example, is a modern mash-up of multiple international ideas, with a gorgeous medley of fresh veggies — shaved zucchini ribbons, black radish, hearts of palm, and pickled onions — set over a puree of red mung bean hummus turned sweet with hoisin-peanut sauce beside a steamy hot puff of deep-fried poori bread, instead of the usual crepe. Manila meets Zahav by way of Mumbai and Philly produce. That's a lot of detours for one plate, but it's simply good.
Tortang talong is a hybrid of two dishes that brings a tomato salad with a salty brined egg over pureed eggplant, and warm, soft-scrambled eggs. Another cameo for bagoong adds punch to a pinakbet vegetable stew of fairy tale eggplants, okra and spicy strands of garlic scape with chunks of pork belly.
I would have loved the lamb shank mechado if the tender, tomato-stewed joint of meat had been larger. For $31, a meatier hind shank would have been more reasonable than the fore shank presented here. One thing Sarvida doesn't skimp on, however, is the pork. And the crispy pig knuckle called pata is not to be missed. It's essentially a Pinoy version of German schweinshaxe, a ginger-braised shank of flesh turned to a shattering cracklin' crisp in the deep-fryer that arrived over a mound of spicy-sweet leeks creamed in coconut milk and chilies. The whole fried red snapper topped escabeche-style beneath a tangy mop of ginger, onions, and long hot peppers soaked in sweet and sour palm vinegar was another worthy sharing centerpiece.
As memorable as those dishes were, the surprise winner on this menu for me was Boquila's seasonal vegetarian offering, a roast of hollowed-out delicata squash canoes set over toothy little mung beans and snappy beech mushroom stems sauced in a creamy kaffir lime-coconut stew. With crunchy lotus root pinwheels poised on top the whole dish brought a perfect balance of textures, richness, exotic spice, and seasonal produce.
That delicata squash "ginataan," a name that refers to dishes stewed in coconut milk, may not be the most adventurous dish on Sarvida's menu, which Boquila promises will someday soon also feature the Philippines' famous blood stew, dinuguan, "to open some palates." But it was in perfect harmony, and hit a perfect middle place to broaden this meat-centric restaurant's millennial appeal, which will remain essential if Sarvida hopes to survive in a Fishtown that's becoming more competitive by the day.
I do wonder whether there's still another side of Filipino cuisine yet to be presented in Philly — a more straightforward representation of traditional dishes at a sit-down restaurant that falls somewhere between LALO's artisan-made street food bites and Sarvida's upscale contemporary spins that would fill an essential missing link in our Pinoy food education.
The answer, given by Sarvida's fairly straight-ahead take on halo-halo for dessert, is a resounding "Oo!" (That's "yes!" in Tagalog, pronounced sort of like "aw-aw!") Shaved ice is all the fashion in Philly these days, even at modern American BYOBs like Cadence just a little farther west down Girard, where it's made with ices made from oat milk and other creative liquids.
At Sarvida, Boquila shaves a plain block of ice to order in the open kitchen, and then layers it with colors and textures — all kinds of treats like mung beans poached with star anise, jellied chunks of young coconut, sweet drizzles of condensed milk and on top a shiny dark toupée of whipped purple sweet potato that gives this whole snow drift in a glass a special richness when you mix it together: "Halo-halo means 'mix-mix,' " Boquila says.
Then, when you get to the bottom of the glass, you'll find yet another surprise: a silky flan that's like the rich reward at the end of this adventure. Sarvida has already the mix-mix part down pat, along with the crackle and pop of exotic surprise. But it's that essential element of good flavor at the root of every dish that will ultimately help Boquila's latest passion project thrive.
300 E. Girard Ave., 267-273-1234; sarvidaphilly.com
Chef Lou Boquila has opened a second showcase in his quest to present Philadelphians an updated vision of Filipino cuisine with this sleek Fishtown corner BYOB. This follow-up to his first restaurant off East Passyunk, Perla, offers slightly edgier bagoong-powered flavors with more rustic, home-style inspirations that are then inevitably upscaled. This is fascinating, thought-provoking food with a story, and much of it is delicious. Relatively high prices and a limited menu, though, might prevent some from discovering the magic crunch that is a puffed beef tendon chicharron.