One Fine Meal: Estrellita’s homey Filipino cooking a welcome arrival in Grant Park

This takeout spread from Estrellita in Grant Park includes: pancit, Spam silog and lumpia (top row); lechon kawali and arroz caldo (bottom row). Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
This takeout spread from Estrellita in Grant Park includes: pancit, Spam silog and lumpia (top row); lechon kawali and arroz caldo (bottom row). Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Wendell Brock

Credit: Wendell Brock

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Oh, lechon kawali, where have you been all my life?

This is what shoots through my mind as I bite into unctuous chunks of Filipino pork belly that I’ve dunked into a container of soy vinegar dancing with red and green chiles. It’s the moment I’ve been waiting for since I noticed a tiny Filipino restaurant had arrived on a Grant Park side street more commonly known as a cut-through than a dining destination.

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Estrellita’s arroz caldo (long simmered chicken and rice porridge) is an excellent dish on a cold day. Courtesy of Toni Williams
Estrellita’s arroz caldo (long simmered chicken and rice porridge) is an excellent dish on a cold day. Courtesy of Toni Williams

Credit: Toni Williams

Credit: Toni Williams

Welcome to the neighborhood, Estrellita. You’ve been a long time coming.

Though Atlanta boasts a deep and astonishing variety of cooking from the southeast Asian nations of Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia, Filipino cuisine has been a little tardy to the party, even as restaurants like Washington, D.C.’s Bad Saint and New York’s Maharlika have soaked up praise and publicity.

Not any more.

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Estrellita’s Spam silog — pan-fried Spam with garlic rice, poached egg and chopped tomatoes — hit all the right notes. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Estrellita’s Spam silog — pan-fried Spam with garlic rice, poached egg and chopped tomatoes — hit all the right notes. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Wendell Brock

Credit: Wendell Brock

It’s about 2 p.m. on a Sunday. I’ve brought home an assortment of dishes from Estrellita’s brunch and dinner menus: Along with the lechon kawaii, there’s congee-like arroz caldo; pancit (a classic noodle stir-fry); and Spam silog (scoops of garlic rice with a poached egg and slices of pan-fried Spam). For crunch, there’s traditional lumpia — flaky fried spring rolls stuffed with chicken, shrimp and veggies.

Before the pandemic, I judged most restaurants by going in with a guest or two and letting the server worry about the details. Since March, I’ve had no such luck: It’s been all takeout, all the time. But, I learned long ago that no one wants to hear a dining critic complain about having to eat out for a living. Certainly, I can’t complain when the experience imparts as much comfort as the home-style cooking that Estrellita chef Walter Cortado learned from his mother, Florida.

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Diners await their Sunday brunch at Estrellita in Grant Park. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Diners await their Sunday brunch at Estrellita in Grant Park. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Wendell Brock

Credit: Wendell Brock

I especially love the way Filipino food eschews the sweetness of other cuisines of the region, though not the acid or the salt.

The caldo is a bowl of disintegrated rice simmered long in chicken stock. Flavored with ginger, garnished with scallions and a softly boiled quail egg, the soup is the very essence of chicken — delicate, nurturing, soulful. This bird-in-liquid-form comes with a shot of fish sauce, for drizzling, and a little side kit of crispy chicken skins, for crumbling on top. You are likely to find a few pieces of bone in your porridge. Pick them up with your fingers; slurp with gusto.

Lumpia is a bite best eaten straight out of the fryer; otherwise, it loses its snap. I like Estrellita’s straightforward version very much, but I suggest eating it in the restaurant, or the minute you walk out — in the car, if you must. The pancit was packed with bits of shrimp, chicken and veggies (green beans, cabbage, carrots), but it lacked oomph. (Hot sauce will help.) Alas, that aforementioned lechon is not only powerfully delicious, but also quite rich — a plate I need to push aside, lest I get in big trouble.

Estrellita is located on a Grant Park side street more commonly known as a cut-through than a dining destination. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Estrellita is located on a Grant Park side street more commonly known as a cut-through than a dining destination. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Wendell Brock

Credit: Wendell Brock

After sampling everything assembled on my kitchen counter, I chose one dish to finish, practically cradling it in my arms as I traipsed to the dining table: That would be the Spam silog. I punctured the poached egg to make a sauce running over the garlic rice, scooped it up with a chunk of that infamous compressed pork and a bit of the chopped tomato accompaniment, and found a panacea for all my pandemic heartaches. Like Hawaii’s famous (and somewhat similar) loco moco, I can only imagine that Spam silog makes for an excellent hangover cure.

Estrellita means “little star,” and that’s exactly what this sweet newcomer is. Long may it shine.

ESTRELLITA

Menu: traditional Filipino

Alcohol: yes

Recommended dishes: traditional lumpia, lechon kawali, arroz caldo, Spam silog

Price range: $$

Service options: dine-in; takeout and delivery via DoorDash

Outdoor dining: yes, two patio tables by the front sidewalk

Experience: The food was ready at the promised time, except for one dish. I waited outside, and the server brought it out. The restaurant was busy with dine-in customers enjoying the lovely space. There was little time for the server to dawdle on takeout customers. It would be nice if the condiments were labeled.

Address, phone: 580 Woodward Ave. SE, Atlanta; 404-390-3038

Hours: 5-9 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays-Fridays; 11 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5-9 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays

Website: estrellitafilipino.com

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