AURORA – On a recent weekday afternoon, the television at the Sunburst Grill is tuned to a soap opera. Two teenagers are arguing and three out of every ten words they say is in English, some are clearly Spanish origin and the rest is native Tagalog. That quilt of tongues is Filipino, the official language of the Philippines besides English.
Pick up the dessert menu at this Aurora eatery and you can order halo-halo, a colorful bowlful of coconut milk, crushed ice, green gelatin cubes, and tapioca pearls topped with purple yam ice cream.
“Halo-halo means ‘mix, mix’ — all mixed up,” said Francisco Roces, the warm-spirited, white-haired guy that everyone calls “Popi.” He opened the eight-table Sunburst Grill in 2008.
Today, other than a Denver food cart, the Sunburst Grill is the only Filipino restaurant in the metro area, and one of a handful in Colorado.
“Mix” also describes Filipino food’s multicultural flavor blend, Popi said.
“A lot of the seasonings we use are actually very close to what they use in Mexican cooking,” Popi said, noting that the Spanish ruled the South Asian nation for 300 years and introduced paella and tomato sauces. “There’s a Chinese influence in the soy and noodles,” Popi said, plus a Malaysian accent in the use of tart tamarind in soups such as shrimp sinigang.
“Filipino barbecue looks like Indonesian satay on a stick, but tastewise it’s not far from American barbecue,” he said. There are Southeast Asian condiments on the table that include include fermented fish sauce, vinegar with onions and a soy-vinegar mix. And everything comes with steamed rice, especially the kind dosed with oodles of garlic.
The Filipinos have an affinity for counterpointed flavors. For instance, the dessert called bibingka is a sweet rice cake baked in a banana leaf-lined pan with chopped hard-boiled egg, grated white cheese, coconut and butter. It’s salty, sweet, savory and rich.
Growing up in metropolitan Manila, food was everywhere and all in the family. “Filipinos love to eat all the time,” he said.
“My father always had a bar and he opened a couple of fine dining places. My mother had a separate grill that was like a cafeteria. She was into feeding the masses. I liked to go in there and get halo-halo,” Popi said with a big grin.
He learned to cook by helping his mother in the kitchen. “I was the inquisitive one. I kept asking her questions,” he said. Thankfully, she wrote down all her recipes including the ones he still cooks from at the Sunburst Grill.
He originally had other career plans as he earned a degree in agriculture, specifically animal husbandry. “Back home you took a degree to keep your mom and dad quiet. They figured since I liked to breed fighting cocks that I should study animals,” he said.
Eventually Popi opened a restaurant with his siblings but it didn’t work out. “My father said the problem was that ‘everybody’s an officer and nobody’s a soldier,’” he said.
After moving to the U.S., he headed to the Denver area where there weren’t any Filipino establishments at the time. He operated Manila To Go in Aurora from 2004 to 2007.
The ongoing challenge has been to entice diners who don’t know the cuisine or think it’s just too exotic, he said. Popi suggest that if beer drinkers tried sisig they would love it. Sisig is toothsome bites of pork cheeks and ears that have been boiled, chopped, fried and then sauteed with vinegar, onions and peppers before being served sizzling on a hot fajita platter. An egg is broken on top that diners mix in and cook at the table. At the Sunburst Grill, they wash it down with refreshing lemonade-like calamansi, a juice drink made from small Filipino limes.
And soul food fans would feel right at home with kare-kare, a peanut-y oxtail and tripe stew, or crispy pata, a boiled and deep-fried pork hock.
The cafe’s all-day breakfast menu includes various proteins ranging from house-made longaniza sausage to fried milkfish all served with eggs, and steamed or garlic rice instead of hashbrowns.
Popi said he plans on pleasing guests, making sausage and cooking sauces for years to come for three good reasons.
“I’ve got three kids – the oldest in 22 and getting ready to graduate from C.U. I’ve got one 17 and another that’s 13.”
Foodies are starting to discover the cuisine, but he estimates that 70 percent of his current customers are Filipino-Americans. “I get people all the way from Kansas and Nebraska. They come down from Cheyenne because there isn’t any Filipino food in Wyoming,” Popi said.
He also sees a lot of former airmen, soldiers and sailors who were stationed at Subic Bay and other bases in the Philippines. “They all smile when they see what’s on the menu. It takes them back,” he said.
What to order at the Sunburst Grill
Pancit palabok: Filipino rice noodle dish topped with pork, shrimp and egg
Chicken adobo: Chicken cooked in a a vinegar and soy sauce broth. It’s unrelated to the similarly named Latin American dish.
Lumpiang Shanghai: Long, thin fried spring rolls filled with ground pork and shrimp
Kare-kare: Tripe and oxtail casserole with peanut sauce
Leche flan: Similar to the French creme caramel
Lechón: Whole roasted suckling pig (for special occasions)
Laing: Taro leaves and vegetables cooked in coconut milk
Tapa: Marinated grilled beef
Kaldereta: beef stew with carrots, tomatoes and potatoes
Baked Tahong: Musells baked in garlic butter topped with cheese and mayo
• Sunburst Grill
2295 S. Chambers Road, Aurora