For three years, Rod Daquioag had been trying to open Lumpia Hut in Oldtown Salinas. But fate said no. There were tiffs with builders, inspectors, contractors, and discoveries inherent to remodel jobs that meant blown budgets and missed deadlines. But there’s finally an ending and an upside to Daquioag’s well-chronicled turmoil: Lumpia Hut is open and, if the food is any indicator, on a path to huge success.
The restaurant opened six months ago, but Daquioag’s no rookie to the world of food. He’s been operating a catering business in and around Salinas for more than a decade. Now, instead of simply existing behind a catering truck, Daquioag is center stage in a killer Oldtown locale, locked between the Cherry Bean and the Ariel Theater.
The place is casual – tile floors, table seating, a flat-panel TV in sports mode – with obvious attention to the fact that this is a restaurant, not a diner. There are bamboo placemats and linen napkins, and one must wait to be seated.
We chose a table where we could watch Boston and Cleveland hash it out in the second-round NBA playoffs.
Maybe it was the name, but I expected a menu with varieties of lumpia (similar to egg rolls), and I expected to delve into a menu with Filipino options I knew little about. Wrong. The appetizer list goes like this: coconut prawns, garlic chicken, calamari, sesame chicken wings, and barbecued skewers of meat. The main dishes are just as unintimidating: marinated chicken, beef shanks, a seafood medley, and so on. Think comfort food with better sauces.
My dining companion was a 6-foot-2 athlete who’d started his day weightlifting at 6am and ended it with four hours of football practice. A courseload of classes was jammed somewhere in between. Dinner had to be filling – and excellent.
I was going to start with an order of coconut prawns ($5.99), but the athlete thought that was laughable and asked our server to toss in a dozen or so beef lumpia ($4.99) and a house salad ($4.99) for good measure.
The prawns. Wow. Six hefty little ocean beasts were barely breaded and crammed on a plate with a bucket – OK, small dish – of orange sauce. I told Mr. Football he could have three – and three only.
Did I say “wow” yet? They could have been trucked in 30 minutes before from Moss Landing, they were so fresh. Maybe it was the sauce that gave them such a kick: sweet, tangy, and a punch of heat. Because I wasn’t in the mood to go toe-to-toe with the athlete, I settled for two. I think he actually grunted. That means “good,” I think.
The skinny, long, deep-fried lumpia were packed with corn, peas, carrots and beef. I know I had one, and it totally rocked. The rest of them disappeared.
The salad, by the way, was an actual salad, fresh from the outskirts of town, and far more than the lumps of iceberg some joints pass off as salad. This one had a good mix of lettuces, cabbage, big hunks of carrots, cucumber and tomatoes.
Then dinner came. I ordered the Seafood Delight ($12.99). An entire plate of prawns, scallops, mussels, crab, squid and vegetables sautéed in a sauce of ginger, garlic and oysters. Mr. Football ordered the Bistek ($10.99), a heap of huge hunks of beef sirloin smothered with great big rings of sauteed onions and simmered in a lemon soy sauce. We shared a bowl of rice.
I couldn ‘t get over the place as a whole, not to mention just my dinner. That mound of the Pacific on my plate was enough food for three adults – or one student-athelete. The fish was cooked to perfection, simmered gently so it wasn’t tortured, and tossed in a beautiful marriage of spicy sauce. It was the best meal I’d had in ages.
The steak, while it lasted, was unbelievably tender. It fell apart on its own.
After I’d stuffed myself to oblivion and the kind server packed my leftovers, I took a walk around. Enormous and sexily curved windows in front let oodles of light pour into the room; a huge skylight looks over the whole room. All of that natural light does wonders for the big space, warming it up. Tiny candles light every table and give the place ambiance. During the workday lunch hour, a counter turns into a buffet.
It may have taken Daquioag far too long to get into that perfect location. But he has a gem on his hands.
LUMPIA HUT & GRILL 330 Main St., Salinas • 11am-2pm, 5-9pm Mon-Thu; until 10pm Fri; 9am-2pm, 5-10pm Sat; 9am-2pm, 5-9pm Sun. • 771-9264.