Ask most people in the United States what constitutes Asian food, and they’ll likely begin with the cuisines of China and Japan. More recently, diners have been eager to embrace Thai, Vietnamese, and Korean food, but the cooking of the nearby Philippines has yet to gain much traction beyond those who grew up with it. Maybe it’s the prevalence of tart flavors or the generous use of vinegar in many dishes, but Filipino food remains under-appreciated in much of the United States, despite the half century the Philippines was under American rule.
Locally, Filipino restaurants have come and gone over the years with little staying power. One notable exception is Wholly Grill, which has persisted for a decade in the food court at Mekong Plaza, a quarter mile from the Sycamore / Main light rail station in west Mesa. Bike racks are found near entrance on the building’s east side. Wholly Grill was one of the earliest tenants in the food court and has endured even as other tenants have arrived and departed. The restaurant stands out from its Chinese and Vietnamese neighbors with a Filipino flag on display.
Like all of the occupants of the food court, Wholly Grill is a place where customers order at a counter, take a numbered placard, find their desired place in the shared dining area, and then await delivery of their food to the table. While the service model is casual, the restaurant should not be considered Filipino fast good. In fact, some patience is recommended as the staff prepare almost all food to order. Because of the small size of the Mekong Plaza food court, it is easy to mix dishes from Wholly Grill’s neighbors and stagger orders as needed.
The name “Wholly Grill” has no secret meaning in any of the languages of the Philippines. Instead, it’s a play on words reflecting the restaurant’s emphasis on grilled food. That focus is evident on the reader boards over the counter. Pork skewers, barbecued chicken, and garlic shrimp are typical of what’s offered here. Each meat has been seasoned prior to grilling, often with flavors that meld sweet, salty, and sour tastes into bold combinations typical of Filipino cooking. The one vegetarian dish is a set of skewers with peppers and mushrooms.
These grilled entrees all come with two scoops of slightly sticky rice and a choice of one additional side dish. The most tame options are a steamed vegetable assortment and a macaroni salad that will be familiar to anyone who has enjoyed Hawaiian plate lunches. Those basic choices are contrasted with two bolder alternatives: a tangy, pulpy grilled eggplant salad with a texture like baba ganoush and another salad based on shredded green papaya. Falling somewhere in the middle of it all is the fifth option, a sweet-and-sour cucumber salad.
Beyond Wholly Grill’s regular menu of grilled foods, there are steam table specials which offer a deeper taste of Filipino cuisine. Memorable offerings have included tuna and jackfruit, a tart soup of pork and vegetables, and a stew with pork meat and liver in coconut milk. The staff are always happy to offer samples of the steam table specials to anyone who wants a test drive before ordering. Even a dish as seemingly familiar as chop suey has its own special touch at Wholly Grill, where the expected chicken, shrimp, and vegetables are augmented with squash.
On weekends, the featured dish is lechon, a big hunk of roast pork with crispy skin. Offered on a la carte basis are several other items that no Filipino restaurant should be without. Lumpia are tiny egg rolls with a crisp exterior wrapped around a ground pork filling. Dozens of types of pancit dishes are found in Filipino kitchens, but Wholly Grill focuses on just one or two at any time. Here, pancit guisado combines round rice noodles with chicken and vegetables. Adobo, a complex mix of vinegar, soy sauce, and spices is used as a base in which to simmer chicken.
There’s no alcohol here, but the fruit drinks are worth exploring. There are canned juices, but also some house-made beverages worth exploring.The lemonade is a nice balance of tart and sweet flavors. While the lemonade is familiar and comforting, calamansi juice is something new to try. The fruit is a citrus variety native to the Philippines and has a flavor simultaneously reminiscent of orange, lemon, and lime. Smoothies and shakes made with tropical fruits such as banana, mango, and pineapple function as either filling drinks or liquid desserts.
In terms of solid desserts, the banana turon maintains the fruit theme. A whole banana is deep fried to produce something like a sweet egg roll. Another sweet, cassava cake is made from gratings of the South American root vegetable, introduced to the Philippines by the Spanish, with a custard topping. For hot Arizona summers, halo halo is a cold treat. No two versions are exactly the same, but at Wholly Grill, a layer of flan is topped with shaved ice and milk. The dish is then accessorized with bits of fruit, a scoop of purple yam ice cream, and some cereal.
As the only Filipino restaurant in Mekong Plaza, and one of the few in the East Valley, Wholly Grill doesn’t have much in the way of either direct competition or a benchmark against which it can be compared. Nevertheless, this veteran of the center’s food court has endured since 2009 by serving a mix of both simple grilled dishes and more complex stews and soups. It remains to be seen if Filipino food will attain the mainstream appeal of other east Asian cuisines, but Wholly Grill is a place that can appeal to both a Pinoy clientele and adventurous eaters of all origins.
66 S. Dobson Rd. #125, Mesa AZ 85202