The beginnings had all the components of a Broadway musical: a sultry saloon singer from a Pacific island, an American GI, wartime in Vietnam. Of course, they fall in love, move to the United States and then, unlike a Broadway show, get jobs.
Tessie Montano Baldwin worked in a Chinese restaurant while Roger Baldwin went into outside sales. Soon they opened a small Chinese restaurant in Rock Hill, S.C. In 1985, they opted to open a grander restaurant: Tropical Escape Cafe & Bar. On this menu would be an amalgamation of popular Asian foods, primarily Chinese, a menu which would more than likely win the palates of potential customers. Yet the woman from the Philippines stayed true to her heritage and offered a few dishes from her island nation.
Filipino cuisine has never been more than a blip on the American culinary radar. My introduction to Filipino food came from a small eatery around the corner from one workplace. In the summer, I would delight in a halo-halo, a Filipino snow cone with milk, beans, and taro as colorful as a King's Cake. Today, however, more Americans associate Filipino cuisine with balut, the fertilized duck egg, made famous by the Food Network.
Filipino cuisine is a mix. The original Malayo-Polynesian inhabitants were joined by Chinese immigrants looking for better places to grow rice. The Spanish arrived, bringing their European style of cooking. As a Spanish colony, the Philippines were administered from Mexico, which added hot peppers and corn to the cuisine. Fast-forward to the Spanish American War. The Americans won, got the Philippines and introduced the quintessential American foods: hamburgers, hot dogs and ketchup. Banana ketchup, which became popular in the Philippines during World War II during an imported ketchup shortage, is the preferred condiment for burgers.
But the Baldwins decided early not to focus on Filipino cuisine. Over the decades, they expanded their restaurant, which now seats 170, and filled the rooms with enough South Pacific ambiance to sweep away lingering thoughts of snow and ice. Through the years, Tessie brought members of her Filipino family to Rock Hill. Many of them work with her in the kitchen. One son, Willie, earned a culinary degree from Johnson & Wales University in Charleston, and also works with his parents in the restaurant.
The menu at Tropical Escape seems like the new puppy trying to please everyone. The majority of the items are Chinese, albeit American Chinese -- Lo Mein, Sesame Chicken, Moo Goo Gai Pan. Then there's a section for meat and three country cooking with meat loaf, fried chicken, Hoppin' John, black eyed peas, and collard greens. Burgers and onion rings highlight another section; wonton soup and a Cajun grouper sandwich in another.
But the treasures here are the Filipino selections -- which are not identified. One of the most popular Filipino foods is the Lumpia Shanghai: elongated rolls of pork, beef and vegetables wrapped in rice paper and fried crisp. Aunt Norma makes 500 a week at Tropical Escape, but they are not listed as Lumpia on the menu -- look for spring roll.
Also on the menu is the House Specialty Vermicelli. This is Pancit Bihon, which uses very thin rice noodles sautéed with thinly sliced chicken, salty bits of ham, sweet shrimp, garlic, onions, shredded cabbage and snow peas. This was followed to the table by a bevy of chicken wings á la Bulacan, Tessie's home region, grilled over charcoal, which brought potentially boring wings to an impressive high.
If any dish has the ability to become the breakout dish like Pad Thai did for Thai food, the densely textured Chicken Adobo would be it for the Philippines. At Tropical, the kitchen opted to remove the chicken skin and use the chicken breast rather than the whole chicken. But the flavor is sensational since the chicken is marinated with vinegar, soy, peppercorns, garlic and bay leaves.
Service at Tropical is warmhearted and entertaining, even when business is brisk. A traditional meal is served all at once in the Philippines, including dessert, since part of the cuisine is the desired combination of salty and sweet. We ordered everything together and our server was delighted to comply. For dessert, bananas and pineapples were wrapped in a spring roll wrapper and fried, but were surprisingly light.
Even though Tropical Escape does not have Halo-Halo on the dessert menu (it's more of a street food), the other dishes are worthy of a go. General MacArthur had it right when he said he would return to the Philippines. I can't imagine not returning to this Tropical Escape.
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Tropical Escape Cafe & Bar, 590 North Anderson Road, Rock Hill, S.C. 803-366-3888. Lunch hours: 11 a.m. until 2 p.m. Monday through Friday. Dinner hours: 5 p.m. until 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 5 p.m. until 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.