As I sat down at Perla, all I saw were banana leaves lying on the table. I quickly looked around to find no sign of silverware or plates. The restaurant was very small and well–lit, with an open kitchen right behind our table. I knew I was trying a traditional Filipino meal, but to be completely honest, I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
I heard about this place from a few friends, but all they told me was to make a reservation on either a Wednesday or a Saturday for the $40 tasting menu—that was it. I opted for Wednesday because the minimum people required for a reservation was two. I grabbed an eager friend to come along and we embarked on this adventure together. It’s quite a trek to get to South Philly, so I sure hoped it would be worth the hype.
The most important thing to know about Perla is that everything is eaten with your hands—no silverware, no plates. It was an experience out of my comfort zone, in the best way possible. The first thing the waiter put on our table was a roll of bread. The minute I bit into it I knew this meal was about to be incredible—the bread might have been my favorite part of the whole meal. It was extremely soft and very sweet.
Next, the waiter came over and started decorating our table with an incredible variety of foods, flavors, and colors. The first thing he put down was an order of garlic fried rice which was flavorful, salty, and the perfect amount of crispy. On top of that, he placed all these roasted vegetables filled with Brussels sprouts, eggplant, string beans, and more. They were cooked in a delicious coconut curry sauce that paired perfectly with the fried rice. He then placed the most beautiful cooked chicken with the crispiest skin, and an entire fried fish, face and all, on to this mountain of food. Still, he wasn't done, with additions of fried pork belly and spring rolls. I was blown away by the range of textures, colors, and flavors all piled high on my table. The waiter finished this show with four sauces—my favorite was a sweet and thick, chicken–liver–flavored sauce.
I stared in awe at this pile of food in front of me, completely unaware how to even start. But once we started, we couldn’t be stopped. Everything complemented each other—the perfect balance of the garlic from the rice, the crispiness of the fish and chicken, the crunchiness of the pork belly, the sweetness of the sauces, and the lightness of the vegetables cooked in coconut curry.
The more we ate, the more we learned about the history of the cuisine we were eating. Apparently, this used to be the style of eating in the Filipino military. It was an incredible equalizer as people from different ranks of the military gathered to eat off the banana leaves together. Turned out our waiter was the chef and our waitress was the niece of the owner. The restaurant began to feel familiar and comfortable, even as we were enjoying the cuisine of a culture that was completely new to us.
Perla is an incredible access point to Filipino food culture. If you’re down for an adventure, I cannot recommend Perla more highly. It is well worth the price. However, if you prefer to order your own food, I recommend going on Thursday, Friday, or Saturday to try the full a–la–carte menu.