photo credit: Max Grudinski
If you walked into Perla on a random night, you’d probably enjoy yourself. You’d split a few shared plates and a bottle of wine, comment on how small and intimate the dining room is, and when you left, you’d store it in your brain as a good date night spot for when you’re in the neighborhood. You probably wouldn’t immediately group message everyone you know in a five-mile radius and demand that they clear their schedules to go here. Unless you came on a night when they serve their kamayan feast, which is when eating at Perla is one of the best dining experiences in the city.
Every Wednesday and Sunday, the tables at this Filipino BYOB in East Passyunk are pushed together and covered with banana leaves, and the quiet couples you normally see here are replaced with big, animated groups of friends eating with their hands from communal piles of food. First, a layer of fried rice is spooned onto the table in a formation that looks like one of those perfectly symmetrical mountain ranges from a Wes Anderson movie. Next, vegetables–Brussels sprouts, carrots, bok choy, onions, and peppers. And then a whole fried fish, pieces of crispy pork belly, spring rolls, and lemony whole chickens are stacked on top of the rice and vegetable wall. Finally, a few different sauces are scattered around the table, so you can mix and match to create what seems like an infinite number of combinations out of everything in front of you.
photo credit: Max Grudzinski
It's these combinations that make the feast so delicious. One minute it may be a piece of crispy pork belly dipped into a sweet and vinegary dressing, and the next you’re pouring a spicy, chili-garlic red sauce over a bite of tender chicken breast and bok choy. It’s like a choose-your-own-adventure meal, where all of the endings are happy, and you always end up very full, likely with your hands covered in olive oil and rogue rice grains.
This is when Perla really shines, and despite feeling a bit uncomfortable at first, eating with your hands from a giant pile of food forms a bond between everyone around the table. But on the nights when everything is a la carte, this is completely lost. The tables are broken down into two-tops, and most people are there to split a bottle of wine with a date. It’s definitely a different scene, but it’s still worth coming here if you’re in the area and looking to share a few dishes, like the short rib kare kare or Spanish octopus. However, neither the food nor the experience measures up to what you’ll get from the kamayan feast.
And that’s because the kamayan feast is the main event here, even though it only happens twice a week. It creates a connection that lasts long after the dinner is over, and it’s one that you won’t get from any other spot in town.
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This is what you should come here for. A mountain of rice, topped with vegetables, a few types of meat, and four different sauces that you can use to customize each bite. It happens every Wednesday and Sunday night, and you should be prepared for things to get messy, in the best way possible.
The octopus comes with shishito peppers, pickled papaya, and a roasted red pepper escabeche. It all works very well together, but we do wish there was a bit more of the escabeche to dip the octopus in.
While protein is definitely the focus at Perla, the Brussels sprouts are the best vegetable on the menu. They’re a bit spicy, and the perfect side to share with a date.
This is super similar to the fried rice that’s spread across the table as the base for the kamayan feast. We love it. It comes with a side of bone marrow, which makes the rice even more flavorful when mixed in.
Short Rib Kare Kare
The servers always hype this short rib up a ton, but it’s not super special. You’re better off getting the barramundi.
All of the fish here is excellent, and the barramundi is no exception. It’s cooked on a banana leaf, topped with tomatoes, and served with a soy-vinegar sauce that we’ve tried in vain to make at home. It’s light, lemongrassy, and perfect.