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Expat’s guide to the best Pinoy restaurants, part 1

By Marge C. Enriquez
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 22:44:00 06/11/2008

Filed Under: Restaurants & catering, Tourism

MANILA, Philippines?As soon as a foreigner gets inside a cab from the airport, the first thing he?ll ask is where to eat good Filipino food. Top of mind, any cab driver will bring him to the original Aristocrat restaurant on Roxas Boulevard, Malate.

Nancy Reyes-Lumen, editor in chief of Cook Magazine and granddaughter of the Aristocrat founder, cites the Chicken Honey, the barbecues?whether the ribs or boneless chicken?and the juicy burgers as the classics.

Since the Reyeses are a big clan, half of them are in the food and restaurant business and have spun off their version of a Filipino restaurant.

Lumen prefers to bring a first-time visitor to the Philippines to traditional restaurants.

?When he gets home and talks to Pinoys, they?ll know the place he?s talking about?then there?s a connection. These first-generation restaurants like Aristocrat, Via Mare, etc. are time-tested. On his second visit, he can go to other restos, the second-generation Pinoy places which are more modern and offer styled dishes.?

Where would you take a foreign guest? It depends if he?s a backpacker or a principal from a multinational. There are so many Filipino restaurants in Metro Manila alone.

Among the authentic restaurants, Abe (specializing in Kapampangan cuisine) and Via Mare Oyster Bar, were at the top of the list.

Milky Way, another classic, and Café Juanita, the charmingly bohemian restaurant in Pasig, were also popular choices. The original Aristocrat and Kamayan restaurants are also must destinations.

If awards are an indicator, Sentro at Greenbelt 3 is recommended for its modern approach to Filipino cuisine. For the sophisticated traveler, Philippe Bartholomi, GM of Friday?s resort in Boracay who started his career as a chef, mentions Travel Café at Greenbelt 5.

The food is presented in the classic Western way without compromising the true Filipino flavors. It also provides tourist information of the Philippines.


For something cheeky, Barrio Fiesta is for Filipinos who will entertain the online fiancé of a relative who has flown in to propose to the future bride.

Says Lumen, ?The happy ambiance is also very provincial, plus the singing cooks and waiters are friendly. Funky Pinoy food around. For those on a budget, in lieu of lechon (roast suckling pig), there?s crispy pata (deep-fried pork thighs).

?Cabalen and Barrio Fiesta are funky?real bahay ulam (home-cooked meals) presented in buffets. There?s no pretense in their presentation?you eat as you would in a real barrio fiesta.?

She describes Mangan as ?Pinoy fashion food addressed to the mallrats.?

Lumen advises that if you?re entertaining suited businessmen, avoid places which are too humid. Don?t bring them to a raucous sisig place (sisig is made from pig?s head and liver and flavored with souring ingredients such as kalamansi aka calamondin orange and red chillies) or ?they end up smelling like sisig!?

On the other side of market, she suggests Kabisera, this fine-dining Filipino restaurant on Bonifacio High Street, Bonifacio Global City.

?Try the Rodrigo?s Roast which is rolled pork belly adobo or the Prawns Dino... Prawns with Salted Egg Puree Sauce,? she says. ?As the new sibling of Dencio?s (a chain of restaurants specializing in Filipino grilled foods), it still bears that barkada charm although the prices are quite high.?

If you want carinderia-style eating in a hygienic and comfortable surrounding, Katrina Ponce-Enrile?s Petra and Pilar at the Jaka Center on Export Bank Drive is the new kid on the block. Chef Ed Quimson says it was inspired by Soseng?s carinderia (local version of a fastfood) on Buendia and Bautista Streets.

Unlike the carinderia fare which takes short cuts, Petra and Pilar follows the traditional Filipino cooking which takes hours for the flavors to meld. It offers everything from laing (taro leaves simmered in coconut milk and spiked with chillies) to embotido (steamed pork loaf).


For the trendy upmarket traveler, Bistro Filipino and Pepato are recommended. Undoubtedly, the quality of the food, service and presentation are five-star, but Pinoy food is best enjoyed in the classic way.

Generally, Filipino cuisine is not vegetarian-friendly. The traditional vegetable dishes usually have bits of meat and seafood and are laden with onions and garlic. If you?re a vegetarian, insist on dietary restrictions.

Sometimes, Filipinos tend to be slack when following instructions. It pays to constantly remind the restaurants.

However, the restaurants in this article are known for their reliable service. If you want vegetarian kare-kare (oxtail stew), pancit (native noodles) or sinigang (tamarind broth), call the restaurant in advance and tell them to eschew the meat stock in the sauces. Or go to restaurants where cooking is ala minute.

Majority recommended the dampa or food shacks where you can enjoy the fresh catch and have them cooked to your specifications, or charming roadside eateries in nearby provinces. Through it all, the experts chorused the best Filipino meal comes from the hearth.

If you?re passing through Baguio, book a meal with artiste-chef Claude Tayag (book with Mary Anne at 0917-5359198) and enjoy Pampango hospitality.

Restaurateur Conrad Calalang declares, ?When a foreign wants to taste Filipino food, I always tell them, ?Come eat at my place.? Home cooking is the best!?

Connoisseurs? favorites

Via Mare

Chefs Josephine Sincioco and Myrna Segismundo recommend Via Mare for merienda fare.

?It?s a favorite reunion place of the balikbayans (visiting Filipino expatriates). Sincioco and Calalang enjoy the seafood kare-kare or native stew. (It?s not on the menu, so tell the waiter.) Sincioco likes the freshness of the peanut sauce in the kare-kare, the sizzling sisig (meat cooked with souring ingredients) and the balut or duck egg?s consommé, with subtle flavors of white wine and herbs.

Segismundo enjoys the fresh spring roll; pancit luglug (rice noodles with shrimp sauce, topped with eggs, crushed ground pork rinds and smoked fish); and puto bumbong (steamed purple rice cake with salted eggs).

Tayag says, ?You can have puto bumbong all year round. The oysters from Capiz are very fresh and juicy.?

?The sisig is crunchy,? says Calalang. The meat is twice cooked, hence, the fat is reduced.

Call Via Mare Shangri-La Plaza Mall at 6311506, Rockwell Power Plant Mall at 8981305 and Greenbelt 3 at 8932306.


Abe is Kapampangan word for ?friend? or ?good company,? as well as the nickname of Renaissance Man E. Aguilar Cruz. This restaurant at Serendra has been packing them in.

Among the foreigners, the most popular dishes are the St. Peter?s fish or plapla, served with balubalo or shrimp relish made from fermented rice wine and mustard leaves; prawns with crab fat simmered in olive oil and lemon; pork cooked in shrimp paste and seasoned with garlic and chilli; kamaru or ricefield crickets, sauteed with tomatoes and onions.

The sinigang na bangus or sour broth with milkfish belly is cooked with ripe guava leaves instead of the usual tamarind for the sour taste. Cap the meal with fried banana spring roll with purple yam and jackfruit.

?I like the way the rice is served in bamboos. The baby squid is tender. The fried tilapia is simple, tasty and nicely presented. Instead of flat fish on a plate, it is skewered, fried and curled nicely,? says Sincioco.

?The pako (seaweed salad) is the real deal, the way we make it at home,? says Pampanga-based sculptor-foodie Tayag.

Call Abe at Serendra, Bonifacio Global City, Taguig at 8560526.

Café Juanita

An OB-gynecologist, Dr. Efren Vasquez lets go of his inner child with this charming restaurant with a bohemian décor.

?It?s part bordello, part Moulin Rouge,? he says. Based on the Pampanga tradition of manual labor combined with instinct, the restaurant has a loyal clientele. Vasquez understood the psychology of the senses and applies them in the nuanced flavors of the meals.

There are innovative salads such as the sigarilyas (winged seguidillas beans) salad, served with shrimp paste vinaigrette.

?The bagnet salad is served with sinful lechon kawali (fried pieces of boiled pork), which is a nice combination of crispy and crunchy textures,? says Segismundo.

Everybody raves over the kare-kare (oxtail stew). The gravy is creamy yet light?unlike other restaurants? versions which are too starchy?and the oxtail and tripe are tender. ?There?s just a hint of shrimp paste that bursts in the tastebuds,? says Vasquez.

The vegetables are not boiled with the meat stuff to prevent sogginess. The mechado (beef brisket stew) consists of fine-grade beef that easily crumbles as soon as you pitch in the fork.

?The peanut sauce of the kare-kare is flavorful, not chunky and cloying that you get in other run-of-the-mill Pinoy restaurants,? says Segismundo.

Vegetarians can enjoy the coconut-based dishes, but inform the kitchen of restrictions.

The desserts are light but lovely. The cassava cake is so soft that you can taste the pulps. It uses the first extraction of the coconut cream on top and is drizzled with cheese to balance the sweet flavors. It?s always served warm.

The creamy coconut gelatin cleanses the palate to end the meal. ?The young coconut is so soft, it just passes through your throat,? says Vasquez. Dessert goes with Senseo coffee.

Segismundo says the place reminds her of Serendipity in New York with its ambiance of antiques and comfort food.

Call Café Juanita 2 United St. cor. West Capitol Drive, Barrio Kapitolyo, Pasig at 6320357.

Next Thursday: All-Pinoy classic and modern restos, and dampa and market destinations.

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