WARUNG — Comfort Food of Indonesia

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Driving down the winding East Capitol Drive at Pasig’s Kapitolyo, we came upon a lovely mid-century house in which the best home-cooked Indonesian food I have so far enjoyed in Manila is served. Warung Kapitolyo.

You’ll know you’re there when you see this intricately carved wooden doorway in front. Simply drive up (there is parking inside) and walk into the house’s warm and welcoming interiors. The high ceilings, the open-spaced set-up, the touches of traditional Indonesian embellishments… but, most of all, the friendly and genial hospitality of owners Louh Decena and Tess Doctora and their wonderful staff … all combine to make anyone feel right gladly received and at ease.

In a nutshell, Louh and her sister Tess have lived as expats in Jakarta for decades. When they returned to the Philippines, they decided to bring home with them the flavors of Indonesian cuisine that they learned to love. Louh admitted that they really knew next to nothing about running a restaurant business. In fact, Louh herself will admit that she is not a trained professional cook. What she did know was how to cook the traditional Indonesian food she and her sister had learned to love all those years. So they took a chance and, with the help of Indonesian experts, set up Warung in Kapitolyo. From fine-tuning the recipes and facilitating staff training to the design and aesthetics of the house they bought and renovated to provide that wonderfully homey Indonesian atmosphere, Warung came into being.

They make it a point, as much as possible, to use authentic Indonesian ingredients and spices, making their own sambal, saus kacang (peanut sauce), and tempeh (which is like tofu but better, tastier, and healthier). They even grow their own Indonesian chillies and herbs to ensure that the flavors are as true to the cuisine as possible. But they also bring in special Indonesian ingredients which cannot be found here, even the butter. The result is dishes which are homey, uncomplicated, and delicious Indonesian comfort food.

Warung Kapitolyo is on 83 East Capitol Drive in Pasig. It’s open from Monday to Saturday, from lunch to dinner. To make reservations, you may call 0917.534.7089. On Sundays, you can drop by their stall at the Legazpi Sunday Market in Makati and get your Indonesian food fix right there and then or to go. Warung, after all, means a stall or stand in Bahasa.

 

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Prosciutto di Quack-quack

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When you hear prosciutto, no doubt you immediately think of that delightful dry-cured Italian ham made from a hog’s leg. But if you are fortunate enough to come across it, you should try duck or goose prosciutto. Familiar as we all are with the traditional prosciutto made from pigs, this is an entirely different, divine, and ducky experience.

Prosciutto d’Oca

It seems the Jewish community in Italy and all over Europe, forbidden by religious law to eat pork, had found a way to enjoy a more Kosher prosciutto, using duck or goose. According to food writer  , “…Jews in every country in the Diaspora found ways to create kosher versions of their neighbors’ food. Italian Jews took duck and smoked it to create duck prosciutto, the kosher cousin to the famous Italian salted ham.”

And I am so happy that they did. Goose or duck prosciutto has its own distinct rich flavor that’s a league all on its own. It tastes salty-sweet with a slight gamey sharpness that goes perfectly with a full-bodied, bold red, like a Pinot Noir or Malbec. It was no surprise that all the duck or goose prosciutto slices (I’m not exactly sure which one it is but I think it was duck) served at the Cheese Club were polished off in under an hour, while all the other deli meats offered had to settle for second choice.

Now, can anyone tell me please where I can buy duck prosciutto here in Manila?

VENGO! — your neighborhood café & taquería

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If you’re jonesing for traditional and authentic Mexican food… no, this is not the place for you. But if you like flavorful, modern, Mexican-INSPIRED food and drinks, then yes, ven aquí a Vengo!

My favorite is the Pork Cheek Confit Taco — crispy-fried pork cheek and chicharon in a soft taco. They make their tacos and tortillas fresh everyday. I like washing it down with one of their signature cocktails, like that Sweep The Leg drink made with gin, cucumber, mint, lime,and a splash of water with orris root essence. Light and refreshing on a sun-blasted Manila day. Or night.

It’s a cafe and restaurant in one, offering a lot of tasty, Mexican-fusion dishes to choose from — from salads and tortillas to rice bowls — as well as an array of coffee concoctions and cocktail drinks. Vengo Neighborhood Cafe has a branch on Carlos Palanca St. (just off De La Rosa St.) in Legaspi Village in Makati. It’s open from 11am onwards. 

Burgers at UCC Mentoré

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I “discovered” great burgers at an unlikely spot — UCC Mentoré. A cozy and often overlooked oasis in the middle of the Raffles and Fairmont Hotels at the Glorietta Complex in Makati. When you think UCC, you most likely think just Japanese + coffee. But they serve great and delicious food there, from soups, salads, and sandwiches to pasta and pastries.

Mentore Burger: 1/3 lb US Angus beef burger with caramelized onions and blue cheese. Served with wedged fries.

Sloppy Joe Burger : Grilled beef patty smothered in cheese sauce and marinara, topped with onions and a fried egg. Served with wedged fries.

Araya Ramen

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Araya Ramen restaurant sits unobtrusively beside the exit ramp and beneath the De la Rosa Car Park 1 in Legaspi Village in Makati. It reminds me a lot of Tokyo’s small ramen-yas in and underneath the city’s train stations, serving quick and simple but good and hearty steaming bowls of ramen for the harried workers and the time-pressed salarymen.

It’s a tiny and rather cramped space, with a long counter facing the kitchen and a few tables along the side. Not a spot for lingering around and chatting. Slurp your ramen and eat your gyoza or whatever siding you want — there are others waiting their turn for a quick and satisfying meal before heading back to work or home.

Funnily enough, according to the Urban Dictionary, araya means “A drop-dead gorgeous girl who can be ugly at times but really beautiful. She’s such a flirt, she’s a cutie, she loves to text but mostly call! She’s a cheerleader most of the time and a ninja the rest.” That’s a funny definition. I also learned that Araya means “‘wild valley’ or ‘new valley’ in eastern Japan and pronounced Aratani in western Japan.”

No idea which one applies to the name of the restaurant but Araya Ramen can be found along De la Rosa St. below the De la Rosa Car Park 1, the one nearest to Greenbelt 5. I also don’t know if they accept reservations but you can call 888-4422 to make sure.

The magical Black Pig

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Pigs are truly magical animals. From snout to tail — there doesn’t seem to be a part of a pig that we can’t enjoy. Even its blood and balls! One could go practically the whole hog with a pig, so to speak. Such a waste of a glorious animal, if one didn’t.

At The Black Pig Charcuterie, Bar, and Restaurant, Chef Carlos Garcia is the wizard whose dishes have brought out the magic in every part of the pig, especially the black Iberian pig of Spain, from which we derive the wonderful Jamon Iberico, AND of course our very own native pig, which is highly prized for our traditional lechon and comes usually in all-black color or black with a white belly.

The Black Pig serves deliciously innovative dishes which they describe as a “mix of European-inspired recipes using fresh local ingredients”, not necessarily all pork. A few combinations are unusual or even unexpected, such as Char Siu Pork on a bed of our local adlai grain, Extremadura Lamb Caldereta braised in white wine, or Iberico Pork Paté. They also offer a fine and satisfying set lunch menu everyday. Or you could simply while the time away and nibble on their choices of excellent charcuterie and cheeses while enjoying unlimited glasses of cava, wine, or sangria. Or craft beer on tap, if that’s more your preference. You may choose to stay inside the stylish, modern interiors or on the balcony for al fresco wining and dining (enjoy the fresh breezes of the South while it is not yet too congested). They’re open from breakfast to midnight.

From the food to the service and even the beverage choices, everything, in my own personal experience so far, has been excellent. Every dish served seemed to be thoughtfully curated and perfectly prepared. Pork and other meats are rarely well glorified as they are here. If I had a choice, I’d be happy to come enjoy a wonderful lunch and stay on for happy hour and dinner and on till midnight comes.

The Black Pig is located at the 2nd floor, Commerce Center, at Filinvest in Alabang. It’s often best to reserve, especially in the evenings: call 808-1406 or +63 917-8450744. And don’t forget to have your parking ticket validated for free parking.

 

FOOD MEMORIES : The Kapow of Cua pao

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GOOD FOOD + GOOD FRIENDS + GOOD MEMORIES = one of the best combinations to a Good Life! And somehow, an online chat with friends suddenly brought on wonderful memories of the 80s and triggered a craving for CUA PAO AT EMER’S!

EMER’S — an unpretentious and modest Chinese restaurant located at the lower ground floor of Makati Square (once called “Makati Cinema Square” but now the cinemas are gone), surrounded by the most interesting (and some pretty tacky) stores selling DVDs (although in the 80s, they were more of laser discs and VHS tapes) of films and TV series, CDs and LPs of music both obscure and popular, second-hand books and magazines at Booksale, as well as “PX” goods, firearms and ammunition, vintage furniture, even gaudy gowns and cheap imported clothes, and many many more other goods.

EMER’S, I believe, is as old as the mall itself. Makati (Cinema) Square was, way way back then in the 80s, the gang’s hangout for our weekly billiards, bowling, and beer sessions. And Emer’s was our favorite go-to place for our cua pao and pancit fix, after browsing around the shops. More than 30 years later, I still crave their cua pao, happy to relive fun memories of the wild and wacky 80s with every bite.

Cua pao — or Gua bao, as it is properly called — is the Taiwanese rendition of a pork belly sandwich. It is usually a bao or steamed bun stuffed with slices of slow-braised pork belly, tender and succulent, which are combined with stir-fried pickled mustard greens (or suan cai), wansuy (aka cilantro), and sweet ground peanuts. I read that Gua Bao literally means “tiger bites pig” because the mouth of the bun is like a tiger’s chewing on a pig. Not exactly an appetizing image, but okay.

The first time I had cua pao was at Empress (or was it Emerald) Garden in Ermita, way back in the late 70s, a stone’s throw from my office. And I fell in love with it ever since. And I discovered it at Emer’s when I transferred to an office which was just a few blocks from then-Makati Cinema Square. That delectably soft steamed bun that enfolded those delicious umami, salty, sweet, pungent, and fresh Oriental flavors, all together in an amalgam of interesting textures. What’s not to love?

The cua pao at Emer’s is still as good as I remembered, except that there seems to be less meat now. And I miss the sprigs of cilantro that comes with it. Otherwise, the flavors are there. And it satisfied my food memory craving. Plus, all the other signature dishes of the restaurant — Crab Fuyong, Garlic Chicken, Crispy Bean Curd, etc — are still just as good. But we forgot to order their famous Pata Tim! A good reason to come back the next time… and create new food memories.

The Mile Long tenants will soon be leaving the place but, thankfully, Makati Square where Emer’s is will still be around. Emer’s Food Center is at the Lower Ground Floor. For reservations, you can call 811-1833 or 843-6113.

Persia is just ’round the corner

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Mediterranean food is not only healthy and nutritious that even the staunchest non-dieter will enjoy but it is incredibly flavorful and down-to earth satisfying. The cuisine has reached a level of popularity of gastronomical proportions everywhere. And here in Metro Manila, one will find a plethora of excellent choices when it comes to restaurants in Metro Manila that offer good Mediterranean food. Greek, Lebanese, Syrian, Moroccan, Turkish… and, yes, even Mediterranean French and Italian. And there’s also Persian. It may seem that the dishes are all similar — kebabs, hummus, falafel, moussaka, the ubiquitous pita bread — yet there are differences, though subtle. All good and delicious!

And when I’m in the mood for really good home-style Persian food, one place I like to go to is Persia Grill. Owned by the Kazemi family who serve up delicious and authentic traditional Persian dishes acquired from their own Iranian grandmother’s recipes, Persia Grill has been around for many many years and has expanded to 9 branches (and counting) all over the metro. Despite their growth and popularity, the family is hands-on still in the kitchen and in operations, to ensure that the authenticity of their dishes, especially in taste and in ingredients, are maintained. My favorites are the Peshgaza platter (a combination of hummus, baba ganoush, salad oliviyeh, and must o’khiar), the Chelo Kebab Kubideh, and the Vegetable Moussaka. And, yes, despite having an abundance of pita bread, I still order their Persian Rice, which is claimed to have a lower glycemic index than our regular rice.  (Not sure if it’s due to the variety of rice or the cooking technique — someone please enlighten me.)

The first time I tried Persia Grill, a long long time ago, I had the good fortune to meet with the very charming and voluble owner, Mr. Kazemi. We chatted over delightfully soothing lemon tea, made with fresh Persian sweet lemons (similar to Meyer lemons) which his mother would send him from Iran, and he told me his story. Although the Kazemi name is more recognized for his Persian carpet business — Kazemi Persian Carpets at the La’O Center on Arnaiz Avenue — he decided to put up the restaurant as a graduation gift for his son, Kian. At the time, Kian Kazemi was still part of the Pinoy Big Brother show. So his father operated and managed the restaurant until his son was free and could focus on it. And now he is. And Persia Grill has grown into a successful enterprise.

Two slices of Italy in BF Homes

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One evening, I was chatting with a couple of Italian acquaintances who were asking each other if they knew good Italian restaurants in the South. Not the modern Italian food in fancy restaurants but honest-to-goodness, humble but hearty Italian food, like their mamas used to make. Of course, two places came to mind. I immediately suggested Daniele’s Casa Mia (https://aboucheamused.com/2016/08/17/danieles-casa-mia-a-secret-gem-on-sucat/) on Sucat Road and the Mona Lisa Ristorante https://aboucheamused.com/2012/08/19/why-the-mona-lisa-makes-me-smile/ at Westgate Alabang. Then I asked if they’ve explored the restaurants inside BF. They wanted to, they said, but they had the notion that the places there were either drinking spots or offering Asian food (Korean, Japanese, Chinese). That’s a mistaken notion, I told them — in fact, there are two pretty good Italian restaurants which they ought to try. Mama Lou’s Italian Kitchen and Trattoria Altrov’e.

Trattoria Altrov’e became a huge hit in Palawan a few years back — in Coron and at El Nido resort — where it all began for its proprietors, a Slovenian man and his Filipina wife. Living up to their restaurant’s name, altrov’e (which means elsewhere in Italian), they set up a branch elsewhere indeed a couple of years ago — right inside BF subdivision, which has become a food mecca in the Metro south. The house where the Trattoria is situated has a casual and comfy beach-home vibe, with its wood floors and an airy space that opens up onto a garden. So don’t be surprised if you’ll be asked to take off your footwear. All the better to enjoy their signature brick-oven-baked pizzas. The pizzas are made fresh in the Neapolitan style — characterized by usually having more sauce than cheese with the middle of the pie soft and moist. The generous servings of pasta dishes are great, too, and the seafood flown in fresh from Palawan and the Visayas. Prices are reasonable, too. But with the secret being out, I suggest making reservations — call 2469069, ext 558.

Many many years ago, when Aguirre Avenue was hardly the busy, bustling bar and restaurant row it is now, one of the mainstay dining places here was Café Français, owned by the Tremblays — that’s French-Canadian Richard and his Filipina wife Marilou. Some years later, the Tremblays closed down the café, relocated and reinvented themselves and their restaurant to their house on Tropical Avenue. Ecco … Mama Lou’s Italian Kitchen! Named after Richard’s late wife, Marilou, and managed by husband-and-wife team, Crystal Tremblay Sison and David Sison. The relaxed homelike environment and the casual, friendly atmosphere provide a marvelous setting for enjoying good and solid Italian comfort food. I love the simplicity of the dishes and the boldness and heartiness of their flavors. Nothing fancy, but everything satisfying. Prices are reasonable and parking is easy. It’s located on Tropical Palace St. corner Tropical Ave. at BF Las Piñas. For reservations, call 2469069 ext 927. They also have branches now at the Uptown Center Mall and in Nuvali.

Both are off the beaten Aguirre track. Both are located along Tropical Avenue at BF Homes International. Both offer ample parking. And both are set up nicely in refitted homes, giving each restaurant a very relaxed, down-to-earth, and congenial ambience. Ironically, neither one is owned by a true-blue Italian. But, judging by the excellence of the food, that doesn’t matter at all — both will definitely satisfy a buon appetito!

Ramen? You sure can, Yushoken!

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Don’t ask me why but, for me, rainy days = ramen! Steaming hot and richly flavorful broth, fresh and firm noodles, comfort food happiness. And when I need a ramen fix, I go to Yushoken at the Molito Complex in Alabang.

When Yushoken Ramen burst into the scene at the height of the ramen rage a few years ago, I was ecstatic. Created in partnership between Elbert Cuenca and Ryan Cruz and working with the great Ramen Chef Champions of Japan, headed by the “ramen god” Kazuo Yamagishi, it is definitely not your run-of-the-mill ramen house. Koji Tashiro, a ramen champion and chosen heir of Yamagishi, has provided his own ramen recipes.

Yushoken claims to offer the ideal balance of broth, ramen, and toppings for the most authentic ramen experience. The Tonkotsu broth is deeply flavorful and rich with pork bone marrow and collagen, distilled from hours and hours of boiling and simmering. And the noodles are made fresh right in the restaurant every day, using water that has the right alkaline level which guarantees the perfect texture. The same goes with the wrapper for their excellent gyoza. My personal opinion — it’s the best gyoza I have ever had! Needless to say, the pork and the toppings are absolutely divine. And don’t forget to order the aji tamago (or, more precisely, ajitsuke tamago) to go with your bowl of ramen. Every little bit and ingredient that goes into each bowl of Yushoken ramen is painstakingly prepared and executed to guarantee the perfectly authentic and umami-full experience.

Without question, it lives up to its name. Yusho = champion and ken = house. It is, I’m sure you’ll agree, a house of champions!

By the way… sorry but not sorry — no take-outs, no doggie bags. The ramen MUST be experienced right here and now — fresh, at the peak of their delicious perfection.

No reservations either. Take a chance there’ll be a seat for you. It will be worth it.