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.

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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.

Timplang PROBINSYANO

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I am such a huge fan of Chef Poch Jorolan‘s authentic sukang paombong (aslam sasâ to Pampangueños) or nipa palm vinegar that I order at least 4 big bottles regularly. I even blogged about it a couple of years ago when he first came out with it — https://aboucheamused.com/2015/04/23/getting-a-kick-o…r-sukang-bulacan/

Now, Poch has given it proper branding and added a Spiced variant. To date, Poch Jorolan has purveyed, not just his vinegars, but also selections of his family kitchen’s favorite Kapampangan food, aside from delicacies from other provinces, under the brand PROBINSYANO.

And what partners well with sukang paombong? Pork Barbecue, of course! Specifically, the famous Benito’s Barbecue, from the heritage recipe of the founding father of Everybody’s Cafe —Benito M. Santos. He happens to be Poch Jorolan’s maternal grandfather. His barbecue boasts of beautifully tender pork cuts, — not tough at all or maganit, unlike other bbq brands I’ve tried — marinated in a special blend of spices and other secret ingredients. Every bite presents you with a perfectly balanced blend of sweet, savory, and smoky flavors. Just the way I like it. And the Santoses’ culinary legacy is faithfully carried on by Poch, his mother Pette Santos Jorolan, and his sister Namee.

In a way, Benito’s Barbecue brings me back to my happy childhood, reminding me so much of my own beloved grandfather, who himself was Kapampangan and a terrific and talented cook to boot. With or without the sukang paombong to dip in, Benito’s Barbecue is simply awesome! Manyaman talaga! This…  this is the timplang Kapampangan… timplang Probinsyano!

You can find these and other Probinsyano food and delicacies at the Everybody’s Café stall at the Saturday Market in Salcedo Village, Makati. Or if you happen to be in Pampanga, drop by Everybody’s Café. You can also check out their facebook page — https://www.facebook.com/probinsyano.ph/ or email your orders through probinsyano.food@gmail.com. There are many other delicious food products offered by Probinsyano — from traditional Ube Halaya to bottled Gourmet Tuyô in Extra Virgin Olive Oil. Go try them all. Although I’m hoping that one of these days, Poch will also sell his delicious morcon. (hint, hint).

 

What’s new in French cheeses?

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CCPNewFrench-ComtesseDeVichy

Described as a “very good bloomy rind cheese”, the taste is mild and milky. It’s only been around since 2004.

A chevre from the Loire Valley region, wrapped in a chestnut leaf to aid its ripening, it is light and velvety on the tongue.

CCPNewFrench-DeliceDeVougeot

There’s a hint of garlic and the herby flavors of parsley and chives. From France’s Burgundy region.

CCPNewFrench-FougerusLaitCru

Fougerus Au Lait Cru — a most refined Brie, with a sweet-salty flavor and the woodsy aroma of fern.

CCPNewFrench-NosAmoures

But of course there must be French Sparkling to go with les fromages! My choice of sparkling for the evening was Nos Amours Brut.

CCPNewFrench-VieuxPaysanRoquefort

Strong and sassy flavor. A robust Roquefort. Best with bread and a full-bodied wine. My favorite.

Il y’a un fromage par jour de l’année” – There is a different cheese for every day of the year, according to an old French proverb. It is said that it was the French monks who started the cheese revolution and evolution in France, many centuries ago. And with France known for producing hundreds of varieties of delicious cheese as it is — some say 400, others say over 1,000, and some even 2,000 — I was intrigued by the idea that they are coming out with even more new cheeses. When our Cheese Club chose to celebrate the new cheeses from France one evening — Tous les Nouveaux Fromages Français — I knew it was going to be quite an adventure.

And it definitely was! These are my most-preferred from among the array of young and artisanal cheeses offered that night. But then, I am partial to strong-flavored cheeses — the stinkier, the better! And the one that sent me to cheesy ecstasy was the Vieux Paysan J. Carles (crema di Roquefort) — made with raw ewe’s milk, from a second processing of Roquefort, and semi-matured. Vieux paysan means old peasant. Created by cheese artisan and Roquefort expert Jacque Carles, I suppose one could say this cheese is appropriate and eponymously named. This cheese pairs beautifully with an elegant Cabernet Sauvignon or a gentle Merlot.

Vive les French fromages!

Churros and more at the La Maripili Churreria

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Churros — crisp and delicate outside, soft and buttery inside. When dipped in thick, hot Spanish chocolate, ooooh is all I can say. Churros bring me back to my childhood when I’d spend afternoons with my Dad at La Cibeles on Mabini St. in Ermita or at Dulcinea beside the Rizal Theater in Makati. Theirs are the standards by which I measure the churros in today’s churrerias.

And I can’t think of a better way to spend a rainy afternoon than sitting by the window of a cozy and homey churrería, watching the world go by and enjoying crisp and buttery churros dipped in warm, rich, dark chocolate?

I like the churros at La Maripili. They’ve got what for me is the perfect crunch and light doughiness and buttery flavor. Unlike the heavy-handed doughy mixture that’s compensated for with flavored sugary sprinkles served in fast-food churro outlets. And you have your choice of the delicious churros — classic, filled, sweet, and even savory. I munched first on a dark-chocolate-coated churro, while going through the list of churro choices in the menu. Do I go with classic churros and an accompanying dip? Which dip — dark chocolate, Suizo chocolate, or salted caramel? Hmmm, I want to try them all! But, for now, I tried Suizo. Lovely! But I prefer it WITHOUT the whipped cream.

They also offer filled churros — Catalan cream, chocolate and chili mousse, dulce de leche, and more — as well as churros with savory toppings like Jamón Serrano or Chorizo and honey! And if that’s not enough to make my head spin, they also have churros with your choice of coating — dark chocolate, dark chocolate with flaky sea salt and olive oil, white chocolate, strawberry, mango, and hazelnut! Arg, I want to taste them all!!!

Obviously, one visit is simply not enough. I came back a second time, this time to try their other fare, such as their choices of Huevos dishes and their pastas. Although the chorizos and jamón serranos were generous, I do wish there were more huevos than queso in their servings. If there were, then it would really be great breakfast fare, washed down with yummy Spanish chocolate. And I do give two thumbs up for their Mac & Cheese, with its triple-cheese bechamel (gouda, cheddar, and mozzarella) and the addition of chorizo and a dash of chili. I could easily finish up 2 servings of this — really good! And the fresh-baked, perfectly toasted breads that accompany these are excellent, created by their master bread baker Chef Bruno Tirel.

On the downside, though — we found out only too late after we had run up a hefty tab that they do not accept credit cards! What restaurant that’s been up and running for about a year now does not have credit card amenity? I would have appreciated it if the cashier or the manager had told us beforehand. Thankfully, we had enough cash among us to pay for our feast.

But all that aside, if I were jonesing for churros, La Maripili is my “pili” (choice in Filipino).

If you want to know more about churros, read about it at http://theprisma.co.uk/2011/07/17/churros-a-secret-history/

La Maripili is at the ground floor of the Sykes Bldg., at the Alabang Town Center. For reservations, contact +63-905-5187422 (not that you really need one as it is seldom full). Another branch has opened at the Ayala Malls the 30th in Pasig.

Remembering the Butterfly Iced Tea

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In the midst of this intensely hot and oppressively humid summer, my thoughts turned to iced tea. Not just any iced tea, but… the legendary Butterfly Iced Tea.

Those of my generation would know what I’m talking about. That sweet, frothy, and refreshing iced tea concocted at the Butterfly Restaurant — by day, the watering hole of golfers along U.P. Diliman’s long University Avenue, when there used to be a large golf course there, and by night, a folk house where the hippies and musicians of the 60s and 70s loved to play and hang out. I don’t remember which hole the restaurant served as I’m no golfer, but I do remember my avid golfer uncle, Tito Mars Allas, once or twice took us kids there and I had my first taste of that delightful iced tea.

Allmytea Iced Tea à la Butterfly

With this summer’s heat index rising to around 41°C (105°F) and humidity at ridiculous levels, I turn to Allmytea Iced Tea concentrate to fix myself an à la Butterfly Iced Tea. Of all the iced tea products, this for me approximates the taste of that iced tea concoction of my youth.

It is recommended to pour 1 part Allmytea concentrate to 6 parts water, but I just usually wing it. What I do is pour a mixture of Allmytea and water 1:2 into a thermos or any long sealable container filled with lots of ice cubes. Then I close it tight and shake it vigorously like Tom Cruise in “Cocktail”. I pour that icy, foamy mixture all into a tall glass with the right amount of cold water and more ice and drop in lots of lemon slices. Ahhhhhhh, that’s what I call an almighty refreshing drink! Take that, summer!

I usually find Allmytea iced tea concentrate at the Landmark Supermarket.

Let’s Talk Tacos at La Chinesca

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From the name to the food, this place defies expectations in a most delicious way.

When I first heard of a hidden gem named La Chinesca, I immediately thought it was just another Chinese food joint. To my surprise, I learned that it is actually a Mexican taqueria owned by Chef Bruce Ricketts. Odd name for a taqueria, I thought. But it seems that La Chinesca is a real neighborhood in the Mexican city of Mexicali and is historically the home of the largest Chinese community in Mexico. I’m not sure how Chef Bruce Ricketts chose La Chinesca as the name for his eatery, but it is said that it is in Mexican food he is at his happiest and his training in Japanese cuisine helps make his Mexican concoctions extra-special.

Yes, there are tacos and tostadas BUT DO NOT expect the usual Mexican fare. Chef Bruce wields his amazing creativity and culinary finesse in all that he puts out. From the best guacamole I’ve ever tasted (the sprinkle of sichimi togarashi gives it that unexpected and addictive punch on the palate), served on a traditional Mexican molcajete (volcanic rock mortar)… To each and every taco and tostada! Of course you’ll find the familiar Carne Asada and Carnitas — done perfectly, which goes without saying — but he has come up with other exciting and toe-curling delicious combinations as well. You simply have to try the other extraordinary toppings and fillings, such as: Tripitas Taco — beef intestines, watermelon, chile de arbol, onions, and cilantro; Chivo Taco — Barbacoa-style goat a la plancha, jicama, sesame, salsa verde, and feta; Guisada de Res Taco — stewed beef shoulder, tongue, bell pepper, rice, and pinipig; Pulpo Taco — octopus, garlic and cilantro purée, potatoes, and salsa burracha; Tuna Tostada — Fresh raw tuna, doubanjiang mayonnaise, lime and orange, Maggi, onions, and peanuts.

And many many more, depending on the availability and freshness of the ingredients they procure. It isn’t an absolutely fixed menu, so expect a delicious surprise with every visit. And don’t forget to ask about the off-the-menu menu. You just might luck out and get Lamb Barbacoa, served with eggplant and aguacate (i.e. avocado) purée that day!

La Chinesca is so coy, so secret that there is no sign that indicates that this is it! I have attached a map to sort-of guide you where to go in BF Homes. It’s right along Aguirre Avenue, the restaurant strip of the South — coming from the BF main gate from President’s Avenue, just go straight on. After Elizalde St., be on the look-out for Amalia’s on your right side. That will be where you’ll find La Chinesca. It’s a tiny place — with just 5 or 6 tables plus stools at the counter — that serves BIG flavors! Andale, andale!

Fish Be To You

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It’s that time of the year again. The Lenten Season. When our culinary thoughts turn to fish and seafood for the table, especially on Fridays. Some would think it’s a penitential sacrifice to abstain from meat for a whole day. But, for me, it’s not at all. Filipinos are spoiled with choices of fish and seafood in our country. And there is nothing like fresh seafood, no matter how you cook it — fried, poached, baked, grilled, steamed, pangat, paksiw, sinigang, daing, smoked or tinapa, dried, stewed, and even “cooked” in vinegar or lime juice like in kinilaw or ceviche. Yes, there are plenty of fish in the sea. Especially in the seas of the Philippines, which are blessed with over 2,400 species of fish. This does not include other marine life such as shellfish and seaweeds.

As a little girl, I used to hate going to the palengke with my mother in Quiapo and at the Seaside Market in Baclaran to buy fish. And now, who would have thought I would come to enjoy going to fresh fish markets all over the country? Poking, smelling, peeking at the gills. At the Farmers’ Market in Cubao. The Seafood Market in Real, Quezon. Cebu’s famous Taboan Market. The Tagbilaran Fish Market in Bohol. And when I can’t go to these faraway fish markets, our own neighborhood Saturday Market (with chitchat and exchange of recipes with my favorite Lola Fishmonger) and South Supermarket in Alabang.

Aside from the usual bangus (milkfish), lapulapu (grouper), and galunggong (round scad), I love discovering the other hundreds of fish our seas, rivers, and lakes bestow on us. And the second best part of fish marketing is swapping and discussing recipes with the local vendors, who are always eager to share their own favorites. Seeing the eager look in their eyes as they describe how they cook their favorite seafood dish is such a joy. And then trying out the recipes on the fish I bought from them, especially the ones I just learned about that day. Like hiwas, otherwise known as chabita or chabet. In English, it’s a moonfish. Boiled in a sour stew (pinangat) and then deep-fried until super-crunchy that you could eat even the fins and tail, it’s a favorite in Batangas. Second only to tawilis.

Anthony Bourdain once wrote in his book “Kitchen Confidential” many years ago not to buy fish on Mondays as the fish markets in New York were closed over the weekend and, hence, Monday fish stocks were not fresh. But we are fortunate here in the Philippines. Being an archipelago with rich marine resources, our fishing industry is incredibly active that you can count on getting fresh fish and seafood every day, even in supermarkets. I do prefer to buy early in the day so that the fish are as fresh as can be, given the “commute” they had to make.

The abundance of our fish and marine resources is something we must be profoundly grateful for. And must take great care of. Other countries are not as blessed. I can only wish and pray that greed, over-exploitation, ignorance, and mindless disregard will not deplete these blessings.

And, on that note, fish be to you and grace from Him.