A Happy Belly at Home

Monday, June 25, 2012

On my first visit back to the Philippines in 2009, I was like a woman who had stumbled upon water in a desert, starved as I was for favorite Filipino dishes that I had been deprived of while living in New York. Things have changed considerably since then. Pinoy food in various iterations is far more accessible these days in the Big Apple. I can get Chicken Joy in Queens, Max's fried chicken in Jersey City, and even Maharlika's longga burgers and tapa skewers just a short walk from my place in Brooklyn.

Unencumbered by nostalgia and sheer desperation, I was able narrow down which meals truly made an impression on me on this visit to the Motherland. So for your food porn viewing pleasure, here are the Manila meals that still make my belly grumble fondly from the other side of the world.

No-Frills Filipino: Aling Tonya's Seafood Palutuan
When buying seafood from a fisherman isn't an option, a visit to the dampa is the next best thing. A dampa is a wet market, where the freshest seafood, meat and produce can be purchased in Manila. In some of these wet markets, one can actually shop for their ingredients and then hand it over to a restaurant within the premises, which will then cook up a little something like this:
Aling Tonya's is one of these restaurants, and it holds a special place in my heart as this was where my mom loved to have big batches of crab cooked for family gatherings. With my mom and the rest of the brood now in Seattle, my friends have been sweet to acquiesce to my demands for chowfests here. I like that you have the option to go into the dampa to buy your seafood or just leave it to the kitchen to do it for you. Either way, we always end up with a fantastic spread: butter and garlic-drenched crab claws, suahe (white shrimp) so sweet it only needs steaming with a bit of ginger, and kohol (snails) cooked in coconut milk, ginger and garlic. Add some green mango salad, steaming piles of jasmine rice, cold San Miguel beer, and choice high school flashbacks into the mix and you get a tummy full of good food and belly laughs.

For directions to Aling Tonya's, click here.

Innovative Filipino: Kanin Club
In 2011, I ate at Kanin Club for the first time—and spent a good chunk of a year thereafter daydreaming about my next rendezvous with their creative food. What won me over was how Kanin Club was able to do an inventive take on Filipino food without pissing off the Pinoys. See, Filipinos normally don't like Filipino food made fancy; it's comfort food and we like it the way we're used to it. But Kanin Club has managed to get past this by thoughtfully isolating what Filipinos love about certain dishes and tricking out those things to the nth degree. Take my favorite dish: the sinangag na sinigang (bottom, left).
Sinigang is a sour and hearty tamarind-based soup laden with pork belly, water spinach, and sliced radish (sinigang can also be made with fish or shrimp). One of the yummiest things to do when eating this dish is to ladle the tangy soup all over your rice so that every bite is soaked in sinigang goodness. Kanin Club took this practice and ran with it, concocting a sinangag (fried rice) soaked in sinigang flavor then topped with tricked out versions of everything you'd find in the soup: pork belly with butter-soft consistency plus crisp, tempura-fried vegetables. I personally think this dish would be even better if the pork belly was fried but I understand Kanin Club's reluctance to prod its customers towards a massive coronary. In any case, if you feel so inclined, deep fried pork belly can be had as a chicharon appetizer (top right) (and thereafter snuck into your sinangag na sinigang bites) or mixed into your dinuguan (pork blood stew), adding an addictive crunch factor to the hearty stew. If guilt tugs at you, order a salad (top left) to keep things healthy—but feel free to ignore the fact that the ratio of kesong puti (carabao's milk cheese) to tomatoes may be slightly skewed towards the good stuff.

For Kanin Club locations, click here.

The Best of Both Worlds: Mamou
When I say the word "home",  I mean one of two cities: Manila, the place where I was born and raised, or New York, the city I chose to live in 6 years ago. Both cities are chock-full of food that makes my heart sing—and Mamou stole my heart by taking some of my favorites from both worlds and serving it up under one roof. This is a restaurant that serves up pasta with truffle oil and Parmigiano-Reggiano, but also salads made with very Pinoy ingredients like tuyo (dried herring) and kamote (sweet potato) leaves and tops. But most importantly, Mamou brought my steakhouse dreams to fruition (and then some). 
Every time I would eat at a New York steakhouse, I would joke about how tempting it is to smuggle in a takeout box of jasmine rice—I mean, is there anything better to a Filipino than a juicy steak with a side of steaming white rice? As it happens, there actually is something better. Leave it to Mamou to top my steak dreams by creating the ultimate sinful side dish: rice fried in steak fat and drippings! Clearly, this is a restaurant after my own heart (figuratively and literally). 

For more information on Mamou, click here.

What about the other balikbayans out there? What are the restaurants that make you miss home? And the Manileños—are there fab new places I need to hit up on my next visit? Do tell!

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  1. I haven't been back to Phils since 1999!! Too long! Looks like alot has changed since. I'm hoping when I do go back I'll get to try a lot of those yummy food you shared. It sure is making me hungry.

    1. Oh my you'll be shocked at how much has changed since 1999! I've been coming back frequently and I still can't keep up with all the changes!

  2. Hahaha...I agree with you about wishing you had a side of jasmine rice sometimes at restaurants. I need rice with my ulam!

    I love filipino breakfast, my friend made a yummy breakfast sandwich using sliced longanisa, a fried egg, and topped with fried garlic. SOO GOOD.

    1. That sounds yummy! Yes, the rest of the world really needs to catch up on the importance of having a side of jasmine rice!

  3. I just read this now.

    It's the crispy dinuguan that makes me wish I could teleport to Kanin Club. And then there's Cafe Juanita's kare-kare. Both restos opened branches in Makati fairly recently.

    Since moving here in the Bay Area, I have never had the satisfaction I get from eating cake the way that I had in Manila. I hate spongy cakes, so having easy access to Manila homebakers who play with texture as well as taste makes me wish for home.

    And then there's Manang's inihaw na liempo.

    1. Oh Cybs, the crispy dinuguan is to die for! Someone has got to set up Kanin Club in the US!!!

      I totally agree on the cakes. I'm not a big fan of sweets here in America, but throw Pinoy-style sweets my way and it's like kryptonite.

      Man oh man, Manangs! I finally got my wish and had lunch there last Feb and it just never gets old. That I would love to teleport to on a regular basis!