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Let's eat

Smoked Octopus and Uni at Dulo. Photo by GABBY CANTERO

On The New Malate

MANILA, Philippines — Malate was once upon a time, a genteel neighborhood, charming and tree-lined, dotted with small and quaint one-of-a-kind bars and restaurants. Remedios, Julio Nakpil, Maria Orosa, Mabini, M.H. Del Pilar, and Adriatico were the streets where the boy I was became the man I am now. It was home. Malate, and the neighboring Ermita, were certainly romantic; it was the only area in Metro Manila where I could take a walk with my girlfriend, chatting as we discovered one establishment after another, under the old-fashioned street lamps that lit up our evening strolls. Café Adriatico, Moviola, Hard Rock, Insomnia, Iguana, Garlic Rose, Blue, Caribana, Guernica, Patio Mequeni, Camp Gourmet. All very different, all overflowing with character. All, save for the legendary Café Adriatico, exist only in my memories now. There was the thrill of walking through the dodgy red light district for three a.m. recovery food: twenty peso shawarmas at the Golden Ship Canteen, and the twenty five peso taco salad at Rosie’s Diner. Earlier in the evenings, there was Cosa Nostra with its lone waiter, a stooped, bemoustached gentleman. It was the most swoon-inducing Italian restaurant in the city. Just five or so tables, as I remember. But best of all was the Penguin Gallery. It was the gathering place of artists, photojournalists, backpackers, poets, writers, and young professionals on a tight budget. Our drink of choice was the “submarine”, a glass goblet filled with Pale Pilsen or Red Horse, with a shot glass of lambanog dropped in, hence the cocktail’s name. It was basic, but quite potent. That would explain the “performance art” that was a trademark of the bar. An indie actor shouting our stanzas of dark verse from a corner table? All good. Amy the owner, a cool and calming presence, and head waiter Jun, spiffy in his black suit, always smiling as he took my order, winking as he noticed another new lady by my side. Unforgettable times. It was a Belle Époque for my generation, and I thought I’d never see the likes of Old Malate again.

But just after Christmas in 2014, a tiny bar, literally just a store front, opened right across the small Mexican soft taco joint that was already drawing the more adventurous types to the one-lane Felipe St. in one of Makati’s oldest districts, Barrio Poblacion. El Chupacabra and Tambai. They were small and quaint and one-of-a-kind, and they were located a stone’s throw away from a dodgy red-light area. Hmmm. History was repeating itself. A powder keg had been lit. The place exploded, seemingly overnight, with dozens of distinct new bars and quirky restaurants opening in rapid succession. And when the smoke cleared, Poblacion had become the New Malate. I was home again.

 

 

 

 

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Felipe St. four years ago was a dark, ominous alley. As a matter of fact, I got mugged there once. But our restaurants had their central kitchen there, and the ground floor area was under-utilized. I thought it would be a good idea to come up with something new to optimize the rent we were paying. I always wanted to do soft corn street tacos, like they serve in Mexico; Mexicali was limited to Tex-Mex and Cal-Mex, so that was the starting point. The name of the hole-in-the-wall started off as something like a joke – I was drinking with a Mexican friend and we couldn’t think of a name. After five beers or so, in my semi-inebriated state, I blurted out “El Chupacabra!”, and we started laughing hysterically. Looking back, it wasn’t even that funny, but, you know… beers. But right there and then, I knew that was the name.

Chupacabra was supposed to be a cheap neighborhood drinking joint, but I wanted to include the most authentic tacos as well as Filipino pulutan like sisig. The first couple of weeks were quiet, and then Timmy Potenciano blogged about it. The buzz began. We were located in what was then a rather grim area, but it was still in Makati, so it was relatively easy to get to for the people who worked in the CBD.

I do think El Chupacabra was the start of Poblacion’s ‘gentrification’. Young people gradually became aware that there was this dodgy, but more interesting part of Makati. All of a sudden it was no longer uncool to be seen walking around Burgos area. Previously, very few Pinoys would even think of going there, as it was the insalubrious red light haunt of grizzly old sexpats and their bar girls. We made the area ‘underground hip’ and it became a thing where if you didn’t know of us, well, you were “baduy”!

What i think is important is that Chupacabra opened our minds to the idea that there is life-- indeed more vibrant life-- outside the fancy malls and their artificial fabricated environments. Yes, Chupacabra and Poblacion are still kind of gritty and Third World, but you know what? The place has got soul.”

 

San Francisco’s most famous bakery is Boudin, and their most popular product, worldwide, is their sourdough bread. The bakery’s become a major tourist attraction in the city’s Fisherman’s Wharf. Sourdough of all shapes and sizes can be bought as gifts to be brought home to all points of the compass. I have firsthand experience: my hand carried luggage when I fly out of SFO is inevitably jam-packed with the loaves.

When I found out that Ingga Chua and Tommy Woudwyk’s “Crosta Pizzeria” used a sourdough crust, I was intrigued, to say the least. Excited and giddy would be more an accurate description of my reaction, actually. As any baker knows, the secret of every sourdough’s success is the “starter”, the mother dough. Boudin’s, for example, is over 150 years old; it is, in a very literal sense, alive, thanks to the ever fermenting yeast that gives the bread its unique flavor and crusty, bubbly, chewy texture. Crosta’s starter is much younger, but it’s maturing quickly. I could taste the distinct tang of the sourdough in the pizza. Loved every bite. And here’s a pro tip: eat the part of the pizza with the toppings first, but save the crusty edges. Take them home, pop ‘em in the toaster, and slather with butter. You’re welcome.

 

Just a few days ago, Taiwan announced that Filipinos will be granted visa-free entry to the republic effective November 1 of this year. That’s great news; for the past couple of years, Taiwan’s been as popular as Japan as our new favorite Asian vacation destination. But there’s a difference: Japan is more for sightseeing, while Taiwan really is essentially all about eating. Many of my friends fly to Taipei with a packed itinerary: and it’s all about food, food, and more food. Moveable feasts: lunch in three restaurants, not counting the street food grazing, and dinner? Even more intense. Not even Hong Kong or Singapore can claim this kind of fame. Taiwan is now THE primary culinary destination in Asia.

Famry bridges the gap in between hops to the Republic of China. It’s Taiwanese cuisine: simple but hearty. No gimmicks, no frills, no kitschy stinky tofu. Just very affordable, very good food just like in Taiwan. The restaurant’s kitchen crew is led by Kimmie Cortez. She’s been in the industry since she was 16, so expect perfection in her dumplings made in-house daily. She’s particularly proud of Famry’s minced pork rice; it’s as genuine as it gets. The young chef comes from a food loving family, so naturally, her standards are sky high, and her palate, impeccable. The result? Taiwanese home cooking, done extremely well. Famry is all about family style dining, after all.

 

The first thing diners see upon climbing the stairs to Hummus Elijah’s discreet location on Makati Avenue, directly across the open parking of the A Venue Mall, is a framed plaque, airmailed from the Trip Advisor HQ in Massachusetts. It’s a Certificate of Excellence for 2017, and it’s well deserved. Hummus Elijah is ranked #1 out of 1,180 restaurant in the City of Makati. It’s an amazing distinction for a labor of love, a delivery business that started out in Eli Lapid’s home kitchen just a few years ago. But that eponymous hummus from the gentleman vegetarian from Israel who now calls the Philippines home? It’s a passion project that took a lifetime to perfect.

The hummus is the silkiest I’ve ever had; it spreads as smoothly as butter, is as rich and as satisfying, but is surely a hundred times healthier. It’s amazing on anything: it’s an appetizer or a main, often even a condiment. But I love it most paired with the crunchy falafel that Elijah’s also famous for. I just roll up a lightly toasted pita, stuff a couple of pieces falafel, generously apply a heaping helping of the hummus, and drip the restaurant’s deeply flavored olive oil all over the wrap. It’s Heaven on Earth.

 

The universe has a way of righting itself. There’s a grand plan at work, and some may attribute it to the strict laws of science and others to the grand mysteries of faith, but either way, it’s all based on a system of beliefs. Pardon the Neil deGrasse Tyson moment of reflection, but when I first walked into Dulo, the Poblacion’s brand new multi-hyphenate venue (it’s a bar-restaurant-coffee shop-art gallery-events space-and probably more) I felt the same good vibes as I did when I first entered Malate’s Penguin a score and seven years ago.

And when I spoke with one of Dulo’s managing partners, Alexa Arabejo, a few minutes into our conversation, she mentioned, unbidden, that based on her research, the closest thing to her new establishment was the revered Penguin of yore. It was a moment of epiphany. Kindred souls separated not by distance, but by decades. Alexa and her co-conspirator and co-owner, Rae Lim Pineda, remind me of the free spirits—the artists, the creatives, the iconoclasts—who frequented Penguin. The universe heard my plea, it seems, for the resurrection of my favorite bar ever. And it even gave a bonus. Penguin was never known for its food, but its spiritual successor’s one of the best new restaurants in the area. It’s time to venture into the far end of the Poblacion, and discover the distinct, diverse delights of Dulo.

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