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I say Pipino, you say Pipino

There’s beauty in being vegetarian: Pipino vegetarian restaurant owner Alessa Libongco-Lanot

It looks perfectly cooked to medium rare, slightly pink yet with a naturally caramelized brown glaze from its own juice. I take my knife and slice it with ease thanks to its tenderness. I then puncture its flesh with my fork, and take my first bite of the steak.  I feel like my sensory faculties are toying with me.  At a glance, I see a piece of steak.  As I chew, I can almost swear it tastes like meat.  I am eating a watermelon.

“We just developed this dish yesterday,” says Alessa Libongco-Lanot, co-owner of Pipino restaurant, as she looks at my face that reads with disbelief.  I glance over at chef Edward Bugia and ask him how he did it.  He shrugs and simply says, “I just grilled it.” 

Having been meat-free for over 10 years, I am constantly on the quest to find delectable vegan meals that even the most skeptical carnivore would savor.  “To entice people to eat our food, we always have them try our desserts first,” Alessa’s partner in life and in the resto business PJ Lanot says.  “When they realize how good the vegan versions are, they become more open to other dishes.” 

Going meatless: Watermelon steak with taro miso mash, string beans and picked mushrooms at Pipino restaurant, second level of Pino Restaurant, 39 Malingap St., Teachers Village, Quezon City.

So good, in fact, that the discerning folks at PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) awarded Pipino with the number-one vegan dessert in Manila for their chocolate chip cookie. 

When PJ and his friends first opened Pino, a Filipino-fusion restaurant in September 2009, it initially offered a few token vegetable dishes.  His wife, Alessa, who has been vegetarian since her high school years, had but limited fare to choose from.  She then took the initiative to develop some recipes, along with chef Edward, some of which are based on Pino’s best-selling dishes: the chicken inasal is replaced with a Portobello mushroom, the pork and shrimp lemongrass skewers are instead made with tofu, and the kare-kareng bagnet has the same thick and creamy peanut sauce minus the pork, paired with bagoong rice made from black beans.

Simply yummy: Chocolate chip and oatmeal choco chip vegan cookies

Loving husband PJ Lanot then thought that with Alessa’s culinary prowess (on top of her artistic talent), she deserved her own vegetarian restaurant. In October 2010, Pipino opened on the second floor of Pino’s new location from Maginhawa to Malingap street.  Since then, it has become a fave hangout for many famous vegans and veggie lovers like stylist-to-the-stars Alyanna Martinez, who loves the taro chips, vegetable curry, and a Pipino iced tea to wash it all down. Showtime co-host and Itchyworms guitarist Jugs Jugueta and girlfriend, radio DJ Andrea Aguirre, not only share a love for music, but also a plate of the Portobello inasal along with a lemongrass and cucumber cooler.  All-around talk show host Patty Laurel craves the tofu and lemongrass skewers.  And then there’s actor Raymond Bagatsing, who always orders a different item on each visit.  My personal favorite, however, would have to be the Mac ‘N’ Cheeze, a longtime craving that brings me back to my childhood with its gooey yellow cheese and macaroni shells from its ubiquitous blue cardboard box. 

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Three’s company: Alessa is flanked by Pino Restaurant owners, husband PJ Lanot and Star Jose

When you have a sweet tooth like I do, then you very well know that a meal is never complete without dessert.  From dairy-free homemade ice creams made with cashew, almond or coconut milk, to vegan cookies, cake, muffins and cupcakes, I can almost predict that their latest addition, the ice cream cookie cup, is a winning combination of a scoop of ice cream (I recommend coconut) served with an oatmeal choco chip cookie shaped into a bowl as its edible vessel, will become the new number-one dessert.

“The serving size of each dish is based on PJ’s appetite,” Alessa explains, with at least 15 near-empty plates of what was a spread of salads, starters, sandwiches, entrees, noodles, and desserts on our table.  And while I could feel my high-waist skinny jeans beginning to feel a whole lot skinnier on my expanding girth, I look over at PJ.  Everyone had stopped eating, and yet this omnivore was still feasting on our vegan blowout.  That is a marker that good food, is good food — even sans meat.

Not just tomatoes: Stuffed semi-dried tomatoes with brown rice, mushroom salpicao and orange leek salad

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Pipino is open daily from 11 a.m. to 12 midnight, located at the second floor of Pino Restaurant at 39 Malingap St., Teachers Village, Quezon City.  For more information, call 441-1773 or log on to www.pipinovegetarian.com, facebook.com/PipinoVegetarian

Pino chef and co-owner Edward Bugia and his kitchen staff

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