Friends and Neighbors: A good everyday eatery
FOOD FOR THOUGHT - Millie & Karla Reyes (The Philippine Star) - February 27, 2014 - 12:00am

MILLIE: Many years ago, my brother-in-law Benjie Guingona took me to try the home-cooked Bicolano specialties of Friends and Neighbors, a neighborhood eatery along P. Burgos Street in Makati. The simple dishes cooked with gata or coconut milk were so delicious, I remember running a feature in my column. Somehow, I never had a chance to go back after all these years, even if I often pass it on the way to my office.

One day, out of curiosity, Karla asked me if I had ever eaten there and I said yes, and that we should try it sometime. One day, we finally decided to go for lunch. The place was bustling at half past noon when we came in. Patrons were mostly office people from neighboring establishments, students and passersby like us. One quick sweep of the food displayed in the bain marie and I already knew what I wanted to order: everything! I think it was the same for Karla, except that she was probably debating with herself as we were both on a diet.

KARLA: As soon as I scanned the offerings for the day, my eyes locked on the Bicol Express, which consisted of pork chunks, string beans and red chili. Then I saw the laing, which I know is one of mom’s favorites. We once had a helper at home who came from Bicol. And so she would always cook laing for us. During that time, I was not very fond of food items cooked with coconut milk, or gata. But somehow I developed a liking for it and recently, I often crave it.

Kakang gata or the first, freshly pressed coconut milk, is obviously used in their dishes. Although it is more work than using the ready mix or powdered coconut milk, the work pays off with a better-quality dish. I also ordered langka sa gata, bistek, and, of course, pork sisig, since I couldn’t make up my mind.  My friend Dani Ochoa and I have been talking about trying Friends and Neighbors’ sisig for the past four years, at least, and have never gotten around to doing so.

As soon as Mom and I sat down, an order of fresh lumpiang ubod arrived. Apparently, mom ordered it, probably when I had left the counter already. Then, all of a sudden, all the orders started coming in. Once the waiter had laid them out on the table, mom and I realized that it seemed like we had ordered food for six people or possibly more. Ha-ha! But Mom said it was mostly vegetable dishes “so don’t feel so guilty.”

As I was taking photos of the food, Mom and I were recapping what we had ordered, and she mentioned that they had bangus a la pobre. So just so we would have a variety of dishes, she decided to order the bangus a la pobre based on the notion that if we couldn’t finish it, we could always take it home.

Our supposed diet of cutting down on eating had not worked for us at all. Mom, who had not been having rice and carbs, ended up eating a whole cup of rice and a little bit more, while I had a cup and a half. But the sisig… oh, wow, the sisig! Ha-ha-ha! It was pretty close to the best sisig I’ve ever tried in my life, which is Aling Lucing’s sisig in Pampanga.

Other dishes we didn’t get to try but were on the menu that day were, crispy pata, pork with mushroom, adobong pusit, and pork barbecue.

MILLIE: I asked the food attendant if we could interview and take a photo of the owner, Aling Virginia Casingal. She was naturally excited and immediately told her boss. But Aling Virginia was camera-shy and refused. We were lucky that her youngest son, Oyet, was able to convince her to pose for a shot.

Friends and Neighbors started as a hole-in-the-wall in the ’70s by Aling Virginia and her late husband, Simeon. It has earned a reputation for serving good home-cooked food at very reasonable prices. It is said that Aling Virginia was such a good cook and now, at 84 years old and unable to really help out in the kitchen, she can still tell if the dishes served at her eatery are good just by smelling it. Occasionally, she helps dish out food orders at the counter, although most of the time now, she just sits behind the counter and watches her children and servers at work.

She reminds me of my own grandma, Engracia Cruz Reyes, who in her later years would sit by the entrance of The Aristocrat on Roxas Blvd. folding paper napkins, greeting customers as they walked in and thanking them as they walked out.

KARLA: The story of Friends and Neighbors goes back to the 1970s when Aling Virginia, a Bicolana, started a small carinderia probably around two to three square meters in size. Prior to that, she had a piggery and poultry business on Makati Ave. She and her husband Simeon were a very entrepreneurial couple. While Aling Virginia was taking care of the piggery and poultry business and later on the carinderia, Tatay Simeon was a CPA lawyer with the BIR and invested in a lot of properties. He said that if he held the money, he would spend it, so it was better to invest it and continue saving. Their cost-cutting measures would consist of all the kids sleeping in one room, in two double-decker beds, and the parents sleeping in the sala.

Mom and I had the pleasure of meeting Oyet, the youngest child of six. His siblings Ed, Teresa, Bobby, Imelda and Christina are either involved in the operations of Friends and Neighbors or the real-estate side of the family business. According to Oyet, because of Aling Virginia’s passion for cooking, everyone in the family developed a knack for cooking as well.

Until now, Aling Virginia is still very much involved in the business as she insists on going to the market or palengke to source good ingredients. She believes in supporting the small suppliers who have very little, as compared to those who have a flourishing business. She also still lurks around the kitchen and tastes everything. And if you come during lunchtime, you will see her by the counter or the cash register making sure every single one of her customers is being attended to.

MILLIE: The secret of Friends and Neighbors’ success may be attributed to the hard work and dedication of all the family members, especially the husband and wife tandem of Simeon and Virginia Casingal, who were ideal role models and good examples of entrepreneurship.

* * *

Friends and Neighbors is located at 5070 P. Burgos St., Makati City. For more inquiries, call 899-3351 or 899-3335.

Send e-mail to milliereyes.foodforthought@gmail.com and karla@swizzlemobilebar.com. Find us on Facebook and read articles you might have missed: Food for Thought by Millie & Karla Reyes.

ALING ALING VIRGINIA FOOD FRIENDS AND NEIGHBORS MOM MOM AND I OYET VIRGINIA
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