What’s the best halo-halo in town?

- Ching M. Alano, Tanya T. Lara () - May 5, 2002 - 12:00am
Halo-halo is summer. Hot, stifling afternoons when all you want to do is squeeze into your refrigerator. That or have a tall glass of halo-halo. It’s synonymous with summer just as bibingka and puto bumbong are with December.

is as Filipino as over-decorated jeepneys and colorful lanterns.

is a source of livelihood for many occasional entrepreneurs. One of our writers passes by five halo-halo stalls in her neighborhood – garages converted into merienda stalls – on her way to work.

is an obsession. When our friends found out we were on a halo-halo assignment two weeks ago, they gave us recommendations. Why don’t you go to Cebu? To Cotabato? To Angeles City? To Baguio?

is memories. Friends have told us of past afternoons and journeys in search of the perfect halo-halo. The famous San Juan halo-halo ice cream of yore, which was served without ice (no kidding!) but with heaps of dirty ice cream. The Mt. Arayat halo-halo, which comes with minatamis na kamote, carabao’s milk and topped with pastillas.

There are so many places that sell excellent – and also inferior – halo-halo. So, before the summer ends (and our editor fires us for taking too long and before our blood sugar hits the roof), the two authors have decided to end their search and let you do the rest. After all, the summer is long and hot.

So, enjoy the sweetest story we’ve ever had to write. And, as they say during elections, these are incomplete and partial results.
Peninsula Halo-Halo
It’s halo-halo with ambience. Mariano Garchitorena of the Pen Public Relations Office calls it "couture halo-halo." And it’s been a hot staple at the Pen’s ever bustling Lobby since the hotel opened in the 1970s. It’s got ample servings of ube, macapuno, red and brown beans, red and green kaong, nata de coco, baby coconut, langka, topped by leche flan and a generous scoop of ube ice cream sprinkled with pinipig. It’s a mix of different colors and textures. It’s served with white sugar and fresh milk. If the ingredients are not made at the Pen’s humongous kitchen, you can be sure they’re procured from a reputable supplier who gets only the freshest raw materials from a private farm. Comes in a big balloon brandy glass that makes it easy for you to dig into your halo-halo and work your way around it without the contents spilling and spoiling the fine table linen. Great, especially if you’re on a hot date and you don’t want to look messy!

Price: P185++

Location: Lobby, The Peninsula Manila, Makati Ave., Makati City
* * *
It’s good old-fashioned halo-halo that Cabalen owner Maritel Nievera grew up with. It’s an original Pampango recipe consisting of all-homemade ingredients which are slowly cooked and prepared in Cabalen’s central kitchen. There are two ways to enjoy your halo-halo: a la carte or make-your-own halo-halo to cap the eat-all-you-can (until you diet) buffet. Either way, expect only melt-in-your-mouth ingredients like sweetened red mongo, white beans, sago, minatamis na kamote, saging, special pinipig (from Laguna), leche flan, nata de coco, red gulaman, ube. The eat-all-you-can halo-halo comes with two sets of three choices of sorbetes served from the good old sorbetero’s cariton: chocolate, cheese or mango; or chocolate, corn, or mango. Enjoy it with syrup and your choice of either evaporated milk or coconut milk.

Price: It’s part of the P242 buffet. Served a la carte, it’s P38.50 per glass

Location: Cabalen branches at Glorietta, Ayala Center, Makati; SM Megamall, Mandaluyong; Robinsons Place, Ermita; West Avenue, Quezon City; Katipunan Avenue, Quezon City; SM City Manila; SM North Edsa; Sta. Lucia East Brick Road and soon, Harrison Plaza and Starmills, Pampanga
* * *
Its claim to fame is that it’s the original make-your-own halo-halo. Part-owner Lenlie Lecaroz tells us Coolman pioneered the halo-halo takeouts in disposable plastic cups.

It’s your regular fast-food halo-halo served faster than you can say, uh, halo-halo (unless the customer before you is a first-timer who’s taking forever to order because he/she can’t decide which ingredients to throw into his/her glass). We sifted through the menu board ourselves and found they serve lotsa halo-halo: regular halo-halo, Choose your own 7 ingredients, Special Halo-Halo with 12 ingredients, Super Special Halo-Halo with one ice cream scoop, and Super Special Halo-Halo with two ice cream scoops. (We remember getting into a cold argument with some friends when we were in grade school on the difference between regular halo-halo and special halo-halo. One theorized that regular halo-halo has no ice while special halo-halo has ice.)

Coolman’s 12 ingredients include: sago, gulaman, kaong, nata de coco, ube, langka, saba, white beans, garbanzos, corn, corn flakes, pinipig. We settled for seven (it’s our lucky number). Unfortunately, we had a hard time picking out our seven ingredients because they were not visible from the glass counter. But we had to blindly point out our choices to the lady attendant real quick because the guy next to us was glaring at us, ready to eat us whole.

Prices: Halo-Halo – P20 for junior, P35 for regular; Choose your own 7 ingredients, P35; Special Halo-Halo
with 12 ingredients, P43; Super Special Halo-Halo with 1 ice cream scoop, P45; Super Special Halo-Halo with 2 ice cream scoops, P55; each additional ingredient, P5

Location: Festival Supermall, Alabang Town Center, Parañaque and Southmall, Las Piñas
* * *
Via Mare
Via Mare’s famous halo-halo does not (and never will) use bottled ingredients, so owner Glenda Barretto promises. All (like white beans, red beans, banana, langka, ube, leche flan) are cooked at the Via Mare kitchen. "Because if they’re bottled, they have to be washed and this will take away the flavor, the halo-halo won’t have any taste anymore," she says.

She reveals, "The secret of our halo-halo lies in the thickness of the syrup that we make. We make our own sugar for flavoring. We cook our kaong and syrup in pandan leaves. This takes hours."

Such a laborious process for something that can be served in a jiffy and demolished just as fast. We ordered a halo-halo to be shared and Archimedes Hipolito of Via Mare Landmark reappeared with our glass after four minutes. In five minutes, it was gone – we were in a hurry to go shopping.

Prices: P58 for regular halo-halo; P70 for special halo-halo with ice cream (a choice of macapuno or ube)

Location: All Via Mare outlets
* * *
Kusina Ni Maria
"Instead of using crushed ice, we use shaved ice," Toby Castillo of Kusina ni Maria tells us, as if to, uh, break the ice. "All the ingredients are cooked in our commissary in Makati. We also bottle them and sell these at our restaurant."

Kusina ni Maria’s original halo-halo was concocted by its owner, the late Bulak Bustalino, who brought fine Zamboangueño cooking to Manila. It’s a colorful blend of beans, langka, red mongo, nata de coco, ube, garbanzos, topped by ice cream. "For us, only mantikado or Manila vanilla will do. We also use syrup instead of sugar because syrup blends well with the ingredients."

The halo-halo is served in a tall attractive glass especially made by a supplier in Echague for Kusina ni Maria. "It goes well with our bibingka," Toby teases our appetite. But then, we thought that an added poundage won’t go well with the skimpy swimsuit we just bought. And we suddenly remembered what our colleague Kathy always tells us, "A minute on the lips, a lifetime on the hips."

Prices: P56 for regular halo-halo; P85 for special halo-halo

Location: Festival Supermall, Parañaque
* * *
Before we set out to look for Digman in Cavite, our colleague Eric told our apprentice Gabby: "When you get back, you should be able to enumerate all the ingredients of the Digman halo-halo."

And the ingredients are: pinipig, leche flan, langka, saging, macapuno, beans, garbanzos, nata de coco, kaong, ube, gulaman. Hope we didn’t miss anything. We almost missed the place. Digman is a little street (tucked somewhere in Bacoor, Cavite) that’s become big because of its halo-halo. Once upon a time, the street was lined with eateries serving halo-halo. You can say it’s the street that halo-halo built.

The EC2 Original Digman Halo-Halo Street has been enjoying sweet success for the past 30 years. "It has sent all of us five children to school," says Erwin Cuevas, youngest son of Salud Cuevas who started making halo-halo way back during the Japanese Occupation. "May papaya pa noon sa halo-halo," she recalls. "Ang garbanzos stateside na."

A bitter note though: A neighbor filed a suit against the Cuevases for using the name Digman which the former had registered earlier. But the suit did not progress and business goes on.

So how’s business?

"In summer, we usually sell up to 1,000 glasses of halo-halo in a day, from opening time at 10 a.m. to closing time at 11 p.m.," says Erwin as he shows us how his improvised steel ice crusher works. (Good thing he’s got his shirt on and isn’t sweating.)

He reveals, "We cook all our ingredients fresh every day, under the supervision of my mother. There are no leftovers. My niece Gloria Carascal is the one who supplies the ingredients to the mall outlets of Digman."

Prices: P32 for regular halo-halo; P42 for special halo-halo

Location: Digman St., Bacoor, Cavite
* * *
Razon’s Guagua Halo-Halo
This is the minimalist halo-halo. No frills, no fancy ingredients, no marketing, no advertising, yet almost everybody we know has either tasted it or heard about it or wanted to franchise it.

It was the Razon family who popularized it before World War II, but it was actually started by Sersia Juan in 1908, grandmother of current owners, octogenarian sisters Elena and Virginia Razon, who were preceded by their mother Martha Razon in the family business.

There are two reasons for Guagua halo-halo’s popularity: One is that it has the fewest ingredients at three (macapuno, leche flan and minatamis na saging na saba); and two, it has been around for as long as anybody can remember.

The secret of the halo-halo is simple: The ingredients are cooked to sweet perfection, that is to say you don’t need to add sugar because the ingredients are balanced enough even when added with shaved ice (which they do manually) and milk. They make the leche flan the way they do in the provinces: with dayap rind.

Razon is so famous that when we went to Guagua without any idea how to find the halo-halo, all we had to do was ask the locals – at a gas station, at a tricycle stop and at a street corner – where to find Guagua halo-halo and they told us only one name: Razon. Indeed, people as far as San Fernando and Manila go to Guagua only to buy halo-halo and also its famous pancit luglug.

Elena Razon says they’re opening a branch in San Fernando. Why only now? Well, because people seem to like making the trip to Guagua. And why haven’t they changed the ingredients? Because you can’t argue with success.

Price: P35

Location: LVM Subdivision, Sta. Filomena, Guaga, Pampanga
* * *
Mangan’s Guagua Halo-Halo
Mangan cuisine is Kapampangan and includes the province’s famous desserts. With two of its three owners being Kapampangan, it naturally had to do its version of the Guagua halo-halo. However, leave it to Mangan to add a twist to it. Mangan’s Guagua halo-halo, while being minimalist, gives that extra kick with the pandan taste. It’s unusual but it complements the concoction so well. The leche flan is not too sweet, we couldn’t resist eating it right off the top, especially after tasting a hint of lemon. The banana is soft and tasty, like it was slowly cooked in brown sugar for a long time. The macapuno is just right in texture and sweetness.

What makes Mangan’s halo-halo better than most is the ice: it’s shaved so fine your spoon just slides effortlessly into the glass. The way to eat it is to savor every spoonful and not hurry it up and get brain freeze.

You can have the syrup on the side if you want it sugarless, otherwise it’s included in the glass.

Price: P70

Location: Mangan branches at Padre Faura Wing, Robinsons Place Malate; Robinsons Galleria; Glorietta, Makati
* * *
The halo-halo from the ubiquitous fast food which everybody has tried. There are three kinds of halo-halo at Chowking: regular; with one-scoop ice cream; and with two-scoop ice cream. The two-scoop gets you melon and ube which do not exactly make for a good combination since the melon overpowers the more subtle taste of ube.

Chowking’s halo-halo has the usual set of multi-colored ingredients of kaong and nata de coco and an extra helpings of garbanzos, black mongo and beans (not exactly our favorites). We like the fact that it has pinipig. We do have two complaints about Chowking’s halo-halo though: The sweetened banana is hard and doesn’t have that homemade taste. Our second complaint is the ice. All the office staffers have tried this halo-halo since a dear columnist likes to send it to us every week. But when they deliver it to the office, we find the shaved ice packed so tightly that we actually break plastic spoons in trying to dig at it and look like we’re archeologists excavating ingredients from a frozen lake.

Thankfully, halo-halo taken inside the fast food is an altogether different story. It’s served in a large-mouthed bowl, making it very easy to mix the ingredients.

Prices: Without ice cream, P40; with one scoop, P51; with two scoops, P61

Location: Branches at mall food courts and commercial districts
* * *
Icebergs, as its name implies, specializes in cold concoctions. Aside from Super Halo-Halo, they serve Super Mais, Super Buco, and Super Buco and Mais.

So pardon us if we had Super Expectations as well.

Icebergs has ingredients that you will not find in other halo-halo versions. One or two are a hit, most are a miss. Instead of pinipig, Icebergs serves its version with cereal (not a good idea). It has two kinds of gulaman – red and green – that taste the same (so what’s the point?).

One ingredient you won’t find anywhere else is the macapuno balls – yes, like the candy you bring home from provincial trips. Also, it has fresh buco (not macapuno), and nata de coco that looks like buco except it’s green instead of the usual oblong shape. Two scoops of ice cream top the halo-halo: strawberry and mocha, which don’t go well together. This version also has fresh corn kernels, which is a big mistake in our opinion since corn subdues the taste of other ingredients so it’s like eating mais con hielo with halo-halo ingredients instead of halo-halo with mais.

Price: P63

Location: Robinsons Place Malate and other major shopping malls
* * *
Milky Way
Milky Way’s halo-halo has 10 ingredients. That in itself is not impressive since most others have the same number. What we like about it is the leche flan, which has that orange-y, lemon-y taste. It also has very good real ube and ube ice cream. In our opinion, there are only three ice cream flavors that ought to top halo-halo: ube, langka and macapuno. Call us unadventurous, but unless the ice cream can complement this hodge-podge, it doesn’t belong there.

All ingredients, like most stores we went to, are homemade. Milky Way makes the ingredients in its main branch on Pasay Road.

Price: P65

Location: Branches at Rockwell Power Plant Mall, Makati; Shopwise at Festival Super Mall, Alabang; #900 Pasay Road, Makati

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