It used to be that the best way to get good Filipino food is to eat at home. Good Filipino cooking was only to be had in the provinces, specifically in roadside eateries or in the market where cooks work with the freshest ingredients and prepare dishes the traditional way. Today, thankfully, serving Filipino dishes has become more viable, and so restaurants that serve them have sprouted. And young culinary studies graduates have decided to rediscover their roots, learning to cook not only the old way, but also applying modern techniques to the dishes, updating the look but preserving the flavors.
Here are the best restaurants for balikbayans eager to savor the taste of home:
Serendra in Taguig, Trinoma Mall in Quezon City, SM Mall of Asia in Pasay
Named in honor of the author and artist Abe Cruz, this is part of the late Larry Cruz’s fleet of restaurants. Yes, it does have the good Pampango dishes, home province of the Cruz family–sisig (grilled chopped pig’s ear and snout), fried fish with buro (fermented rice), camaru and betute (crickets and stuffed frog). But the callos (tripe and tendon stew) is excellent, and try my favorite–crispy tadyang (beef ribs), which the restaurant named after me. Expect similar menus but individual specialties at the other outlets (Café Adriatico, Fely J, Lorenzo’s Way, Ang Bistro sa Remedios).
best place is at Greenbelt 1 in Makati
The name doesn’t reflect what people go to this place for–not seafood but bibingka (rice cake) and puto bumbong (sticky rice steamed in bamboo tubes). Order pancit palabok (noodles), lumpiang ubod (heart of palm spring roll) and if your arteries aren’t clogged yet, the bagnet salad (crisp pork belly in greens and tomato with a dressing of bagoong (shrimp paste) vinaigrette.
San Fernando and Angeles, Pampanga
You know a good restaurant when you see locals eating there. This is where to taste the incomparable morcon, ground meat with all the goodness formed into a roll and known as embutido elsewhere. The secret is in the sauce, rich orange from the chorizo, full of flavor and collected from the morcon drippings. Everybody’s has the usual Pampango dishes, but also excellently cooked camaru and betute and fried hito (catfish) with buro.
The best tibok-tibok is here. That’s carabao milk maja blanca (white custard), and it gets its name from heart palpitations because it vibrates when you carry it around. When it’s tamarind season (summer), they make the best sweetened version, the fruit looking as if it was just peeled fresh even if it has been cooked in sugar.
Imagine big clams (imbao) and angel wings (diwal) with their meats ballooning, an indication of freshness and fatness. But the must-order dish is grilled managat or mangrove jack, because it exudes a milky flavor that is similar to eel. There is abalone sashimi, in case you’re interested.
best at EDSA near Ortigas, Metro Manila
This is the restaurant that claims to have invented crispy pata (hock). Let’s give them that because it is still one of the best places to get it. Kare-kare (meat and peanut stew) with bagoong (shrimp paste) is also a good save for the container, the hopelessly archaic palayok (clay pot). Thankfully, the new owners didn’t change the recipes, only the interior decor, which has made the place less kitschy. Barrio Fiesta bagoong is still the best; it’s available in groceries.
Arnaiz Avenue in Makati, Virra Mall in Greenhills, Rockwell Mall in Makati
Another restaurant founded by a Kapampangan, which is why the grilled catfish should be ordered. But many of us who have been to the original restaurant near Malacañang Palace swear by its chicken asparagus sandwich, the freshly made ice cream and the halo-halo that’s still the best.
LA COCINA DE TITA MONING
San Rafael Street, San Miguel District, Manila
The old house of the Legardas in the shadow of the Presidential Palace (just tell the palace guards where you are headed) has preserved its exterior and some of its interior, but the dining areas are dressed opulently. The menu features the dishes of Tita Moning (Ramona Legarda), which belong to the time when fast food wasn’t even heard of and slow cooking was the norm. Some of the dishes are paella Valenciana, lengua (tongue) and whole baked lapu-lapu (grouper), but there are Filipino dishes like kare-kare and dinuguan (pork blood stew). The quality of the cooking is maintained because granddaughter Suzette Montinola, who studied at the Culinary Institute of America, is in charge.
UGU BIGYAN'S POTTER GARDEN
The home of potter Ugu Bigyan has expanded its eatery and its menu. But what lures me there is the kulawo or banana heart salad (puso ng saging) with a smoky coconut milk produced by toasting grated coconut in charcoal embers. There is a lot of seafood from the fisher folk who sell their catch at the pier nearby. Reservations and a minimum number of diners required.
115 Legazpi St., Davao City
The restaurant is inside a compound with the 1930s house of the Lat family at the very center. Three partners from Manila offer food and beverage to hotel guests at the Legazpi Suites at the back. Grilled fish and squid, steamed shrimps and mussels, seaweed and stray strands of pork longganisa (sausage). Try the soup of imbao (big clams), pinakbet (stewed vegetables) and three desserts, a tres leches, maja blanca and buchitaw, an imaginative combination of buchi (fried sticky rice ball) and palitaw (boiled sticky rice cake).
Villa Gloria Subdivision, Angeles, Pampanga
If you’ve seen Anthony Bourdain’s show, that’s a good introduction to the place where Claude Tayag cooks, and his wife Mary Ann talks about the food. There are three menus to choose from, but the best is still the Pampango menu–ten courses that include ensaladang pako (fiddlehead fern salad), kare-kare lamang dagat (seafood) and a sinigang that is called bulanglang in Pampanga. This is where one should eat slowly to savor not only the food, but also your company and the artworks of Claude. Again, reservations required for a set minimum number of guests.
MARKET MARKET REGIONAL STALLS
Fort Bonifacio, Taguig
The enlightened management of this mall has given prominence to food stalls from the country’s different regions. You don’t have to go to Baguio to get your coffee beans, or to Pangasinan for your bocayo (coconut chew), banana chips from Roxas City, roasted cashew nuts from Palawan, dried mangoes from Cebu and sweetened pili (a native nut) from Bicol. So if you forgot to buy pasalubong (homecoming gift) from where you visited, this is the place to go. Inside the mall, native products, such as Iloco abel (blankets) are available as well.
SARAMSAM YLOCANO RESTAURANT AND BAR
JP Rizal corner Hizon Streets, Ilocos Norte
The dinendeng (boiled mixed vegetables) should be ordered as well as other traditional Ilocano food. But owner Sammy Blas offers more than just the usual, such as dinuguan pizza or igado (stew) crostini. You can call that fusion but the flavors are there even if the setting is different.
Riverside Empanada Plaza, Batac Ilocos Norte
IRENE'S EMPANADA AND OKOY
Vigan, Ilocos Sur
Sometimes I miss how empanada used to be available only for afternoon merienda in Vigan. The waiting made eating it extra special. But now you can have the crisp turnover at any time, Norte or Sur. It can make your heart stop just thinking of the whole egg and chorizo that go into some of the versions and some flirt with danger just to have two eggs per empanada.
HALO-HALO DE ILOKO
San Fernando, La Union
The mix is so inviting–nata de coco (coconut gel), corn, cornflakes, saba (plantain), yema (milk candy) cooked in pandan, gulaman (gelatin) cooked with buko juice (young coconut) and burisangsang (muscovado) as sweetener. Order also a huge fried bun called emparedados with Vigan longganisa within. The name is Spanish for sandwich.
Micky Fenix writes the weekly column “Country Cooking” for the Philippine Daily Inquirer. Her book on regional cuisine will be published this year.