Saturday, June 25, 2011

No more food writing in favour of Teaching for Apples

I've stopped writing about food to write children's novels and short stories! Find my latest writing and updates here:

If you're wondering about the page name, it's the title of the novel I wrote. Pretty self-explanatory, when you learn the story's premise: A girl likes apples so much that she decides to become a teacher, because everyone knows that's the best way to get free apples. You can find out more at the above link. :D

Friday, June 4, 2010

Last meals in Quebec

So I'm back in Vancouver -- 15 pounds heavier -- after nine months of living, working, and, of course, eating in Quebec. I've already shown you the foods I think you should try in my previous post on 15 things you must eat in Quebec. Now here's a peek at what I've spent the last few days (and literally my last few days in Quebec) eating:

"Quebec pizza" with pepperoni, onions, and bacon; and a side of italian poutine -- which uses meat sauce instead of gravy -- (see above photo) at Restaurant Chez Marius in Chambly. Its presentation expressed my sentiments exactly -- I "heart"ed it. :)

Ice cream at Dairy King, just beside Restaurant Chez Marius in Chambly. The flavours I chose (see below) weren't so great, so I can't really give the best review. One scoop maple walnut tofu ice cream (bleh! -- tasted like So Nice's version, which in turn tastes like eating soy), one scoop crème brûlée (which tasted nothing like crème brûlée, though I asked the vendor if it did and she said yes), and passion fruit granita, which was really yummy.

I recommend sticking with the sorbets and granitas here, which my friend, K, did (see below for her picks -- lime, apple cranberry, and dark chocolate sorbets). I didn't try them, but I think they were probably better than what I got.

The best part about this place is that you get three scoops of ice cream/gelato/sorbet/granita regardless of the size you choose, which meant we were able to buy smalls and yet try three flavours. Not bad for $3.75. If only I had chosen better flavours *sigh*.

Maple-butter-swirled soft-serve ice cream at an ice cream shop in Saint-Jean-Baptiste. My friend told me they had delicious sucre à la creme (sugar cream fudge)-swirled ice cream at this shop, so I was expecting to order one of those. The ice cream here turned out to be maple-butter swirled instead.

This was way better than the one I tried in Vancouver from Annie's Dairy Bar in New West (see here for my Eat Me post). It had way more maple butter swirled into it, so much that I was able to enjoy a pool of maple butter at the bottom of my cone.

Even better, it offered the option of dipping cones in either milk or dark Belgian chocolate for $1.25 more. I had milk chocolate, and my friend, L, had dark. I think the cones would have been just as good without the chocolate.

"Maple Explosion": Maple, maple, and more maple! One scoop maple ice cream with maple taffy and maple sugar pieces, one scoop maple walnut, and one scoop caramel maple (the former two made by Coaticook, the latter by Bilboquet, two of the best ice cream brands in Quebec) topped with maple syrup and maple butter.

The best-tasting scoop by far was the one with maple taffy and maple sugar pieces by Coaticook. All the flavours were so pure and delicious. I'm not sure if you can find this flavour in Quebec grocery stores, as I've only ever seen maple, maple sugar, and maple walnut.

The other two scoops, I could have done without -- especially the maple walnut -- though my first taste of the caramel maple was actually very good.

I had my maple explosion sundae with extra maple syrup (against the advice of the vendor, who said it would be too sweet), and you know what? I wish I had gotten even more maple added, because maple syrup and ice cream make a truly heavenly combination -- though maple syrup mixed into cold milk is still my favourite maple treat!

I actually had this explosion specially-made for me -- the original "Explosion d'Erable" (maple explosion) comes with one scoop of vanilla and two scoops of maple, topped with maple syrup and maple butter. To be honest, I don't know if it might have been better to go with the original, as I never tried the plain maple scoop.

You can try it for yourself at the maple products cart in Old Montreal.

"Grandma-style" hot chocolate (with marshmallows and cocoa powder) from the Chocolaterie du Vieux Beloeil. It looks good, but didn't actually taste all that amazing. I don't think it was made from real chocolate, or at least it didn't taste like it. The marshmallows melted into the drink after a few minutes, which was kinda cool.

I've tried their trio (made with a mix of dark, milk, and white chocolate) and white chocolate hot chocolates before as well, and they were also just okay.

Hot chocolate, cakes, and chocolate from La Cabosse d'Or.

No pics of the hot chocolate, since it just looked like any old coffee cup, but it was actually the best hot chocolate I've had in Quebec, and I've had quite a few. I've had two versions (at two separate occasions, of course): the Vienna, which is made with 70% dark chocolate topped with whipped cream), and the Aztec (I think that's what it was called), which is made with the same chocolate and added spices. Both are reeeeeeeeeeeeally good.

La Cabosse d'Or is famous even outside of the Monteregie region of Quebec. I advise you to stick with the chocolate products, however. I was lucky enough to come on a day when their freezer was broken and they were offering a buy one get one free deal on their cake slices, and I can't actually remember what I thought of any of the cakes (which is not a good sign).

I think their maple one and their wildberry with white chocolate slice were good. I didn't like the sachar cake. I don't remember what I thought of the one with hazelnut and chocolate, nor the raspberry mousse one, nor the chocolate bombe. They were nothing remarkable. But that's just my opinion.

Their white chocolate with vanilla creme chocolate mouse (see below) was quite good.

Definitely stop by for some hot chocolate!

Seven of July plate (French toast, two crepes -- one buckwheat and one plain -- topped with fresh fruit) and fruit cocktail (made with a mixed variety of fresh fruit) at Chez Cora

I was very pleasantly surprised by this meal: the first time I tried Chez Cora, I was very let down by my meal (a cinnamon brioche cooked in French toast batter) with fresh fruit. The brioche tasted stale.

This time around, everything tasted fantastic, especially the french toast. The crepes were so good they didn't need maple syrup -- which was good, since Chez Cora only offers fake syrup, or "electric pole syrup", as Quebecers like to call it, free of charge -- real maple syrup is extra. I was pleased that they agreed to make my crepes both ways, since they tasted quite different and are both worth trying.

So now, rather than giving Chez Cora a negative review, I am going to say that it is a hit and miss place -- when you get a hit, it's a home-run. Just try to avoid the misses. :P

Waffle ice cream sandwich
at a brand-new little resto in Mont-Saint-Hilaire. I know it has "Gaufres" (waffles) in the name, but I don't remember it in full.

This was no ordinary out-of-the-box ice cream sandwich. We're talking vanilla ice cream sandwiched between made-to-order waffles, and, in my case, topped with fruit cocktail. I love Quebec fruit cocktail. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think it's just defrosted fruit. It tastes super-good though.

I also came back another time and had a meal complete with a crepe stuffed with asparagus, ham, and bechamel sauce, a side salad with miso tofu dressing (yum!), and a glass of fresh lemonade. These were all good, but nothing fantastic.

Crêpes bretonne (Bretagne crepes) at the Crêperie du Vieux Beloeil

These crepes were the best I've had during my entire stay at Quebec (and I've had A LOT).

Two kinds of buckwheat crepes (one stuffed with emmenthal cheese, chorizo sausage, tomatoes provencal, and black olives (see left); the other with homemade apple sauce and strong cheddar (see right) -- two of the specialty crepes from the Creperie du Vieux Beloeil, one of the best creperies in Quebec). My dining partner, M, told me that the quality of the sarrasin (buckwheat) is top-notch, because it is more finely ground than those you would find at most other creperies.

... and then came dessert!

This was made with sweeter batter and filled with chestnut cream and freshly sliced pears, topped with whipped cream.

This is a must-try. The chestnut cream tastes incredible and homemade -- nothing like the stuff you can buy in glass jars from the supermarket. We didn't ask to verify, but I'm pretty sure it was homemade, as they used homemade apple sauce in their apple and cheese crepe. This combination isn't actually on the menu, but was recommended to us by our server.

Note that you can choose whatever combinations you would like for your crepes here, if you are prepared to pay for the extra ingredients.

It is very hard for me to enjoy a restaurant a second time around (it's just never as good), so I give this creperie props for delivering such an enjoyable meal during my third visit. My first two visits were in fact just okay, since I ordered a ham and egg one the first time (not much filling in that), and a banana, caramel, ice cream, and rum flambeed dessert one the second time (forgetting I don't like the taste of rum).

This lunch was my last meal in Quebec. And what a meal.

And so ends my posts about Quebec foods, for now...

Yum! (Or, as they say in Quebec: Miam-miam! =9).

UPDATE: After returning to Vancouver from Quebec, I wrote a quirky children's novel loosely based on my experiences in la belle province. The plot: a girl likes apples so much that she decides to become a teacher, because everyone knows that being a teacher is the best way to get free apples. The setting: Mont-Saint-Hilaire, the apple-craziest town in Quebec. Find more on the novel and new stories I have written at

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

15 things you must eat in Quebec

Who'd have thought my first trip to New York would inspire me to write about Quebec food? Six days of stuffing myself with "New York food" -- or at least my definition of it: foods specific to New York (re. NY bagels, pizza, cupcakes, egg creams, bialys, pastrami sandwiches, reubens, etc.) -- made me appreciate all the fantastic foods that you can really only find in Quebec.

While I'm still no expert on Quebec food, I have lived in the province of Quebec for the past six months (including Christmas, during which I was able to sample homemade Christmas-only foods at four traditional Christmas dinners I was invited to attend). Living in a city famed for its apple orchards (and accompanying apple ciders, juices, donuts, pies, etc.), and located just 45 minutes away from Montreal's delicious food scene has also allowed me to sample some uniquely Quebecois foods.

For the most part, for me, "Quebec food" beats "New York food" hands down.

Here are 15 foods that should convince you why:

1. Schwartz's smoked meat sandwiches (sandwich à la viande fumée de chez Schwartz`s -- see above picture). Love at first bite. I've had a really good smoked meat sandwich before (several, in fact), but Schwartz's manages to elevate it somehow. The meat just tastes 10x better. You have to eat it to believe it.

I did have a few issues about my Schwartz's experience however, the biggest being the fact that they gave me a fatty sandwich as opposed to the medium I ordered. Unless I'm mistaken, a medium should not contain three globs of fat each the diameter of a fist. As well, the staff took the order for a large group of people before they took mine, despite me being ahead of the group (did they think I stood in line for over 20 min just to take in the scenery?). The accompanying rye bread was also "meh". However, the meat made it all worth it.

If you're not that into meat, it might not wow you as much as it wowed me. What you see is what a get: two pieces of bread, and a whole lot of meat. Mmm.

2. Poor man's pudding, or pudding of the unemployed (Pouding chômeur). Given the amount of pure maple syrup that goes into the best versions of these cakes nowadays, I don't think poor people could afford to eat this. Watching one being made (I saw the process twice) is insane. Once the batter for the cake is laid down, the maple syrup-based sauce is poured on -- the volume of which is equal to that of the cake itself. Once you take the pan out after baking, however, all you see is the cake, because the sauce has seeped in to penetrate every pore of the cake.

The first version I tried of this cake, at St. Hubert, was actually quite quite tasty, though a bit pricey ($4.95). It was actually better than some of the homemade ones I've tried.

The version I enjoyed most was one that was actually featured in Montreal's Chez Ramezay museum`s exhibit on the top ten Quebec foods (the recipe of which we tried before seeing it exhibited). My friend replaced the corn syrup with maple syrup, and it was like my Schwartz's experience repeated with pudding chômeur. Of course, it could have been due to the fact that my friend is one of the best cooks I have ever met. Everything she makes is better than any other version I've tasted.

3. Sugar cream pie (Tarte au sucre à la
crème). Not to be confused with tarte au sucre, which has a completely different consistency and taste. Sucre à la crème (sugar cream fudge) is a heavenly type of fudge made in Quebec (see below for longer description). I actually prefer the sugar cream pies you can find at Quebec grocery stores like IGA and Metro, which have a stronger sugar taste. I find that ones from apple orchards, farms, or outside boulangeries have very little brown sugar in them and therefore end up tasting more like fruit pies than anything else. I prefer my tarte au sucre à la crème plain.

For some reason, I can`t find any photos of this kind of pie online, so here is one that someone claims is sucre a la crème (but looks more like tarte au sucre).

4. Sugar pie (Tarte au sucre). Lighter than sucre à la crème pies. For a while, I thought I didn't like these until I ate a homemade one during a Christmas party I attended. When they are good, they are very very good. You can find these in Vancouver at select restaurants, but they`re just not the same.

5. Sugar cream fudge or maple syrup sugar cream fudge (sucre à la
crème/sucre à la crème l'érable). Sugar, brown sugar, and 35% cream make up this delicious quebecois fudge. The best one I tried was at a Quebec food festival that was like Quebec`s version of Eat! Vancouver. Homemade is usually better than store-bought.

6. Ragoût de boulettes (a kind of meatball stew with no English translation I can find). The best are simmered for hours, and I have tried the best. This is a traditional dish that people usually only make around Christmas time.

I still haven`t tried one of these meat pies that wasn`t store-bought (it was the one thing no one actually made for Christmas dinner), but apparently the ones from Lac-Saint-Jean are amazing. You really have to know someone from the area who can make one for you if you want to experience the real thing, though. I wish I`d gotten a chance to try some while I was in Jonquière. :(

8. Apple donuts (beignet aux pommes). I`ve had these done two ways: one featured apples sliced into rings (like pineapple rings), then fried in batter and sprinkled with powdered sugar. The second featured apples cut up into little pieces, made into a dough, then fried. Both are ridiculously good, but must be bought fresh from an apple orchard for maximum tastiness! Lineups for these things are insane (around 20 minutes)! Some orchards offer day-old boxes for half the price (re. Denis Charbonneau).

9. Pure maple syrup (sirop d`érable) and related products. In Quebec, using Aunt Jemima-electricity pole syrup (as opposed to the real stuff) could be likened to a crime. Note that maple syrup comes in many grades, all of which taste different -- all the more reason to taste them all. :P

There are also multiple forms of maple: maple sugar, butter, etc. Tire d`érable or tire sur neige (maple taffy, or sugar on snow) is a must-try -- maple sap boiled past syrup form poured on snow, then wrapped around a wooden stick as it cools. You`re apparently a true Quebecor if you can eat seven of these in a row.

10. Maple syrup or Cabane à Sucre ice cream. Forget Breyers maple walnut ice cream or the kind with pieces of maple sugar throughout. Fake maple ice cream is just plain gross in my opinion. If you must choose a commercial brand, I would go with Real Dairy, which I think uses real maple syrup. For people in Quebec, Bilboquet and Coaticook are among the better brands for maple-flavoured ice cream.

My new favourite ice cream flavour is Cabane à Sucre, which you can find in pretty much any crèmerie (ice cream shop) by the scoop. It has real tire d`erable in it, and is absolutely heavenly for those with a sweet tooth. Apparently Bilboquet has it during sugar shack season, and while I haven`t tried their version, I can only imagine it would be as good or better.

11. Ice cider (cidre de glace). One of the biggest perks of living in Mont-Saint-Hilaire has been all the apple products I`ve been able to try. Ice cider is one of the best among them, and I`ve had more free or $1 award-winning samples than I can count.

`Ice cider ... is Quebec's very own creation ... A number of craft cider producers -- centred in the Eastern Townships southeast of Montreal -- came up with the idea of letting their apples hang late into the autumn. After the frozen fruit is picked, its concentrated nectar is separated from the crystallized water around it. Once fermented, the syrupy liquid yields an ultrarich, amber-coloured indulgence -- usually measuring 12 per cent alcohol -- that's delicious on its own as a dessert drink or as a sublime partner for such fare as sautéed foie gras or a plate of crumbly blue cheese and toasted walnuts. It should always be served cold.``

My favourite is a gold-medal-winning one from the Eastern Townships -- I've forgotten the name though. :P

12. Sugar shack meal. (repas de cabane à sucre). No trip to Quebec in March/April is complete without a visit to a cabane à sucre (sugar shack). There, you`ll be able to try a bunch of traditional Quebec foods, all drenched in maple syrup, with the option of adding more (you`ll find a pot of maple syrup at every table).

French Canadian pea soup, cretons, sausages, ham, omelettes, oreilles de crisses (`Christ`s ears`, salted and fried lard, or pork rind), fèves au lard (pork and beans), sugar cream pie, crêpes, eggs, bacon, and grand-pères au sirop d`érable (deep-fried dough cooked in maple syrup were offered at the sugar shack I visited). Consider yourself lucky if you find one serving eggs cooked in maple syrup, and other cabane specialties.

Menus vary, with some shacks serving as much as 14 kinds of desserts, etc.

Some are buffet-style, while others bring your food to you.

Usually maple taffy is included in the price; sometimes it can be around $4.25 extra. I'm against that.

Word of warning: sugar shacks vary in quality. The one I went to was mediocre (re. the sausages were store-bought vienna sausages, and the food all just tasted okay). I can`t complain because it was free -- I volunteered for a daycare outing. Do your research before you go. Small, traditional, family-run cabane à sucres (serving 30-60 people) are probably best. If you`re looking for entertainment, you could go to a larger one, but the food quality will probably go down with capacity.

Word of advice: Do put maple syrup on everything, and I mean everything. A cabane à sucre is pretty much the only setting where you're actually encouraged to do so, and everything they serve tastes better with more. I recommend adding syrup to a glass of milk -- it was my favourite thing at both sugar shacks I visited, though it was something I mixed myself. Everyone who tried it agreed it was a super-delicious combo. Pure A-grade maple syrup eaten plain with a spoon is also worth trying. :P

13. Montreal-style bagels. Hand-made and baked in a wood-fired oven, these bagels are smaller, sweeter, and denser than New York bagels, and I find them wayyy better. The two major places to buy these are Fairmount and St. Viateur. I prefer Fairmount`s softer texture and greater variety of flavours. Purists will go for sesame or poppy seed, however. My advice: go for whatever`s fresh.

14. Crêpes bretonne style -- These crêpes aren't rolled -- they're folded into squares. I recommend going to the Crêperie de Vieux Beloeil for this treat. You can choose to have it in a savoury traditional sarrasin (buckwheat) form or sweet (sucré). This creperie has the biggest variety of flambéed crêpes I've ever seen, and yes, they do light them up in front of you. I thought mine was just ok, because I ordered a flambéed one with bananas, caramel, and rum, and forgot that I don't like rum. :P

15. Poutine. Heart-attack in a bowl, and perhaps the most famous food in Quebec. In Montreal, La Banquise is known for its huge variety (24 kinds of poutine!), and Patati Patata is known for using wine in its gravy. Having tried both, I actually preferred my poutine at Chez Ashton, though it's probably not even close to the best in Quebec -- the cheese was so fresh it squeaked at every bite. Also, if you ever end up in the Saguenay, Lac-Saint-Jean area, there's a restaurant in Jonquière that makes superb barbecue sauce poutine. Mmm. Fromagerie La Bourgarde at Thetford Mines is supposed to be fantastic for poutine (too bad I didn't learn that until after I finished my tour of and left the town!).

If you want more suggestions for good poutine, check out this thread:

Don't eat this too often!

Some other Quebec foods worth trying:

  • Yule log (Bûche de Noël -- see above) -- cakes designed to look like a Yule log, served during the Christmas season. I think they taste rather ordinary. I've tried the roll (like Swiss rolls), mousse, and ice cream kinds, and prefer the last version. My friend's version was the best I've tried -- a flourless hazelnut cake with gingerbread trees and bears (see below).

  • Cretons. A pork spread containing onions and spices, similar to French rillettes.

  • Ground cherries (cerise de terre) grown in Quebec (I prefer the taste of these to the ones grown down south).

  • Maple wine (vin d`erable) or Ground cherry liquer (liquer de cerise de terre)
  • Pommettes d'amour (crab apples in syrup). So simple, yet soooo delicious. Basically, tiny, sugary crab apples drenched in syrup.
  • Bavette (flank steak or sirloin tip, according to chowhounders). I had a home-grilled one -- best steak I've ever had.
  • Pâté chinois (Chinese pie). French-Canadian version of shephard's pie (layered ground beef, corn, and mashed potatoes). This actually counts as Quebec cuisine. The explanation for the name I was given was that this was what was fed to Chinese railway workers in the past.

If you think of a food in Quebec that worth mentioning (and worth me trying before I leave the province in June), don`t hesitate to comment and let me know. I would appreciate the tips. :)

Just please don`t tell me I missed BeaverTails (Queues de Castor): those originated in Ottawa, Ontario, AND you can find them in Vancouver, either by that name or by "Whale Tails". :P

UPDATE: After returning to Vancouver from Quebec, I wrote a quirky children's novel loosely based on my experiences in la belle province. The plot: a girl likes apples so much that she decides to become a teacher, because everyone knows that being a teacher is the best way to get free apples. The setting: Mont-Saint-Hilaire, the apple-craziest town in Quebec. Find more on the novel and new stories I have written at

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Great eats in the Philippines

I'm baaack!

Ten days in the Philippines, and I gained 5lbs -- that's only possible when you're me! :P I was only able to check off three things on my to-try list (espasol, taho, and the Spirals buffet at the Sofitel hotel again) -- but that's okay, because everything I did have more than made up for it.

My many awesome relatives know the Philippine food scene even better than I know Vancouver's, and between visiting and hanging out with them all, I sampled much of the best foods -- at the best places -- the Philippines has to offer.

My first dinner there featured the best roasted chicken (see above) in the Philippines, from Savory Chicken`s Chinatown location. I thought it was amazingly good even before my aunt told us this as we ate it at her kitchen table (I'd thought it was homemade). It was juicy and flavoured with this excellent marinade -- but I liked the saba (fat bananas) chunks that came cooked with it even better; at first I thought it was weird that they'd cook the chicken with the saba, but the sauce made them super-tasty.

There was also homemade bicol express (a stew made with long chilies, coconut milk, shrimp paste, onion, pork, and garlic; see above), fried bangus (milkfish; see below), and more -- a great way to start my trip.

Breakfast featured a different menu every day. There's no way I'll be able to cover everything I ate over ten days, but some of the best foods I had for breakfast included liverwurst with bread (I forgot the brand, but it way better than the liverwurst I had in an open-faced sandwich at the Scandinavian festival in Burnaby last month), bola bola siapao and congee from Ling Nam, misua (salted Chinese noodles made from wheat; see below), fresh pandesal from Pan de Manila, atis (a delicious fruit also known as a sugar-apple, or sweet sop, that's way tastier than a soursop, which I also tried), leftover wedding cake from my cousin's wedding (a carrot fondant cake), and turon (not a breakfast food, but made the morning we left so we could try some).

Freshly-made turon -- saba (plantain) and jackfruit wrapped in a lumpia (springroll) wrapper, dipped in brown sugar, then fried (see below) -- is sooo good. The ones we had at my aunt's were double the length of the ones featured, and way better than any of the ones I've tried in Vancouver.

Lunch involved a lot of tasty home-cooked meals and eating out. One of the best places we ate at was the Highland Steakhouse (reputedly the best steakhouse in the Philippines, exclusively open to Tagaytay country club members) in the Tagaytay Highlands. Unfortunately, in a sudden lapse of judgment, I ordered fish (doh!) for my entree, because I was sitting next to my aunt, who I didn't know at the time didn't eat beef, who was inquiring about all the other menu items and made me forget that we were in a steakhouse. :S I think I will be kicking myself about not ordering a steak for a long time to come. :(

I had a bit of the best prime rib and barbecue baby back ribs I've ever tasted off my mom and little sister's share plate, and some pretty good lamb chops from my aunt. I had the cheesecake below for dessert. It wasn't particularly good, and neither was my fish (I think it was a pan-fried Mexican sea bass), which was bland, and came with pasta in a sauce I didn't like. It didn't taste any different from the fish I eat at home, but apparently, it's (according to our server) the best thing out of all the restaurant's non-beef options -- bottom line: order the steak!

The two salads we ordered to start (a garden salad and a smoked salmon caesar), which had vegetables and fruit fresh from the gardens of Tagaytay, were both really tasty.

I also had a taste of my cousin's clam chowder, which the restaurant is also apparently known for, and a scoop of my aunt's pumpkin soup. The clam was creamy and quite good, but I liked the pumpkin soup better. I love pumpkin, and the soup wasn't so rich as to make me feel slightly queasy like most cream-based soups do.

Another really good place we ate at was Ristras, a relatively expensive new Mexican restaurant, where I actually really enjoyed the food.

If you read my post on Dona Cata's Mexican Foods in Vancouver, you'll recall that I'm not much of a Mexican food fan. In fact, I tend to end up disappointed every time I go out for Mexican, no matter what I order. From tacos, fajitas, mole, and enchiladas, to deep-fried ice cream, nothing (apart from the delicious torta subs at Duffin's donuts and lamb meat in the lamb tacos at Dona Cata's) I've tried has ever really made me go "mmmmm".

At Ristras, aside from the sugarcane lemonade (made from fresh sugarcane and lemons), which I thought tasted weird and didn't really enjoy, I thought everything was delicious, especially the gigantic burritos they are famous for (see below for one of the fajita burrito options with the chicken and cilantro rice).

For fillings (see below for a making-of-a-Ristras-burrito photo -- I got hungry just watching one after another being put together), you can choose from two different kinds of rice (cilantro lime or chorizo brown rice) and four different kinds of meat (steak, chicken, pork, or beef) -- high-quality and deliciously marinated, and opt for black beans (a regular burrito) or sauteed green peppers and onions (a fajita burrito), and red or green chili, or have all the choices in a fajita burrito bowl like I did.

I actually don't recommend doing this; instead, I'd go with a friend, order a burrito with two meats and one kind of rice, have it halved, and split it with my friend, who I would have order a burrito containing the alternative fillings. The tortilla they use for the burrito is excellent and really complements the fillings, and you get a better chance to taste all the ingredients mixed together when ordering them wrapped than when eating them with a fork out of a bowl -- which is great, since everything goes together so well.

Check out the photo (taken from another site, so I can't account for the wonky date -- November 25, 2009?!) below to get a sense of just how huge these things are -- the burrito bowl's on the left and the two halves of the person's burrito are on the right.

The soft shell tacos (basically the same as the burrito, only you get the ingredients on a plate and make them into a taco yourself) were my favourite. The quesadilla (see below) was gigantic and delicious, as was their enchilada, the albondigas soup (steaming, hearty, and filled with meatballs and vegetables), and their yummy nine-layer dip nachos.

I'm happy because now I finally know what good Mexican food tastes like (Canada's just doesn't cut it). The restaurant's chef is famous in the Philippines, having already opened very successful Greek and other restaurants. Though the prices are pretty high for Mexican food (290 pesos for most mains, which is equivalent to around $7 CDN -- veeery expensive in the Philippines, where a burger, soft drink, and spaghetti combo at Jollibee -- a fastfood chain that's more popular than McDonald's in the Philippines -- costs just 80 pesos, or ~$2 CDN), Ristras is the place to be for Mexican food in the Philippines right now, and I thought the food was worth it.

Note: You might say that my review is slightly biased, as two of my cousins are part owners of Ristras (which is why I got to eat so much -- they treated us to almost everything on the menu! :)), but I'm surprisingly not up-playing anything (at least not intentionally). I was actually both excited (because it apparently got great reviews from Philippine food bloggers, like this one, which I read before I went) and scared to try the place, for fear of being let down like I had at so many other Mexican restaurants and having to blog about how it had failed to impress me. My point: If I hated the place, I probably would have just left it out of my post. :P

I also went to the Spirals Restaurant buffet for a second time (hooray!), this time for lunch. Unfortunately, it was not as good as I remembered. The selection was (understandably) smaller, and all the French cakes I had been unable to try the last time I was there (such as Opera cake and Saint Honore cake, with the most delicious caramelized profiteroles) and other desserts like taro pudding weren't available. I did, however, try some of their delicious paella and a mango and banana crepe, and some really good white chocolate mousse. I won't go into this meal, since I already elaborated on the restaurant quite a bit in my last post.

One of the first dinner spots I tried was Max's Restaurant, where fried chicken is the specialty -- so much so that the restaurant's tagline is "the house that fried chicken built." The fried chicken (see below) was fantastic (some of the best I've ever had), but all their other dishes were just okay.

Their halo halo (a popular Filipino ice dessert that literally translates to mean "mix mix") contained red mung beans, leche flan, ube (purple yam), gelatin, bananas, macapuno (coconut) balls, langka (jackfruit), grated cheese, pinipig (crushed rice), sago (tapioca), and maybe more. I had the halo halo special, which means that it came with a scoop of ice cream -- in this case, ube-flavoured). When it was served, it looked like the one below, but halo halo is meant to be mixed, so it got pretty messy after that. While it looked amazing, it unfortunately didn't taste nearly as good. The leche flan didn't taste like what it's supposed to -- it was too hard and way too sweet.

I had halo halo at three other places at the Philippines (some make-your-own-halo-halo at Spirals's dessert buffet that my little sister made, one at Razon's (see below), and one at Chowking.

The one at Spirals was just okay. The ice wasn't very good, as it was pebbly instead of finely shaved. There also wasn't that great a selection in terms of ingredients.

The halo halo at Razon's and Chow King were much better. Both are known for having some of the best halo halos in the Philippines, and both versions are extremely different, so I can't really pick a favourite -- they're both delicious!

Razon's serves its halo halo with shaved ice, leche flan, macapuno, sweet banana, and milk (see below). Their leche flan is to die for -- creamy, melt-in-your-mouth... the best I've ever had. I was sad when I mixed my ingredients and the taste was lost. Razon's claims that you don't even need to put sugar in the halo halo, believing it to have the perfect blend of ingredients. I think it's funny that anyone would need to add sugar to a halo halo, but it's apparently a very Filipino thing to do. A lot of my relatives do it.

Chowking's halo halo (see below) had pretty much everything that the one at Max's had (minus the ice cream, since I didn't pay extra for it), only it tasted much better.

In the Philippines, halo halo costs just a little over a dollar, sometimes going up to $2. In Vancouver, it can go anywhere from $2.99 at Pinpin's (unless they raised the price) to $5.50 at Josephine's and Goldilock's -- and their versions are not anywhere near as good as the ones they have in the Philippines. I wish that Kuya's in North Van were still open (I think it closed just this year) -- their halo halo used homemade ingredients and was pretty fantastic (especially at only $3.50).

If you've never tried it before, I'd suggest forgoing the ice cream (the halo halo special). It takes away from the flavour of the other ingredients, and vanilla flavoured ice cream is often the only option (since ube ice cream is so much more expensive in Canada, while ube and vanilla are the standard flavours offered in the Philippines).

I found this post on the top twenty Filipino desserts as voted by Filipinos, and am happy to report that I had 13 during my trip, including maja blanca, cuchinta, sapin-sapin, puto bobong, puto, ice cream (including Selecta-brand Queso Real), sans rival, buko pandan, pastillas de leche, bibingka, turon, halo halo, and leche flan. The only ones on the list I haven't tried before are banana-cue and halaya ube -- maybe next time.

I recommend every one of the desserts I tried. Mmm... when they're done right, they're soooo tasty! There's a reason why sans rival translates to "without rival" (think crispy, sweet, baked meringue layered with sugared butter and chopped cashews; see below). Fresh pastillas de leche are also melt-in-your-mouth good.

Other desserts I had included lots of baked goods from Red Ribbon (one of the best bakeries in the Philippines). I tried their ensaymada and cinnamon rolls, as well as two roll cakes -- ube macapuno (purple yam and young coconut strings; see below) and halo halo. I also tried the mocha mamon and ensaymada from Goldilocks (the other really famous Filipino bakery). Definitely try an ube macapuno cake from Red Ribbon if you get the chance, and the halo halo cake if you like langka -- they're really tasty and stay soft even after several days.

There were so many good dinners I had that I don't know where to start. We had some fantastic, apparently authentic, Italian wood-fired pizzas -- Al Quattro Formaggi (four cheese) and a seafood one -- and pastas (one with pesto sauce, which I like very much, one with carbonara sauce, and another I don't remember) at Amici. Unfortunately, I had to forego the gelato, as I had an infected stomach and wasn't supposed to be eating at all that day. :(

I also sampled two gourmet pizzas and steak at Chelsea's during another night, where I had the best shaken iced tea ever, blended with real peaches and served in a glass that was as tall as three mugs placed on top of one another. We finished off dinner by splitting a light lemon meringue-like cake, that was ever so tasty.

I also bought a red velvet cake cupcake from Cupcakes, a bakery in Makati. It looked and sounded authentic enough, as it was bright red, made with Belgian cocoa and glistening with cream cheese icing. It was good, but didn't taste like chocolate at all. A friend who's tried it in the States tells me that it's not supposed to taste chocolately, since it's only supposed to have a minute amount of cocoa in it. So yay, I guess I tried real red velvet cake (which I blogged about in a previous post). It wasn't particularly amazing or different.

Other memorable foods I had included some of the Philippines' best pancit palabok from Pancit Malabon (see above), fresh steamed lapo-lapo (or grouper, the national fish of the Philippines), fried pigeon, fresh buko (young coconut) juice, and real lechon , featuring an almost-whole roasted pig -- the head and legs were there, but the body was cut up and ready to serve buffet-style (see below for a photo of a whole lechon).

We visited quite a few Chinese restaurants (including one famous for its peking duck two times), but I won't discuss them since Chinese places don't interest me very much, however good they may be. A difference I will note is that lapo-lapo seems to replace black cod as the fish of choice in Chinese restaurants in the Philippines, and tastes exactly the same when steamed.

I think that the biggest surprise for me during my trip was learning what a huge deal kid's birthday parties are in the Philippines. If you think their hotel buffets sound lavish, you should attend a child's party. My cousin celebrated her two sons' birthdays at the Philippine Convention Centre (not unlike our Vancouver Convention Centre).

The way a birthday party works is, you choose a theme (in this case, Pokemon), hire entertainers (in this case, a magician/balloon animal maker/game show host), hire caterers with food similar to what you'd find at lavish hotel buffets (complete with a full kiddie section and an adult section), and buy lots and lots of great party favours and prizes (enough to last through the more than seven games played, where at times over 20 children might receive one, including huge boxed action figures, and even some transportable chairs, which quite a few of the adults snagged). Check out the photo below that my little sister snapped of the main stage area of the event, during one of the games the kids participated in (a relay race).

Buffet food included spaghetti, kebabs, spring rolls, and hotdogs on a stick for the kids, and rice, inihaw, lechon, tempura shrimp, some kind of chicken, and a seafood and vegetable mix for adults, with a salad bar and misua, and a dessert section featuring maja blanca (corn pudding), leche flan, seven kinds of really tasty mini cakes (including mocha, strawberry, vanilla, raspberry jam, marble, chocolate, and pandan), coconut cupcakes, mango crepes, and the yummiest buko pandan (see below) I've ever tasted.

Before the buffet even opened, kids and adults alike could line up at three stands serving cups of fresh, warm taho, small containers of nachos topped with melted cheese and ground beef, and mini sugar cones of three kinds of homemade ice cream -- cheese, ube, and cookies and cream.

I was especially happy about the taho stand -- my cousin's husband had told me that some peddlers put plaster of paris in their taho as filler, or burn the sugar so that the taho smells better, so I'd never have gotten to try it off the street. It was too sweet for me, and because I don't particularly like white bean curd, tapioca, or brown sugar, I didn't really like it. See below for a photo of the traditional version of this tofu dessert (mixed with a brown sugar and sago (tapioca balls) syrup upon serving), and a Baguio version made with strawberry syrup, which wasn't available, as it's a specialty of the city of Baguio. Next time, I'll have to go out to Baguio city and see if the their version is any better.

The end of the event featured a cookie tree made up of giant cookies on sticks that looked like lollipops featuring various Pokemon, such as pikachu and squirtle. I snagged one, and it was really tasty: a sugar cookie covered with my favourite -- hard icing, like the kind they use at Goldilocks to make the flower decorations for their cakes.

When I first moved to Canada, it took a while for me to get over the fact that cakes from Western and European bakeries make their cake flower decorations from the same icing they use to cover the cake -- it's just not the same as hard candy flowers, which I sometimes like even more than the cake itself. If you have a sweet tooth, you've got to try one. They're individually embedded to the cake with a toothpick.

The Philippines never fails to surprise me each time I return, and I can't wait to come back. Maybe I'll get to try a real inihaw platter (see below) this time -- I love the one at Pinpin Restaurant (6113 Fraser) in Vancouver, so the ones from the Philippines can only be that much better.

If you're from the Philippines or know a lot about Filipino food, let us know what to try where from the Filipino restaurants in Vancouver, or in the restaurants in the Philippines, for when I visit again. :)