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. :)

1 comment:

  1. haha the steakhouse story is funny...

    halo halo probably tastes good, but the rainbow of colours is kinda offputting. I don't mind the purple though, as it's from ube which I love :)