Manila is for Food Lovers
I'm a spontaneous person. Back in September, I was on the Google travel site checking rates for Manila in January. I was curious. Someone told me the best time to visit the Philippines is in January because the weather is cooler and hotel rates are less expensive. I saw the $411 round trip ticket and I knew I had to visit Manila. I haven't been to Manila since 2005, so it was time. I decided that my purpose of my trip would be to rediscover Manila and the food scene. I also wanted to fit in some beach and family time. Leading up to the trip, I spent about 4 months reading up on the chefs, bloggers, and food in Manila.
I was in Quezon City and researched close restaurants that served breakfast. After looking at their menu, I thought it would be interesting enough for me to check out as my first official meal in Manila.
Dampa sa Farmers Market
I love visiting farmers markets wherever I travel. I wanted to check out this market for its wet market. I wanted fresh seafood cooked for me at the market.
I tried to eat mangoes every day I was in the Philippines. I always picked them up wherever I saw them at the market or grocery store. Don't forget to haggle at the market. Frequently there are no prices so you'll have to try to get the best price for them.
They had my favorite marang fruit from Davao. I must try! It was my lola's (grandmother) favorite fruit and one of mine too.
I bought a whole baby milkfish for kinilaw (Filipino ceviche).
Take your seafood from the fish market to one of the restaurants in the food court and ask them to cook your seafood feast.
This is my dad. I dragged him with me during some of my food adventures in Manila. I chose Mang Ponso because they cook "Kapampangan style" which is the cooking style of the province of Pampanga, the gastronomic capital of the Philippines. It is said that all the best cooks come from this region.
Kinilaw (Filipino ceviche) made from the whole baby milkfish I bought at the market.
The most delicious and HUGE prawns. Many of the shrimp we saw were still alive and kicking in the wet market. I almost cried eating this. Not kidding. It was so delicious the way they cooked it.
Local crab cooked with red eggs (salted duck eggs). My first time trying seafood cooked with red eggs.
I even made some new friends at the Dampa wet market. While chatting with them, I found out that these sisters are from New York City escaping the frigid weather. Great conversation and fun getting to know Laura and Jen. It was a pleasure meeting you both!
In the afternoon, I wanted merienda (traditional afternoon snack), we headed to Kabigting's for halo-halo. I'm a bit obsessed with this dessert. Popular food vlogger, Erwan Heusaff, recently did a tasting of the best halo-halo in Manila and ranked this one as the best in Manila. It's a simple version made with carabao (native water buffalo) milk. Also, a unique touch is also the pastillas de leche (sweet milk candy) at the bottom.
My mind was set on trying as many dishes from Pampanga I could try without driving about an hour away to try it. During my research I found about Abe which specializes on the cuisine of Pampanga. The food we ordered blew me away. Every dish I tried was outstanding. Every dish different and nothing like I've had before. I now yearn for a trip one day to visit Pampanga.
Crickets - a kapampangan delicacy
Sinigang with guava and tuna belly
Tongue in a flaky crust
For breakfast, I decided to check out the new Little Flour opened by Los Angeles' own chefs Walter and Marge Manzke (Republique, Petty Cash Taqueria, Sari Sari Store). I was curious about trying their restaurants, Little Flour, Wildflour, and Farmacy ice cream, while in Manila. They are quickly expanding and quite popular.
Similar to Republique, they had chef Marge Manzke's pastries on display.
I was in the Philippines so I wanted to stick to Filipino food. This Filipino breakfast was forgettable. I had a better breakfast at Kanto Freestyle. I don't suggest getting this dish. The sausage and rice left me desiring or expecting more from these chefs. It didn't satisfy my Filipino food craving.
My feeling is Little Flour strengths are in sweets. I would ask them for their recommended breakfast dish, other than the Filipino breakfast. This warm cassava cake was probably the best I've ever had!
Salcedo Saturday Market
I've been following this market on Instagram and really excited for this visit. I was really impressed with the variety of food and fruits found at this market.
Vigan empanada - These empanadas from Vigan are large and not something I've tasted before. I suggest eating this fresh out of the fryer.
Don't miss the kabog (millet seed) suman. There are many suman vendors, but you have to try this one. I met the husband at the Sunday market and his wife makes these from their home in Alabang. You can find this at the Salcedo Saturday and Legazpi Sunday Markets. Go early because they sell out of these.
Real ube isn't really purple.
Mangoes from Guimaras. I picked up a few pieces of these. They're the best mangoes in the world and the only mangoes served at the White House and Buckingham Palace.
I picked up some deep fried tawilis (freshwater sardines). Definitely something to try at this market if you're looking for something rare and unique. This is the only freshwater sardines in the world found only in Taal Lake in the Philippines. Since this species is endemic to this body of water, you might not be so inclined to try if it bothers you to read that the population is said to be threatened by over fishing. Something I just read after reading more about this fish.
I've heard about the Via Mare chain before. I knew they were known for their bibingka and puto bumbong so when I saw their restaurant inside Landmark department store in Makati to try their food. I wanted to get a unique and healthy item so I decided on a fern leaf salad to eat before trying their puto bumbong.
Ensaladang Pako - fern leaf salad with red eggs, tomatoes, shrimp in a vinaigrette.
Speakeasies seem to be thing in Manila as they are in LA. The problem I had was deciding which one to visit. Vlogger, Erwan Heussaff, was featured in Saveur magazine's stories and visited the Curator for coffee. Since I was in the area, I decide to check this place out for coffee.
I opened my Google maps app to navigate me to the coffee shop. The difficult part was finding the place. In my research, I was looking for a wine store. I made 2 circles around on my third about to give up. I looked up and noticed business without any signs. I went up and bingo I found the curator. No coffee shop sign, no wine shop.
I think the owner sensed that I was bit frustrated by the time I walked in looking for the place. I asked about the hidden cocktail bar and the gentleman said that they weren't open yet. I brought me to the back and felt bad for me so he made me a drink with the liqueur of my choosing.
For the next hour and half or so, the owner, Jeco Co and friends chatted with me and gave me recommendations and also nixed many items on my spreadsheet agenda for my time in Manila. Jeco and friends were super nice which more than made up for frustation on finding his coffee shop and hidden cocktail den.
I would definitely add this stop to your agenda for craft coffee and cocktails. The Curator is ranked as one of the Philippines "World's Best Cocktail Bars."
Owner, Jeco Co, making me a cocktail out of mezcal.
Jeco pretty much set my agenda for that evening. He told me to head over to Bucky's to taste their fried chicken and famous brownie for dessert. There was a special event at Oto, a craft cocktail bar in Poblacion that he highly recommended me checking out that evening.
Bucky's fried chicken
Bucky (brownie) topped with soft serve and polvoron.
From left to right: Cedric Mendoza, Aaron Goodall, Yoma Rivera, Syafiq Rahim
The special Oto anniversary menu
Legazpi Sunday Market
Another major weekend market is the Legazpi Sunday Market. This market had less food for sure. I started out with a walk around the market. I decided to get a green mango shake and for lunch, the stall with the longest line was Warung Warung, a Filipino run Indonesian restaurant. One of the owners lived in Indonesia for 28 years.
Baby squid with olive oil, garlic, and chili was the favorite of the evening.
Shrimp with red egg.
Puto bumbong. Not as good as what I tasted at Via Mare.
One of the city's top chefs, Nicco Santos, had a fast casual Malaysian restaurant at the top level food court of the Century City Mall near my bed and breakfast so I decided to check it out for lunch.
Le Petit Souffle
In the same mall as Any, Any is a modern French restaurant that serves a Basque Burnt Cheesecake by chef Miko Aspiras. I love cheesecake and never tried this version before so I was intrigued. It's known for its burnt top to add extra flavor, but this slice didn't have much of the darkened top of the cheesecake. Not too dense and not too light, it's texture is super smooth, light and not too heavy.
Basque Burnt Cheesecake
For dinner, I headed over to Txanton for a jamon de iberico bellota tasting with wine pairing.
Build your own pan con tomate. I had to rub the garlic on the dense bread, place the tomato on top, pour the olive oil and select salt. There was a black salt, maldon sea salt, and local salt.
After Txanton, I walked over to Poison Doughnuts for one of the their artisanal doughnuts. After, I walked around to explore the nearby art galleries.
Milky Way & Cirkulo
For an early lunch, I visited Milky Way Cafe. Milky Way is located on the second floor of the building. Based on the recommendation of local food writer, Cyrene de la Rosa, I wanted to order the bone marrow and sisig from Cirkulo. They asked if I wanted to sit down below at the more formal restaurant, but I told them that I preferred the casual atmosphere of Milky Way. I wanted to order something off the Milky Way menu so I went with the recommended kare-kare. Cyrene also recommended the housemade avocado ice cream or guinimis, but the server told me enthusiastically to go with the avocado ice cream.
Bone marrow from Cirkulo
Crisp sisig from Cirkulo
Solid Kare-Kare from Milky Way Cafe, but not out of the ordinary.
Must try housemade avocado ice cream from Milky Way Cafe
I found a bibingka cart while grocery shopping at the Landmark. I ordered the mini bibingka to taste. This was my favorite bibingka I tasted while I was in Manila.
Baked cheese tart seems to be a trend as popular as LA's black charcoal ice cream. I spotted a vendor at Landmark to try. They serve their tart warm out of the oven. It reminded me of the cheese tarts I've enjoyed at dim sum. This chain is Filipino owned and not from Japan I was told.
The Test Kitchen by chef Josh Boutwood
My most favorite tasting menu experience in Manila was at chef Josh Boutwood's private incubator dining room, the Test Kitchen. It is a private dining experience and by reservation only. Food writer, Cyrene de la Rosa, texted chef Josh of my interest in dining at his restaurant. I emailed them before my trip to the Philippines and did not receive a response. I was the sole diner at the restaurant so chef Josh himself explained each dish to me. While speaking with him, I sensed great passion in what he does at the Test Kitchen.
Manam Comfort Food
Manam take on sinigang with watermelon
Wildflour Bakery & Cafe
As part of my food tour in the Philippines, I wanted to visit the restaurants of LA chefs Walter and Marge Manzke. After shopping for fake goods to bring back home in Greenhills, we stopped by Wildflour for merienda. I never tried the buko pie in the States from chef Marge, so I ordered that and also since I love banana splits, I wanted to try their Pharmacy ice cream. Don't miss the buko pie. One of the best I've tried.
Tropical banana split (tropical flavors from Pharmacy ice cream)
I read about chef Jordy Navarra as one of the top chefs in the Philippines. He is doing modern Filipino, avant-garde cuisine focusing on familiar and local flavors like have not seen before. Based on recommendations from my cousin and food writer, Cyrene de la Rosa, I made visiting Toyo Eatery a priority during my visit. Chef previously worked at Michelin-starred Bo Innovation in Hong Kong and the Fat Duck in the UK. This year he represented the Philippines at the Madrid Fusion Conference.
The best local craft beer I tried. A local told me that I'm not going to find anything that can stand up to the beers I had in Portland.
For my last dinner in Manila, Cyrene de la Rosa recommended Mecha Uma. Located in the commercial district of Manila, there wasn't a sign outside so you'll probably end up asking if the restaurant is Mecha Uma. I talked to several people who highly recommended Mecha Uma. One person told me that chef Bruce Ricketts is the best chef in Manila.
When I walked in, I noticed the small dining area with the main focus to be the bar seating or chef's table where the cooking and preparation take center stage. The music seemed more adult contemporary or jazz. Once I got seated, the music switched to 90s hip-hop. I felt like I was transported back to Los Angeles where the usual soundtrack is the hip-hop of my youth.
You'll have to go with the tasting menu for the best experience. Let chef Bruce take care of you. With that, you must not be a picky eater. There is no menu. Chef Bruce learned to cook while working in kitchens in San Diego. While chatting, I discovered that he didn't have a passion for food going into the business. It was out of necessity as way to make money. Filipinos love going out for Japanese food, so that is why he decided to open a Japanese restaurant. He is entirely self-taught and mentions that he cooks based the best quality ingredients he can find which seems to be more so sourced from Japan rather than the Philippines for his cooking.
The focus is on flavor as "mecha uma" translates to absurdly delicious. Every dish I tasted was not only beautifully plated, but was also full of flavor. The service was impeccable.
Hotel Bar, a hidden bar inside Pink's Hotdogs of Hollywood
If you don't know where to look, you won't know it's there. They don't make it that difficult though. There's a "bar" sign in neon lights, but it's behind heavy curtains so you unless you're curious, you won't know there is a speakeasy behind the curtains. Now, if you still don't know, there is another speakeasy within this hidden bar. Walk past the restrooms (or more commonly referred to the "comfort room" in the Philippines) towards the tribute to Los Angeles graffiti into the room to the right and you'll find the actual speakeasy. It's a smaller room with a few tables and a small bar.
You can order from the Pink's if if you want something to eat with your cocktail. You'll definitely want a cocktail. The cocktail program is curated by Jeco Co of the Curator. You won't find any esoteric liquor as what they carry seems to be what you'll find at run-in-the-mill bars with a few local bottles. My test of a good bar is to go off menu. My test failed here. Their off menu cocktail I asked for with a local liqueur made with Disaronno (of Italy) was a disaster. Stay on the cocktail menu and do not veer off.
I first heard about the hamburger from Erwan Heusaff, one of the famous vloggers in the Philippines and a friend of Jeco Co. One of his YouTube videos recommended as his favorite burger in Manila. While chatting with Jeco, he told me I had to visit as it was the best burger in Manila and even better than In-N-Out! I thought it was quite a bold statement.
Jeco was right! One bite and it was a simple burger, but chef Walter Manzke (owner and chef of Republique) took it up many notches. Better bread and most likely better ingredients. If you're a burger fan, you have to include a visit to Hotel Bar to taste their hamburger.
Special THANK YOU to Jeco Co and Cyrene de la Rosa for being my local food guides. I'm so grateful that we crossed paths during my visit to the Philippines.
I love exploring Los Angeles like a tourist. I have as much fun in my hometown as I do traveling to another country. I hope my adventures inspire you to eat well and travel often.