Monday, June 28, 2010

Childhood Memories on a Stick

Ever since we got married last year and moved into our new place together, Matt and I have diligently explored our new “barrio” in search of new food haunts. Although our favorite restaurants in Makati and The Fort can never be replaced, we were happy to have found some good eateries that are both accessible and consistent.

During one of these “explorations”, we passed one of my old family pit stops- Three Sisters’ Restaurant. Since I was not very familiar with that area before, I always knew that it was there but did not know the exact location. Seeing the familiar façade and name brought back childhood cravings and memories that have been locked away for quite a while now.

When my not-so-little sister Queenbee and I were very young (the youngest one- Foxychef- was not even born yet), my parents would sometimes stop outside this popular establishment within a residential area in Pasig and pick us up several sticks of pork barbecue for the ride home. Rain or shine, my Dad would step out of the car, place his orders, and the grill guy would pack the steaming-hot cubes of pork on a stick into a brown paper bag, and then a plastic “sando” bag. The drill inside the car is always the same: 1) Our mom or yayas would break off the sharp end of the stick and then wrap the other end with a paper napkin, 2) My sister and I, mesmerized by the thick, deep-brown sauce and the captivating scent of grilled pork, would continuously blow at our pork barbecues until a tolerable temperature is reached, 3) finally, we get to devour the tender chunks of meat, smearing our hands, faces, clothes and the interiors of the car in the process.

I asked my Dad if this was the same restaurant, and indeed it was, standing on the same location for the past four decades. Three Sisters’ is truly a Pasig landmark, the original one opened in a different location back in 1941 as a panciteria, its pancit bihon legendary even to this day. Throughout its long history, its menu has grown to include other specialties like the popular Filipino dessert halo-halo (a parfait-like preparation containing sweetened beans, fruit preserves, ube, and the like, topped with shaved ice, milk, and sometimes ice cream), beef Caldireta and the now-famous pork barbecue.

One sleepy weekend, Cookie Goddess and I went off to indulge my reawakened childhood cravings. We arrive at the restaurant way past noon, enjoying the quiet dining room, save for a long table of serious-looking, government-types. Aside from some minor renovations, it looks like the dining room has not changed since the 70’s, with the hanging rattan lamps, retro-looking art on the wall, and the thick dark wood fixtures which impart a familiar, musty smell you find in old houses. The vibe is definitely laidback and nostalgic, a setting you would expect to see leafing through your parents’ old albums.

The menu is also classic Filipino fare- Nido Soup, Sinigang sa Miso, Kare-Kare, Lumpiang Ubod, and a selection of grilled meats and seafood. Cookie Goddess and I decide on two rice meals and share one other dish.

Naturally, I order my childhood favorite- two sticks of Pork Barbecue with Java Rice. Their classic barbecue sauce is served on the side, which I evenly poured on top of the pork. The cubes of pork seem smaller to me, although it could be that I’m just bigger now. But the same juicy, smoky flavor remains, the sauce heightening the experience with its moderate sweetness and pleasant tang. I pour a little more sauce on the flavorful rice, inducing eye-rolls and loud grunts from both Cookie Goddess and myself.

I got a few slices from Cookie Goddess’ order- Pork Belly (or liempo) with Java Rice. This was not bad, although we both admit that we have had better. The meat seems to have stayed in a strong vinegar-based marinade for too long, leaving the pork belly with an overpowering sour flavor. We still finished it, though.

We also shared a single order of the famous Pancit Bihon – thin rice noodles wok-fried with vegetables, pork and topped with crushed chicharon. The dish was still piping-hot when it arrived at the table, and at first bite, you know why it has been so popular all these years. The noodles pleasantly tasted of garlic, the vegetable still crisp despite the quick toss in the wok. The chicharon naturally takes everything over the top, adding a flavor dimension only deep-fried pork rinds can give.

As the mid-afternoon sun breaks through the windows of the restaurant, Cookie Goddess and I sit back for a minute and happily pat our content stomachs. This was one of the simpler meals that we recently had, and yet probably one of the most pleasurable. A good meal really has no specific price tag, and comes in the most surprising circumstances. That’s why I think it’s good to revisit old favorites, to rekindle old romances with dishes you have almost forgotten. Luckily, I decided to give this old flame another try, and- unlike nasty exes- Three Sisters’ pork barbecue did not disappoint.

Three Sisters’ Restaurant
United St.
Brgy. Capitolyo, Pasig City
Tel. no. (632) 6314431

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Not Just Shawarma

One balmy Wednesday, Matt and I- along with our favorite foodie couple Sanju and Cutie- braved the Baclaran Day traffic and headed to Manila for what should be some really delicious Persian food. With Middle Eastern cuisine quickly being integrated into the Filipino diet (I do not know anyone who has not tried shawarma), I am actually curious to find what could be considered as authentic Keema (ground beef sautéed in spices) and Kebabs. Shawarma Snack Center (SSC) in Ermita comes highly recommended by the abovementioned couple, and so far, Matt and I pointed out that they have yet to disappoint us.

Seeing the imposing two-level restaurant, I quickly assume that this is not just a shawarma joint. At the door, you are greeted by two Egyptian statues that look like they belong in the Guggenheim Hermitage Museum and not in the middle of the former red light district. Once inside, though, the décor is purely utilitarian, save for a few Arabian lamps hanging from the ceiling. There is a display counter with various pickled vegetables and some ready-made dips and salads. What really struck me, though, was the crowd: almost all of the diners were Middle-eastern baby boomers, either sipping tea or sharing a shesha pipe or both. This, if anything, is a strong sign of the restaurant’s authenticity.

We let our friends order for us since, judging from their repartee with the manager, they appeared to be long-time patrons of the restaurant. Matt and I had a few favorites that we told them about and they happily obliged us.

To start things off, we had some Beef and Hummus (sautéed ground beef on top of a chickpea and tahini dip) and Motabal (grilled eggplant and yougurt dip) with flat bread. The beef and hummus was just alright, although I appreciated the fact that they included whole chickpeas to the mix. I love Motabal, even the commercialized variety, so SSC’s version was a winner for me. Matt, who is not a big fan of eggplant, thought so, too.

The mains for sharing came in rapid succession, and our table was almost too small for the amount of food that was coming our way. My all-time favorite Keema did not fail to impress. The flavors emanating from the ground beef was just right- fragrant, oily (in a good way) and with just the right amount of heat. With a little bit of garlic sauce, it was simply off-the-charts. If you love Keema as much as I do, this might be the benchmark for all the other local Persian restaurants.

I admit the Keema can still be subject of debate, but SSC’s Ox Brain is undeniably the best I have ever tried. As we were ordering, the manager said that it was out-of-stock, but seeing our sad, pathetic faces after that, she got some from the original- but much smaller- SSC right across. This is truly the stuff of legend- the brain was generously flavored with garlic and completely devoid of the funkiness you sometimes get from ox brain. The texture was that of a very creamy scrambled egg, its taste similar to that of penoy (the more edible part of the infamous balut). I know that the comparison could not possibly help its case, but you have to try it for yourself. Just dab a bit of it on any protein and the instant effect is that of foie gras- adding instant richness and umami.

We also ordered Beef Kebab, which was a favorite of ours. Unfortunately, it was quite dry and the flavor was oddly overpowering.

Any good Middle-Eastern meal would not be complete without lamb, so we ordered the Sizzling Lamb which was recommended by the manager. It was quite good and Matt liked it a lot because it was extremely tender and seasoned to perfection. I was still fixated on the Keema at this point, so I barely touched it. Matt did not mind, I’m sure.

Another surprise hit was the Chili Liver- sliced beef liver sautéed with green chili. Again, the flavors were so clean that it tasted more like a steak than innards. This dish was perfect with the tasty and fluffy Biryani rice.

To accompany our carnivorous spread, Cutie ordered a refreshing cucumber salad- it was the perfect side dish to balance the fattiness of the meat and the heat of the spices. Simple yet very effective.

Stuffed from our heavy, protein-rich dinner, we needed a little help with digestion. Sanju had some strong Turkish Coffee, while Matt, Cutie and I shared a pot of the equally-strong Rabea tea. To top it all off, we also shared two shesa pipes- one apple flavored, the other lemon. It was a truly delightful experience, smoking that pipe and sipping tea, surrounded by Middle-Easterns as we all watched a World Cup match on the flat-screen. I almost felt like I was in a Turkish café, just absorbing the local color. It felt different, yet comfortable.

We capped-off the evening with a few drinks at Café Havana in Adriatico St., since SSC did not serve liquor, like most Persian restaurants in the country. After some mojitos, beers and a round of shots, we were ready to call it a night, pretty sure that by then, it was safe to sleep after that huge and delicious dinner. No nightmares that night, only sweet dreams about Bradley Cooper and ox brain.

Shawarma Snack Center
R. Salas cor. A. Mabini Streets
Ermita, Manila
Tel. no. (632) 5254541

Thursday, June 3, 2010

When Kate Baked

I needed a short pause before writing this entry, not because of the complexity of the topic at hand, but because I needed some time to regain my composure.

After having an excellent meal or a superb bottle of wine, maybe even a phenomenal evening all in all, I give myself some time to step back from my euphoria and look at the meal (or wine, or evening) from a more objective point-of-view. Nothing is more annoying than a gushy writer- an obvious fan (or friend) whose sole objective is to build up the chef or the restaurant and gives nothing by flawless and sparkly information, in turn misleading the reader and giving a false impression.

What makes this entry difficult to write is because I am indeed both fan and friend. Kate Baked Cookies is the handiwork of one of my best friends and fellow food fiend Kate Santos, a.k.a Cookie Goddess. Her home-baked cookies have been famous in our circle (and several others) for a few years now, their popularity continuing to grow, thanks mostly to the (very) satisfied customers who never fail to sing the big, chewy cookies praises.

Having lost my “sweet tooth” after my mom discouraged my chocolate addiction at a young age, very seldom do I have cravings for desserts. Once in a while, I would spot a box of truffles or a slice of cheesecake and, yes, I might get tempted and give in. But, I must admit, Kate Baked Cookies are one of those things that could be devastatingly addicting. Just ask the sexy restauranteur who polishes off a dozen in one sitting, or the French instructor who orders several boxes at a time for him and his wife.

I myself cannot point a finger at what makes these cookies so good. It must be the total sensory experience- from the pretty sky blue box, to the chocolate or butterscotch mounds atop huge discs the size of saucers, to the comforting scent that only freshly-baked cookies can conjure. The texture as you bite into it is undeniably chewy, you can feel its baked goodness almost melting in your mouth. The molten chips of chocolate (in this case, either dark, white or milk chocolate Toblerone) add a sweet creaminess to an already decadent dessert. Am I gushing? Darn it!

Go ahead and try them yourself, they are simply scrumptious. And I’m not just saying that because Kate is my friend.

Photography by Pearl Perlada for Big Bang Studios

Kate Baked Cookies