Phat in the Phillipines: Tagaytay

Tagaytay is a little resort town about 40 minutes outside of Manila. It’s perched on top of a mountain overlooking Lake Taal, inside of which sits the world’s smallest active volcano.

Yes.. yes.. the volcano is nice and all.. but the FOOD is nicer! The fatness starts on the drive up from Manila. You’ll find sweet white and yellow Japanese corn being sold along the road, Mr. Moo’s fresh cheese stand, Loumar’s ube tarts, and roadside fruit vendors peddling the freshest, sweetest pineapples you’ve ever tasted.

There’s so much to eat in Tagaytay, I’m not even sure where I should start. I guess with the city’s most famous dish – Bulalo. Apparently, Tagaytay’s cooler climate and mineral-rich grasses produce the best beef, resulting in an incredibly flavorful and savory bulalo soup made from stewed shank and marrow bones. The broth alone is amazing, but spooning out the buttery, melty marrow from the shank bone only makes the experience better. LMZ makes a fine rendition of this dish. Have it with the bangus (fried milkfish) and a heap of rice and you’ll be all set.

Another Tagaytay specialty is fried tawilis, a sort of freshwater fish related to the sardine. According to wikipedia, these little guys were once saltwater fish, but as volcanoes erupted and the landscape changed, they eventually became freshwater fish exclusive to this part of the Phillipines. Try them fried up and dipped in vinegar. Leslie’s, a chain restaurant with a great view of the volcano, does a great fried tawilis dish. Order anything off their grill to accompany it, you won’t be disappointed!

R. Lapids, Pork Specialist, specializes in.. well.. pork. Stop into their store along the main road for a heart-attack inducing dose of crispy fried chicharrones, or pork rinds. They have several different varieties that vary in size, flavor, and spiciness. For the adventurous eater, try the bulaklak, deep fried flower-shaped nuggets of pork organs (for the love of god, can someone tell me what part of the pig I am eating?) that are both crispy and soft/chewy. Incredible when dipped in the accompanying vinegar.

Crispy pata is one of the most memorable dishes I had in the Phillipines. Imagine an entire pork leg (knuckles included) simmered in a spiced broth, air-dried, and then the entire thing is deep fried! For me, eating the pata is all about ratio – got to have a bite that includes both the crunchy skin and the sticky flesh around the knuckle. Dipped in a vinegar soy sauce and served over white rice – crispy pata is heaven!

Mr. Moo’s is a roadside stand that offers fresh cow, goat, and waterbuffalo milks and cheeses. Snap up a block of the freshly made cow cheese and a bag of pandesal and you’ll have a wonderful breakfast. The cow cheese is a lot like Mexican queso blanco, mild and crumbly with a deliciously creamy flavor.

Enjoy!

Phat in the Phillipines: Cafe Juanita

Cafe Juanita is like the Spanish-Filipino version of NYC’s Serendipity. It’s decorated in a maximalist fashion, with all sorts of kitschy knick knacks and unique furniture and light fixtures providing a visual feast while you dine. You go for the eclectic interior decor as much as the fine food.

We started with a few bottles of San Miguel Light and a salad of shrimp and wingbeans dressed in coconut milk-based sauce. Wingbeans are a Southeast Asian specialty. Like snap peas, they have a mild flavor and excellent crunch, which went well with the tender shrimp and coconut milk in this dish.

We also tried an order of the crispy lapu lapu, or local grouper. Is it me, or do all Filipino restaurants turn out perfect fried dishes? This lapu lapu was still tender and moist, while the batter was superbly crisp. Paired with a sweet tamarind sauce, this dish was excellent.

Sinigang is a Filipino soup flavored with guava and tamarind, resulting in a complex sweet and sour flavor. The version we tried was made with corned beef – cooked until it was amazingly tender and fell apart when touched. Okra, chilis, tomatoes, onion, and corn rounded out the flavors.

Cafe Juanita
2 United St
Pasig City, Manila
+68 036 632-0357

Phat in the Phillipines: Boracay

Now if there is one thing I love more than good eats, it would be good eats on a beautiful beach. Boracay is a great place for just that. If you’ve never been, well, Boracay is one of the most beautiful beaches on earth – powder soft white sand beaches and warm, tranquil aqua blue waters that recede as the sun sets.. resulting in a million little pools along the beach that reflect the awesome Phillipine sunset. Throw in a mango shake stand at every resort along the beach and a great currency exchange rate – I’m there!

There’s something for everyone in Boracay; resorts that offer quiet R&R on the secluded end of the beach, resorts that entice backpackers with 6 shots for free if you drink them in 60 seconds, and resorts that attract the young and sexy crowd with their fancy cocktails and Moby songs blasting out of their speakers. But if there’s anything I’ve learned about beach vacationing – its that you should never book your hotel in advance, and always stay as far away from the airport as possible. As soon as I got to Boracay, I spent an hour walking along the beach and checking out different resorts. Even though it was high season, most places had vacancy and were happy to offer a “walk-in” discount.

Eventually I settled on MR Holiday – a true hidden gem situated next to the Discovery Sands megaresort at Boat Station One. The rooms were super clean, bright, spacious, and had bumpin A/C (so necessary). The staff was wonderfully attentive and really made me feel taken care of. They have beach beds and umbrellas up front along the best part of the beach, and you can order ice cold San Miguel Lights and mango shakes right to your lounger.

Breakfast is included in the price – be sure to have the longsilog! I did… everyday. Sweet Filipino sausage with rice, an egg, dipping vinegar, a slice of mango, and a fresh pineapple juice was the perfect meal to set my day off.

Boracay is the perfect place for sitting around and doing nothing all day. Need a hat? No worries, someone will come down the beach and sell one to you. If you need a hand-carved Jesus crucifix, they’ve got you covered on that, too. Although I would have loved to sit around on my bum all day, I actually decided to go to Boracay to fulfill my lifelong dream of learning to scuba dive! Boracay’s waters are great for scuba – lots of gorgeous reefs and corals to visit, and the best part – instead of spending two days training in a pool, you can walk right into the ocean! If you’re interested in diving in Boracay, I highly recommend Fish Eye Divers, located next to the Starbucks at D’Mall. My instructor, Peter, was awesome. His patient and calm demeanor made learning scuba basics a breeze. Another thing I appreciated was the new and clean equipment at Fish Eye.

Everyday after classroom activities and a dive, I’d still have a couple hours to catch the sun before it disappeared in a purple, gold, and pink blaze. Post-sunset, I’d wander the beach and eat my face off. A lot of the food in Boracay is rather meh.. you’ll encounter the typical tourist offerings ($10 USD pizza… no thanks), but if you dig a little you’ll also find some gems.

Merly’s Longaburger is a cart located just outside of Free Willy Divers near D’Mall. You’ll find her when the sun goes down. At first glance I was not so impressed – longanisa pressed between hamburger buns.. how good could it be? Well, lets just say it was FUCKING GOOD. Merly’s grills the longanisa until its nice and crispy on the outside, slices it up, slathers it with a mysteriously delicious and spicy red sauce, and sandwiches it all between two toasted hamburger buns. So simple, yet ridiculously good. A must try if you are in Boracay.

My friend had tipped me off to the Phillipines’ abundant amount of fresh and inexpensive uni. I wandered into D’Mall and sat down at any ol’ Japanese restaurant and ordered the uni sashimi. For $300 PHP (about $7USD) you’ll get a huge pile of ridiculously fresh, sweet, crisp uni. You can barely get a handroll for that much in NYC.

Here are a couple more tips if you’re planning a trip to Boracay:
– Try the calamansi lime cupcakes at Real Coffee near D’Mall. They are super dense and limey.
– For a really nice dinner, try the buffet at Discovery Sands Resort. It’s a bit pricey, $900PHP per person, but you’ll get to feast on ceviche appetizers, hot food bar, a grilled seafood and lechon station, and even a halo halo station. But if grilled seafood is your main priority, I’d skip this one as the chefs literally grill the clams one by one… kind of ridiculous if you’re trying to feed a hungry crowd. The service is lovely and the tables are right on the sand at the nicest part of the beach.
– For a cheap, crazy seafood buffet, head towards Boat Station Three and look for the $300 all you can eat buffets. The best ones have lots of smoke emitting from their grills and are crowded with huge Filipino families. Two clues that the food is good! I tried the one outside of Victory Divers and nearly ate my weight in grilled clams and oysters.
– The mango shake with milk at Jony’s Shakes at Boat Station One is delicious. A bit pricey – certainly you can find comparable for cheaper, but I really liked this one after a day of diving. They also have a great longsilog.

Enjoy!

Phat in the Phillipines: Epic Pig Roast at Casa Balbina

There were a lot of things I wanted to do in the Phillipines – see my friend; Anton, lie on a beach, get scuba certified… but most importantly.. I really wanted to see a whole pig being roasted. And then eat it. Ravenously. Luckily for me, my good friend and host, Anton, does this often with his family and was able to arrange a roast during my visit. And so we packed a weekend bag (of elastic waist pants and gut-shielding tops) and headed out to his family’s farm 40 minutes outside of Manila.

Anton failed to mention that his family’s farm, known as Casa Balbina, is paradise. The old farmhouse sits just off the main road, and features some of the most gorgeous light fixtures and original wooden floors I’ve ever seen. We had the pleasure of staying overnight in the farmhouse.

The whole pig roast process would begin early the next morning. Of course we couldn’t start the next day without a bit of breakfast.. sticky rice steamed in banana leaves, eaten with a touch of sugar and freshly baked pandesal. After breakfast, a small pig was slaughtered and prepped for the roast. Have you ever seen a pig being driven? Well, this is what it looks like:

These fellas took turns sitting around and carefully turning the pig on a 10ft long spit. A steering wheel ingeniously attached to the end made for convenient roasting. Every once in awhile, the pig was brushed with palm fronds to redistribute the juices over the skin – resulting in this:

Golden SKIN!

Phat in the Phillipines: Sweet Treats

Needed a quick escape from NYC… and a serious pork fix. So here I am, eating my way through the Phillipines! I’ve been seriously eating nonstop, alternating between pork, fried pork, fried fish, and double fried pork. But more on that later, I thought I’d kick off my Phillipines blog posts by having dessert first.

Definitely can’t mention Filipino desserts without the most popular – Halo halo, extra special because it was delivered in a young coconut (buko). Halo halo is all about the textures and layers of flavor – dried sweetened jackfruit, creamy adzuki beans, pandan jelly, chunks of silky flan, coconut cream and lots of other goodies all topped with a scoop of ube (taro) ice cream. If you like Singaporean bobo chacha or Vietnamese che, this is for you.

Buko pandan is a rich dessert featuring pandan (a leaf with a faintly coconut taste and bright green color) jelly, coconut cream, and strips of buko. Delicious, but the cream makes it so that you only need a few bites of this.

If there’s one dessert you need to try in the Phillipines, I’d say its this – bibingka, or rice flour and coconut milk cake cooked over coals in a banana leaf. It already sounds amazing, but top it with some buko shreds and salty duck egg – and it becomes infinitely more incredible. It’s both sweet and salty at the same time, while the rice flour in the cake gives it an almost custard-like texture.

Everywhere you go, you’ll see shops that sell buko pies and tarts. Little tartlets with strips of layered buko meat – a nice little treat. (see what i did there) We got ours at Loumar’s.

Glamour shot. Layers of fresh young coconut.. what more could you ask for?

And the best dessert of all – loads of fresh fruit. I’m staying in Tagaytay, a little resort town high up in the mountains outside of Manila where you can get fresh fruit off the side of the road. Pineapple fields everywhere – producing the sweetest pineapple you’ve ever tasted. Fresh mangos, fragrant calamansi lime, jackfruit, baby bananas… this.. is seriously paradise.

Enjoy!