Kowloon House Revisited

SO IN comes a text message prompting the phone to buzz and beep, buzz and beep, buzz and beep. The table trembles a little but it is ignored and so is the red light on the smartphone that keeps on flashing. It is a quarter of an hour before the deadline of a writing exercise and I choose to stick to the routine, a task easier said than done. Continue reading

A New Year’s Congee Angst at the Red Palace Seafood Restaurant

Interior of the Red Palace Seafood Restaurant along Malakas Street, Quezon City

(Disclaimer: No consideration, financial or otherwise, was solicited, offered, nor accepted for this blog entry. Plain English: I paid for the food that I ate.)

It was a slow day.
The waiters could sense that more than anyone else.
The streets were deserted, the surroundings were quiet, and virtually everything stood still.
It was no different indoors.
The restaurant was empty and no amount of cool, processed air and loud, tacky music could ever hope to fill up the tables. It was as if it was already the wee hours of the morning except that the sun was up and its rays brought a patina of sadness, of desolation to the dining area.
But then again, all this was expected.
After all, it was New Year’s Day.
And on that late afternoon, it was assumed that corporate bigwigs and cubicle warriors alike were still taking it easy, spending additional hours in bed, reading, watching television, or hanging out with their families and friends.
However, employees at the Red Palace Seafood Restaurant along Malakas St. in Quezon City’s central district had no such privilege.

The only setback of this delicious-looking congee? It didn't use ground rice.

On that day, the restaurant was open and workers were expected to fill in their regular hours.
Good thing that their duties were light, thanks to the inactivity, the general ennui, and the lack of traffic — vehicular or otherwise — during the first day of 2011.
At the same time, this was no excuse for lower food and/or service standards.
Fortunately, I had none of that when I paid a visit at the establishment on the same day.
Which is not to say I didn’t have any misgivings about their offerings.
I did, as I usually do with many other things which, in turn, are best discussed in another blog entry.
I took issue with the restaurant’s Pork and Century Egg Congee (P135).
For its price, the ingredients — raw egg and slices of pork and century egg  — were just about standard, no better or no worse than those served elsewhere.
Except that the congee itself didn’t use ground rice — the not-so-secret ingredient behind the dish — making it no different from nor better than those offered by more inexpensive establishments.
That’s all — end of congee angst.

Red Palace's asado siopao looked so yummy the idiot picture taker was prompted to take a bite first before attending to his duties.

Meanwhile, the two-piece asado siopao (P80) that I ordered was great.
It was larger — and arguably even tastier — than those served by its rivals, including Kowloon House, which has a branch around the corner along Matalino Street, and Jade Valley in the Timog Ave. area.
But next time I drop by for a visit, I’ll try other rice dishes, hoping that the cook has come around to realizing that ground rice makes for excellent congee.
Until then, I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

Happy Meal: The Alan Robles version


Tasty callos and brown rice serve as delicious payment for the witty put-down.

Alan Robles is a genius.

And I’m not saying that because he’s the only Filipino lecturer at the Berlin-based International Institute for Journalism. Nor am I saying that because he has a hilarious website (www.hotmanila.ph) and has also written articles for Time Magazine, the South China Morning Post, among other foreign publications. [See: International Journalism Institute, Alan Robles]

I am saying that because I am a big, fat liar.

That is of course a joke, something that the nutty professor can very well take.

After all, he has cracked more than a couple at my expense.

He has alleged on various occasions that I have tapeworm (not true) and that I have an IQ of a troglodyte (hey, we have rights too).

Herr Robles has made these allegations on his Twitter account which is followed by more than eight hundred people around the world, including – unfortunately – myself.

So what’s the upside to all this for me?

Simple.

By playing the court jester, the proverbial George Costanza to his Jerry Seinfeld, the Panchito to his Dolphy, I get to enjoy a unique set of fringe benefits. [See: Panchito, Dolphy]

Besides getting free tips on technology and writing, @hotmanila – that’s his Twitter handle – also shows his other, lesser-known side: that of being a really good cook and a generous host to people that he likes.

I’m still unsure whether I’ve made it to his A-list, which includes media professionals here and abroad and personalities too famous to mention.

But thanks to my natural ability to act like a buffoon, I’ve occasionally hit the big time by being invited to break bread at his place, usually to provide pre- and post-dinner amusements.

As expected, the responsibility involves being at the receiving end witty insults and funny put-downs.

But I don’t mind.

I get free food – and some morsels of knowledge – in exchange.

Take the early Thursday afternoon meal to which I was recently invited.

It started with a glass of Lambrusco, a kind of wine made from Italian grape – except that this was from Australia, my host explained.

He then brought out a bowl of brown rice and a container of callos, the first batch of which “doesn’t satisfy his integrity.”

“You have to understand that this is not a healthy meal,” he said. “This is a happy meal.”

The intestines that he got were all cleaned up, taking out the fat and gristle that could have been used to add flavor while the dish was being prepared.

The main course was prepared using a Le Creuset-branded pot which he bought in Paris. The pot allowed simmering for as long as eight hours on end, he added.

However, he was unable to make full use of it when he prepared “the first batch” of callos, which he only makes during Christmas.

Instead of being cooked for eight hours in the pot for five days, this batch only simmered for two days, he said.

And that, to him, makes for a sub-par batch of the dish.

I looked at him and nodded, pretending that I was more interested in his pre-dinner remarks than, for instance, dinner.

As soon as the lecture was over, I swooped down on the dish, like a vulture on its prey.

Slowly, the natural flavors of ingredients began to emerge – the smoky texture of Spanish sausage, the rich tripe, and the garbanzos, which were cooked separately from the rest of the dish.

In short, the callos was delicious, one of the best I have ever tasted.

And I’m not saying that because the food was free nor because I consider Herr Robles as my friend.

I’m saying that because I am a big, fat liar.

_______

From the Complaints Dept. Sought an email clarification regarding the first draft of this piece from You Know Who. Below is what he had to say:

Nothing to complain about

1. aside from the fact that the correct name is International Institute FOR journalism

2. and that “troglodyte” takes an article

3. and that Lambrusco is an italian grape, but in this case the wine was made in Australia

4. and that I said I wasn’t happy with the callos’ integrity, not mine (I have none)

5. and that the pot’s brand is Le Creuset, which is more famous than the word “doufeu”

6. and that I bought the pot in Paris market district, Les Halles, in an old and famous shop called E. Dehillerin

7. and that I didn’t authorize you to say you’re a big fat liar twice, but who am I to object
other than that nothing to quibble about

Dinner at breakfast

Thanks for steak pic, Wikipedia

(This was published in the Manila Times’ Opinion Section on June 24, 2005.)

Getting up early on Saturday mornings is an aberration, like drinking nonalcoholic beer, buying original computer software, and wearing underwear at home.

For most people, Saturday mornings are best spent in bed, trying to catch some shut-eye lost during workweek, the five-day period in which many employees sit by their desks, check their e-mails and exchange gossip without actually getting anything done.

This, in turn, explains why corporations have hired additional employees called human resource personnel whose jobs include making sure that people are actually awake while at the office.

Fortunately, amateur opinion writers (also known as space fillers) such as myself have no need for such supervision.

After all, sleeping in the office is part of the job description, a fact that many colleagues have never failed to appreciate.

Unfortunately, last Saturday morning, as I was, uh, working, my wife reminded me that there was a social occasion we needed to attend to. Just the day before, both of us received an offer we couldn’t so easily refuse: we were invited to breakfast at a mid-end Quezon City restaurant by a couple we have lived and traveled with, here and abroad.

The breakfast invite, they said, was a gift to my wife, who recently celebrated her birthday.

That morning, despite my inclinations to extend bedtime until lunch, I gave in. After all, neither of us would pay for anything, including gas, parking fees, and tips.

According to the arrangement, our gracious and generous friends would pick us up, treat us to anything we wanted to have for breakfast, and drop us off at our apartment afterward, without any financial obligation whatsoever.

Yes, Virginia, the spirit of Santa Claus is still alive.

When we finally arrived at the restaurant, I immediately asked for a brewed cup of coffee, because I was still sleepy, having failed to take a quick shower, which would have eliminated lethargy as well as various other disagreeable odors.

Shortly after we engaged in banter about the weather, both political and meteorological, a waitress took our orders. It was at that point when I realized that breakfast was slowly turning into dinner.

Our male host insisted that I go for the restaurant’s specialty, steak and eggs.

It was a platter so rich, filling, and sinful that having the same breakfast for one whole week would probably result in a cardiac arrest not long after.

Unwilling to break social protocol, I got myself a rib-eye steak, which included fried eggs, mashed potatoes with gravy, and pancakes with blueberry toppings.

After all, what was a triple bypass operation between friends?

The last time I ate like this, like a pig feeding off a trough, I was wolfing down a huge slice of pot roast in a mid-end Manhattan restaurant during New Year’s Eve four years ago.

As expected, my future wife took care of the bill as well as the rest of my expenses when I visited her in the United States.

As a sign of my gratitude, I lost her in the subway during that same night. But that’s another story.

Spice up your life

In my small world — a world of basic needs (running water, decent cellphone signals, and free copies of Pinoy Parazzi) — chili is big.
You got that right: Chili.
Chili makes a mediocre meal good, a good meal perfect.
Whether liquid or solid, chili is the best agreeable companion for every meal, next to a hottie and a cold alcoholic drink.
But then again, that’s just my opinion.
Which explains why I always keep a jar of chili handy — it’s always useful for correcting kitchen emergencies, which fortunately happen rarely owing to the utter lack of trying. However, that’s another story altogether.
Anyway, whenever I go out, I never pass the chance to try the house chili.
And thanks to my limited culinary adventures, I have discovered that the best chili in Metro Manila, perhaps even in the Philippines, isn’t for sale.
It’s for free — you just have to visit Kowloon House along Matalino Street in Quezon City to enjoy it.
To do so, you first have to pick something off the establishment’s menu, which is posted right up above the kitchen that also serves as the counter for orders.
And there, my friend, lies the rub.
Ordering food at that Kowloon branch is more difficult than getting the attention of a government worker five minutes before his/her coffee break.
Just this Saturday, I dropped by, relishing past, pleasant thoughts of Kowloon’s beef mami, consisting of tasty meat chunks so large and rich that if you eat them everyday for the next two years, you’d either suffer from a heart attack or choke to death.
My reverie about beef mami was interrupted when I was ignored a couple of times by the servers.
Had I been younger, I would have raised holy hell, demanding that I be waited on hand and foot, just like any regular asshole.
But times were now different.
Besides being older — and supposedly less assholish — I was wearing a tattered T-shirt that had more holes than the ozone layer.
In short, I looked like an old, loserish fogey in the making that deserved to be ignored.
Only until I sat down and grew a foot-long beard did a waitress take notice.
When my order arrived — a bowl of beef mami and a can of Coke — I asked for some chili.
Just like my supper, my request for chili was faciliated at a pace slightly faster than the speed of a three-legged turtle.
The chili was consumed the minute it arrived because the serving was no bigger than my thumbnail.
Partnered with a chunk of beef, it was delicious.
But taken individually, the chili was a meal in itself, giving off a melange of flavors — strong hints of garlic, pepper, and a sweet fruit which I can’t quite place (pineapple?).
After I consumed it in one go, I asked for some more.
However, the establishment refused to be generous, giving me the second serving in just about the same quantity.
I finished my meal and nearly licked the chili off the sauce plate it was served in.
And as I settled the bill, I discovered that I learned another lesson — or at least I think I did — from this whole experience of chili cutbacks: The best things in life may be free but sometimes you just can’t get enough of them.
———————
From the Digital Imaging Dept. Cropped photo shows Sophie Monk in an advertisement for PETA. Thanks, Zimbio.com.

Kissing the cook is optional

Kiss The Cook Cafe seems too upscale for its location.

Or so it appears to customers who may find parking difficult, tricycles irritating, and the neighborhood itself unsettling.

After all, KTCC is situated along Maginhawa Street in UP Village, an area not exactly bursting at the seams with coño kids, socialites, and moneyed executives. (But then again, it could be argued that the neighborhood is getting trendier by the minute. About a dozen or so decent-looking, medium-rise structures are currently being constructed in what still primarily is a residential area, no thanks to record-low interest rates and Quezon City Hall’s spot zoning policies.)

In any case, of all UP Village’s establishments — from cafe cum bars to hole-in-the-wall, mom and pop operations — KTCC stands out.

Sliding glass doors, coupled with al fresco seating in front, lends some degree of charm and sophistication to the place, bringing it a notch or two above restaurants located just less than a kilometer away down the same street.

That’s not all.

KTCC’s overall decor and its dining implements indicate good taste; none of the bright and gaudy distractions plastered on fastfood outlets found on every city corner.

Of course, the ambiance is provided at a premium, which is fortunately within justifiable levels.

Besides offering impressive service — uniformed waiters are always on alert to fill customers’ goblets with water — KTCC’s food is, simply put, good.

Take one of its starters, a set of eight bite-sized spinach feta dumplings, which goes for P145.

Considered too salty by one foodie blogger, the dumplings — which consist of approximately five parts spinach and only one part feta cheese — prepares patrons for better things to come.

At first glance, the entrees appear no larger than the size of fastfood value meal servings.

But looks can be deceiving.

KTCC uses plates as big as steering wheels of regular, run-of-the-mill Isuzu Elf delivery trucks.

With more than enough breathing space between say, the brown rice and the salad, diners are given the first — but nevertheless false — impression that KTCC skimped on their servings.

That notion would be dispelled soon enough.

One of its basic entrees — the five spice pork spare ribs (P185) — manages to exceed expectations, both in size and taste.

Once dipped, bathed, or soaked in vinegar, the crispy brown tender meat morsels are filling. However, they may be too hot for those with less adventurous palates.

If that’s the case, then you can’t go wrong with the Asian braised pork belly (P285), served with a slightly sweet thick, brown sauce.

Since it is packed with flavor, every slice must be accompanied by a spoonful of rice, if only to distinguish and savor the essence of the sauce.

Gourmands, gourmets, and gluttons will hardly bother leaving any leftovers but those easily cloyed by rich sauces may find it a challenge to finish off an order.

In the meantime, those with temporarily overloaded palates can try a sip or two of KTCC’s fruit coolers. Priced at P80 a bottle, the coolers allow for temporary respites between bites, whether its lemongrass, calamansi, lemon iced tea, or passion fruit.

To provide a fitting end to a hearty dining experience, patrons are well-advised to partake of KTCC’s yogurt ice creams, perhaps among the tastiest in the city.

The dessert has one drawback though.

Of its five flavors — strawberry, chocolate, mango, vanilla, and pistachio — only three can be accommodated in a single order.

This is reason enough to get seconds or perhaps merit another visit.

Visitors may get to meet the cooks next time. However, kissing them for an excellent meal is entirely optional.

——-

Photo courtesy of Didang Alvarez. Thanks, Ma’am.

Free lunch

Next best thing to free beer is a free lunch. Unfortunately, both don’t exist.
That’s according to free market economists who continue to insist — with some fair amount of logic — that air, water, and perhaps even love has a price.
But these theoretical concepts only apply to the real world, which — fortunately or unfortunately — exclude certain facets of my life, depending on circumstances.
Take this Saturday.
Contrary to the laws of nature and social convention, I was invited to lunch.
Yes, an invitation. For lunch. From actual people (as opposed to entities passing themselves off as pretty women who follow me on Twitter).
I accepted it without thinking — something I am famous for doing — for reasons mentioned below.
Not only was lunch free, it would be held at a place that was just a tricycle ride away from where I lived.
I had absolutely nothing else planned for the weekend, save for staring at the ceiling, one of my favorite office pastimes.
On top of all that, the invite came from Alan and Raissa Robles.
Besides being two of the Philippines’ sharpest journalists, the couple has been known to serve the most delicious lunches this side of Metro Manila.
Or at least that’s what comments on their guest book indicate.
Some of their previous guests — journalists Vergel Santos and Paulynn Sicam and television host Pia Guanio — all attest that the meals prepared, cooked, and served by none other than Alan himself were fantastic.
Now, when did I ever become part of such esteemed company? How did I ever finagle an invite to the famous Robles luncheon? And, most importantly, why did my name even come up?
I don’t know and I don’t even intend to find out.
Ever the gracious guest, I told my hosts to cancel the limousine service and expect me at the appointed time.
And as soon as I sat myself at the table, I knew that lunch would exceed my expectations.
I was correct.
The midday meal began with a bottle of champagne, slices of salami and cheese, and pieces of french bread.
It was followed by breakfast sandwiches — meat and melted cheese in between toasted pieces of bread — from a recipe of Harry’s Bar in Venice, Italy.
These items alone were worth more than the price of my tricycle fare, I can tell you that.
Next came three other courses, this time, predominantly Asian.
Hainanese chicken, shrimp sambal, and fried squid were served, accompanied by all manner of sauces, enhancing various flavors heretofore unknown to people such as myself whose taste buds were blunted by canned goods and fastfood.
Our chef, Alan, talked as he cooked, dispensing professional advice, witty one-liners, and difficult pop quizzes in one go (i.e., Question: What drink was invented in Harry’s Bar? Answer: Bellini’s.)
In the meantime, Raissa paid attention to everyone’s needs, bringing plates and various other dining implements.
She even sliced parts of chicken for me while telling me that she once managed a cafe called 222 Baker Street along M. H. del Pilar in Manila.
If food was exceptional, the quality of the conversation was not far behind.
Joining me on the table included three other guests — a co-worker, an award-winning female journalist who now runs her own real-estate company, and her companion.
We talked about particular demands of our craft and the pressures we were all willing to live with, if only to get the job done.
The lively discussion was accompanied by fruit salad topped with strawberry ice cream, a fitting end to one of the best meals I have ever had in recent memory.
Thanks again, Alan and Raissa Robles.
And yes, I’ll remember to bring a bottle of wine next time. That is, if I ever get invited again.