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
I was enjoying beef noodle soup one warm afternoon at the Kowloon House along Matalino Street behind Quezon City Hall when the waitress brought me bad news.
“This is the last you can ever have for the day,” she said, giving me a look that reduced my balls into a pair of sun-dried raisins.
With a flick of the wrist, she flung a small bowl on my table.
It glided on the formica tabletop — a UFO breaching an interplanetary speed limit — and was about to crash on the floor. Good thing my old yet dependable Nokia 5110 blocked its path.
I took hold of the bowl and discovered that it contained a serving of chili so small you needed an electron microscope to see it.
And before I could complain, the waitress turned around and raced to the cashier where she exchanged the latest about difficult customers.
As I scraped whatever bits of chili I could find into my beef mami, I could tell that she kept glancing in my direction. And it wasn’t because I looked like Piolo Pascual.
It was the chili.
Or more accurately, my third serving of chili.
Made of garlic, small dried chili peppers, and a sprinkling of sugar, the chili was the restaurant’s best-kept secret.
It also happened to be the very reason why I was there at the al fresco dining area along the restaurant’s front.
Believe it or not, I was eating on the job, confirming whether what my client told me to investigate was true.
Mr. B. wanted me to find out whether the restaurant was deliberately withholding its chili from its patrons.
So far, I had no reason to believe otherwise.
I just experienced it first hand.
I now had to figure out why.
So I summoned the same waitress and asked for another serving of chili — my fourth.
“I always liked your chili,” I said out loud. “But this time, I’d really like them in a bigger container. Like a vat or something.”
An old geezer at the next table who was filling his glass with beer glared at me, shaking his head side to side. He looked like those foot-long, decorative canines glued on taxicab dashboards.
“How about I buy you a tube of Preparation H?” he hollered. I wasn’t amused.
After all, the poor drunkard wasn’t exactly volunteering to settle my bill.
In the meantime, my requests for extra chili servings were rejected.
“Only half a kilo of chili is made everyday,” she said. “That’s why we limit the servings to customers.”
“Why?” I asked. “Is there a chili shortage? Is someone monopolizing the chili supply in this country?”
She shrugged, leaving me with the bill.
As I saw her saunter back to the counter, I knew that this was the start of another difficult case, especially since I had to keep track of receipts.
I spent the next morning and the early afternoon moping around the office, thinking about the case and this month’s rent, which was due in the next few days.
And then the unexpected happened.
Mr. A., my landlord, suddenly paid an unannounced visit. He was in a foul mood — he threatened legal action and eviction proceedings if I failed to pay rent on time.
But he simmered down when he learned that my latest client was willing to pay me a fortune if I could clear things up regarding Kowloon’s Chili crisis.
“Just stop eating Chinese food and start paying me,” he told me.
“I’ll do that,” I replied. “But you really got to try Kowloon’s chili. It’s heaven.”
Suddenly, something in him changed.
From a strict, hot-headed landlord, he became — all of a sudden — my BFF.
I wasn’t sure whether it was the result of my charm, my gift for gab, or his actual hunger.
He invited me to lunch at Kowloon.
But this time, we ate inside the restaurant itself, not outside, as I usually did.
After he ordered chop suey, sweet and sour pork, and a large plate of fried rice, I asked the waitress for some chili.
It came in a mid-sized steel container that was filled to the brim.
Immediately, I knew that I cracked the case wide open.
I excused myself, called up my client, and explained everything.
“Customers who stayed inside the restaurant paid higher prices and were likely to be served unlimited chili,” I told him. “So next time you want more free chili, eat inside the restaurant.”
“Never thought it was that simple,” my client replied. “I’ll drop off your check next week.”
I pressed the end call button and walked back in to sit with my landlord.
“Who was that?” my landlord asked, as he munched on a piece of marinated pork.
“Nobody,” I said. “Just another satisfied customer.”
“Well, good for you. Because I think it’s about time I raised the rent.”
I put some more chili into my bowl and dug into beef mami.
As I enjoyed the soft chunks of meat and noodles and the mild spice of the chili, I began to entertain a strange thought: Never has a condiment brought so much trouble, even for a private detective such as myself.
But then again, for a delicious meal such as this one, it was well worth it.
(This is a highly fictionalized account of my recent visits to Kowloon House along Matalino Street in Quezon City, Philippines. These visits led me to discover that generous servings of chili are available to customers who dine inside the restaurant where prices are higher. Meanwhile, those who choose to eat outside — along the restaurant’s front area — where food is cheaper and dishes are smaller are only allowed limited servings of its chili [made from garlic, sugar, and bird’s eye chili, also known as siling labuyo]. Beef mami outside is P85 while inside its more than P100.
So what’s the deal with Kowloon’s chili? I think it’s the best chili I have ever tasted. Disclaimer: I paid for all my meals and didn’t receive any preferential treatment from Kowloon.)
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.