Chefs' top 10 Filipino restaurants in Metro Manila

Chefs Sau del Rosario and Jerry Cruz open up their address books to reveal their favourite places for a great Filipino meal

By Monica De Leon Photos by Daniel Soriano

Abe

Abe Serendra branch

Chosen by Chef Sau Best for Pampanga cuisine. Abe is one of the restaurants under the LJC Group, a restaurant chain founded by the late Larry J. Cruz, the man behind Café Adriatico, a popular hangout for celebrities. Abe was named after Cruz's father, the late artist-writer E.

Aguilar “Abe” Cruz.

Baby squid sauteed in garlic and gising-gising, a dish made of chopped kangkong stalks, chili and coconut milk
Morcon
Favorites.
Chef Sau loves buro, a Kapampangan delicacy of fermented rice best paired with mustard leaves, and binukadkad na tilapia, a freshwater fish fried to perfection and an Abe specialty; gising-gising, a spicy dish of sliced kangkong stalks and coconut milk; baby squid sautéed in garlic; and the to-die-for morcon, a dish made of hashed pork, carrots and spices, topped with tomato-based sauce and spring onions.

Setting. Modern Filipino, made personal by Abe Cruz’s memorabilia and family photographs. The entrance is adorned by a sketch of Abe, while its facing wall shows off his framed artist’s tools. There are several old blown-up photos along the ceiling, including a painting of Mt. Malarayat in Pampanga, the Cruz’s hometown. The main dining space sits 60. An extension at the back of the restaurant has space for another 50 people.

A meal for two with drinks is about P1,000 (about US$23) to P1,400. Serendra, Bonifacio Global City, Taguig, +632 856 0526 www.ljcrestaurants.com.ph/abe

Aracama Filipino Cuisine

Aracama fishballs

Bunuelos, a dessert
Chosen by Chef Sau  
Aracama Filipino Cuisine is a place to go for delicious Negrense dishes, originating from the Philippines' Negros island, as well as traditional Filipino favorites presented with a modern twist, and cocktails concocted using local liquor.
Favorites. Named after chef Fernando “Ferns” Aracama, the restaurant, according to chef Sau, is a great place for pork sinugba or grilled pork of Aracama, his personal favorite.  Chef Ferns recommends the kadyos or pigeon pea cooked with pork, young jackfruit and herbs; chicken inasasl or barbecued deboned chicken marinated in tuba vinegar; fishballs, a Filipino street food, which Aracama makes using better quality fish with less extenders and served with three dipping sauces; and the salpicao de casa, melt-in-your-mouth beef riblets, cooked for 24 hours, great as appetizer or with garlic rice. For dessert, try the Chocnut ice cream and the bunuelos served warm with homemade caramelized milk for dipping. For cocktails, there’s the MDA or Mojito de Aracama, a concoction of sugar cane juice, coconut juice, muscovado syrup, coconut meat, lime and mint leaves; GinPom using premium gin and fresh pomelo juice; and the mean drink Dirty Pierre made of gin and vodka and hot spices, a refreshing drink.

Setting. Modern with subtle Filipino touches, mixing glass, lines and subdued pin lights, and accents like woven rattan on cushioned chairs and couches. The big dining tables evoke the feel of traditional komedores (dining rooms) where Filipino families dine. Lots of use of natural wood, including teak wood planks for the floor. Come sun down, the place transforms into a stylish party venue. An open air terrace overlooks the Bonifacio Global City skyline.

A meal for two with drinks is from P1,000. Bonifacio Global City, Taguig, +63917 874 7738, www.aracamamanila.com

Fely J 
Fely J's at Greenbelt, Ayala Center, Makati

Chosen by Chef Sau A Larry J Cruz (LJC) restaurant known for its Philippine cuisine, Fely J was named after the late family matriarch, Felicidad J. Cruz. On the menu are dishes from Fely’s treasured recipes gathered from her many travels.

Crispy pata bawang
Bistek Tagalog ng Kano and piniritong hito (fried catfish)
Bibingka with buko
Favorites.
The restaurant features Filipino and Asian dishes. Must try are the piniritong hito or deep fried catfish served with balo balo (fermented rice), a Kapampangan delicacy; Bistek Tagalog ng Kano, thinly sliced US Angus beef pan fried in olive oil, garlic, calamansi, onion rings and soy; Crispy Pata Bawang or the tastefully done deep fried pork leg served with generous sprinkle of chopped fried garlic and special dipping sauce; and vegetables and shrimps in coconut cream; and for dessert, cassava bibingka with buko, homemade tapioca with young coconut. For drinks, there’s red or white wine by the glass, and a wide selection of tea.

Setting. Romantic and homey. Prominent features of the restaurant are the wall that’s a replica of the one found at the Cruz Family’s old home in Quezon City; the artworks of Abe, mostly of women; old photographs of Fely alone and with family and friends in carved wooden frames; and a photograph of the beautiful Fely at the entrance. There are two main dining halls and two function rooms that make up the dramatically-lit, sparsely-furnished interiors of Fely J’s Kitchen.

This is an it place so it’s popular with local celebrities and politicians.

A meal for two with drinks is about P1,100 to P1,400. Greenbelt 5, Makati City, +632 728 8878, www.ljcrestaurants.com.ph/fely-j

Milky Way Cafe 
MilkyWay Cafe on Arnaiz Avenue, Makati

Chosen by Chef Sau Milky Way Café is a local favorite for everyday Filipino comfort food, and venue for family gatherings and reunions. For decades, Milky Way Café has been delivering consistent quality and taste. Chef J Gamboa and his sister, third generation restaurateur Malu Gamboa, have taken over the running of the restaurant from their late mom Julie, and have been doing a great job.

Tilapia kulob or tilapia fish cooked on miso soup and vegetables
Lengua estofado
Guinumis
Favorites.
For the main course, Chef Sau recommends the lengua estofado or tenderloin ox tongue cooked in tomato sauce with chopped olives and spring onions; tilapia cooked in miso soup (tilapia kulob) with mustard salad; baby crispy pata or suckling pig cooked to perfection; and for dessert – or snack – the halo-halo.

Milky Way Café started life in the 70s as an ice cream parlor, and expanded its offerings to include Filipino dishes, and has not looked back.

Setting. No-frills casual café, furnished with simple white tables and wooden chairs, and a coffee and refreshment station. Function rooms can be booked for private events.

A meal for two with drinks is anywhere from P1,000 to P1,500. Arnaiz Avenue, Makati City, +632 843 4124

Via Mare

Dinuguan at puto or pork blood stew served with local rice cakes
Bibingka (foreground) and puto bumbong, two favorite Filipino snacks
Chosen by Chefs Sau & Jerry
Via Mare is one of the longest running restaurants in the Philippines, best remembered for its Philippine desserts like puto bumbong and bibingka.

Favorites. Chef Sau says Via Mare’s bibingka, a spongy rice cake cooked with red eggs and edam cheese, is best; and so is the guinumis, a coconut milk-based drink with jelly, tapioca and crunchy pinipig. Other favorites are the dinuguan with puto or blood stew served with rice cake, and puto bumbong, cylindrical-shaped purple rice cakes served piping hot with butter, muscovado sugar, and coconut shavings. Chef Sau also raves about the pancit luglog, a local noodle dish topped with thick tasty shrimp sauce.

Setting. While Via Mare has 13 branches in Metro Manila, one of the oldest branches at The Landmark shopping center in Makati, is a clear favorite. Dining here is casual, and you get mostly Filipino families and those working in nearby offices.

A meal for two with drinks is about P750. The Landmark, Makati City, +632 817 9720, www.viamare.com.ph

Krocodile Grille

Chosen by Chef Jerry Best for exotic Philippine cuisine, regional favorites and good grilled food.

Ginataang kuhol or snails cooked in coconut milk
Baked mussels
Favorites.
Chef Jerry recommends the crispy tenga or crisp fried pork ear, and ginataang kuhol, snails cooked in coconut milk. Other exotic finds are balut surprise – boiled duck embryo. The smaller the embryo, the finer the balut – which, at Krocodile Grille, is fried in batter and served with special sauce, and garlic frog legs, a seasonal item. Non-exotic items on the menu that are must try are fresh salted spicy hito; mussels baked with a generous amount of cheese; and tinumok, a Bicolano delicacy of ground pork and coconut meat flakes wrapped in gabi leaves and cooked in coconut milk.

Setting. You cannot help but think that the place tries to mimic a swampland. Blue lights stream from the two main walls, decorated with patterns that look like mangrove roots. Crocodile figures, from small mean-looking to large, funny-looking are all over the place. At the entrance, a planter features three of these reptiles’ figures, and before entering the main dining, there’s an indoor waterfall and life size crocs. For small groups, there’s an el fresco dining area, and a function room good enough for 40 people.

A meal for two with drinks is about P400 to P500. Greenbelt 3, Makati City, +632 757 4778

JT Manukan


JT Manukan, Sct. Esguerra branch in Quezon City
Chosen by Chef Jerry The star attraction here, aside from the delicious barbecued chicken, is restaurant owner Joel Torre, an award-winning Filipino actor and still the public’s heartthrob. To be fair, JT Manukan is, well not all about Joel, because the place is firm on our chef’s list of authentic places for Ilongo dishes, cuisine from the Philippine Visayan province of Iloilo.

Chicken inasal or chicken grilled the Ilongo way
Favorites.
Joel recommends such Ilongo dishes as kansi (kansi is a cross between nilaga or beef shank stew and sinigang or sour soup); the batchoy, an Ilongo noodle soup dish; grilled meat, including liver and gizzard, and grilled spareribs using a family recipe. For Chef Jerry, the top grub here is the chicken inasal or charcoal-grilled chicken, Ilongo-style, marinated in JT's secret sauce. It’s served with garlic rice topped with a generous amount of crispy-fried garlic, and three dipping sauces: chicken oil, soy and vinegar.

Setting. Joel says all JT Manukan branches, including those in the Visayas, have their own character. The Sgt. Esguerra branch in Quezon City, one of the company-owned branches, is adorned with three vibrant masks and a surreal painting of Joel and his loved ones. Outdoors, right next to where the grilling station is, are wooden tables and benches for al fresco diners. Joel says, the place attracts people from all walks of life.  “Sometimes we’ll have a CEO come in shorts and slippers dressed just like the customer at the next table, a taxi driver.”

A meal for two with drinks is about P350. Sgt. Esguerra corner Sct. Borromeo, Quezon City, +632 928 8085

R&J Bulalohan

Chosen by Chef Jerry Best for bulalo or bone marrow stew. Tucked away on Boni Avenue is the 20-year-old hole-in-the-wall R&J Bulalohan, famous for its bulalo, a traditional Filipino soup dish done by putting whole beef shanks to a boil together with lots of onions and spices, and then simmered for hours until the meat, marrow and tendons become tender, creating a flavorful beef-based broth.

Bulalo or beef shank stew
Favorites.
The bestseller is the bulalo, served three ways: Special, good for three, including the whole shank with meat, tendon, marrow and vegetables; Regular, good for two; and Bulalito, for one. Other bestsellers are kare-kare, peanut stew with ox tail, tripe and vegetables; seafood grills; and crispy pata or crisp-fried pork thigh, which teams well with the kare-kare.

Setting. R&J Bulalohan is a no-frill open-air set up with bamboo walls and beams, posts and white mono bloc tables and chairs. There’s a videoke corner so it can get loud and noisy but no one really cares. Seen here are casual diners and professionals, young and old, who come for bulalo and ice-cold beer. One wall has a collection of photographs of celebrities who have dined at the restaurant.

A meal for two with drinks is from P250. Boni Avenue, Mandaluyong City+632 533 4811

Chef Laudico Guevarra’s
Chef Laudico Guevarra's buffet area

Chosen by Archipelago A place for authentic Filipino, cooked using the finest produce, in a purist tradition, meaning no short-cuts in food preparation, no artificial ingredients. The place is run by celebrity Chef Roland Laudico, known for combining tradition and innovation in his cooking, and his wife Chef Jacqueline.

Angus beef tapa (left) and lechon pork belly (right)
Favorites.
Lechon or roast pork belly served with homemade liver sauce; Angus beef tapa, slices of dried then grilled beef; crisp-fried crablets; kare-kare or Angus beef cooked in peanut stew. Grilled meats are made even tastier by the restaurant’s dipping sauce, the pinakurat vinegar, locally spiced vinegar that originates from Lanao. And for dessert, bananacue tart or tart topped with banana cooked in vinegar, latik or caramelized coconut cream, halo-halo shots and suman (rice cake) balls. There’s no reheating done at Chef Laudico Guevarra’s. When the shafing dishes are half empty, the chefs start cooking a fresh batch.

The dining hall
Setting.
A typical 1920s affluent Filipino house, with traces of Spanish and Chinese influences, set dramatically in sprawling grounds. What were once the bedrooms were turned into six dining halls, adorned with paintings by local artist Vincent Padilla depicting classic Filipino lifestyle, and furnished with deep red couches and chairs and wooden tables against white walls and ceiling, and original hardwood floors. The house faces a huge garden, making you forget you are on the stretch of the rather commercial P. Guevarra Street in San Juan. Diners are usually families and balikbayans (Filipinos from abroad who come back home to the Philippines).

Lunch from Monday to Friday is at P446.88 per person; early dinner from Monday to Thursday is at P502.88; and dinner from Monday to Thursday is at P558.88. Lunch and dinner on weekends (except Friday lunch) is at P670.88, while weekend early dinner is at P614.88. Dining is by reservation only. 387 P. Guevarra St, San Juan, 1500 Metro Manila?, +632 705 1811

Mesa


Chosen by Archipelago Serves Filipino classics and favorites with a modern twist. Mesa has everything, from grilled seafood platter, a favorite, to patotim, duck cooked in soy-based sweet sauce. 

Favorites. Tinapa roll or smoked fish prepared eggroll-style for appetizer; crispy boneless hito (catfish) with raw mango salad; kare-kare, beef, vegetables and tripe cooked in peanut sauce served with bagoong (local shrimp paste); and baby squid in olive oil for main course. For vegetables, order the laing, a Bicolano dish of taro leaves cooked in coconut cream and spices. Mesa serves laing in two ways: one creamy, and one dry.  For dessert, try the pandan macapuno rumble, a sweet and creamy dessert prepared just like the typical fruit salad, but infused with the refreshing flavors of coconut and screwpine, an aromatic leaf. Order a fruit shake using fruits in season for drink.   

Setting. The Greenbelt branch has a classic modern Filipino look. Inside it’s adorned with wood-top tables and woven chairs and alcove seating with wood overlay fitted with hung lamps, and on its fringes, pin lights. Dark rustic tiles cover the floor. There’s an el fresco area that faces a pocket garden, which, at peak dining hours, tend to catch a lot of the main dining’s spillover – not necessarily the smokers alone – as the place can get really full.

Lunch or dinner for two is from P600 to P800. Dishes are for sharing. Greenbelt 5, Makati City, +632 728 0886

About our guest chefs


Chef Sau trained at the Culinary Institute of America. He worked in various kitchens abroad, including the Raffles Hotel in Singapore, Swisshotel's Equinox, Restaurant L’universe in Nice, France, Le Devellec in Paris, Luna in Shanghai, before coming back to the Philippines to open the successful M Cafe in Greenbelt 4 in Makati and Chelsea at The Fort. He owns bread commissary Food Garage, and is now culinary director of the Center for Culinary Arts, Manila.


Chef Jerry Montenegro Cruz has prepared meals for the likes of former US First Lady Hilary Clinton on her visit to Manila, and the Prince of Brunei. He has over 13 years of experience as chef of hotel restaurants here and abroad. He is the executive chef of Quest Hotel and Conference Center in Cebu. Prior to this, he was head chef of Diamond Hotel in Manila, executive chef of Misibis Bay in Albay, chef de cuisine at Sofitel Macau at Ponte 16, and was overall in charge of Sofitel Philippine Plaza Manila’s a la carte kitchen.

Originally published in InFlight Traveller October to November 2013. Updated October 2015

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