Episode 24: Return to Banchetto! Man versus Burger!

When I last visited Banchetto, I missed the chance to get one of those half-pound burgers, those big, beefy monstrosities served on a giant bun with tomatoes, lettuce, and whatnots.

For so long, those big-pattied burgers were so elusive, so hard to come by, no thanks to the long lines for those wanting a (figurative) piece of it. I remember those vein-blocking beasts staring at me from the grill, their smoky eyes leering at me, teasing my nose and taste buds, taunting me as if I will never be able to press my lips and sink my teeth on their tempting carcasses. (Just so you know, what I had last time was just a 1/3 pound burger.)

One Friday night, I decided I’m going back to Banchetto, find more treats to try out, eat more, and finish my previous commitment here: hunt that damned half-pounder.

For this episode, I joined the tandem of Tsongkibenj and Deah Ricacho (from Aksyon TV Ch. 41’s “Andar ng mga Balita”, and Radyo Singko 92.3 News FM’s Nite Chat and Kasindak-sindak). After their radio program that night, we drove off to Emerald Avenue, and to the target destination.

Banchetto is still that same eye-catching, mouth-watering feast that continues to draw customers from all over Metro Manila. The usual stalls are there: the dessert shops, the barbecue grills, the ones selling rice meals and specialty dishes. The scent of grilled meat and cooked breads still wafts all over the place. As always, Banchetto was crowded with patrons from Ortigas and God knows where else. Wading through the sea of people is still a chore, but a fulfilling one nonetheless.

We eventually settled down at a nearby barbecue chain so Before taking on that half-pound burger, the group had a few stops to make.

First up was a panna cotta, a big cube of semi-sweet, syrupy, gelatinous goodness. Dessert first? Works for me.

My favorite takoyaki stall was there as always. I remember having one of these in my first visit, and this time, I bought not one but all three varieties of these: wasabi, garlic, and peppered mayo. Tsongkibenj said it’s good and all as long as you don’t eat them at rapid succession. Still, I ended up finishing about two boxes of takoyaki. Yum, yum.

There was a stall that sold grilled salmon and buttered vegetables, one that I didn’t notice in my first visit. Tsongkibenj suggested that we get some. The salmon was well-grilled; the salmon skin was a bit salty, but the savory taste of the flesh and vegetables balanced the flavor of the whole package. The two also bought California maki (which disappeared quite quickly) and crème brulee (which I didn’t try).

And then there’s that ddukbokkie, Korean spicy rice cakes. I bought a serving for me to enjoy at home, but I forgot to eat it; so when I took it out of the fridge and reheated it a few days later, I found out that the spicy stuff seeped into the rice cakes and it was all good.

Now what’s Banchetto without lechon? Filipinos love it, the lechoneros of La Loma have perfected it, every feast in the country isn’t complete without it, but me… I’m ordered on the pain of literal death to avoid that crispy, juicy, sinful chunk of meaty goodness. Avoid it I did for some time, but now, in the name of love and all things in this world that are good, I’m gonna enjoy and adore this dish all my life.

I found the damned half-pound burger at the Monster Burger stall, and surprisingly, the line for orders wasn’t that long. I had to wait for an hour before the burger gets cooked, though. Didn’t matter.

You may think the half-pound patty looked really big while uncooked but will shrink into a packed, crumbled mass of meat once served to you, and guess what, you’re right. Don’t be discouraged, though. Also, the burger comes in a big, fluffy bun with a good amount of tomatoes and lettuce. Add-ons? You pay extra for cheese and wasabi mayo.

Finally came the moment of truth: the half-pound burger is ready.

Now then, how should I describe this burger: rich, delicious, thick, beefy, juicy, savory? Cholesterol-ridden, even? The moment my teeth sank on that burger patty, it felt like I was biting through chunk after chunk of heavenly goodness. Eating the burger was messy, but every piece of it was satisfying. The veggies were fresh, the bun was soft to the palate, and the patty itself was melting in my mouth. There was a whole storm of flavors whirling in my mouth. Needless to say, my tongue and belly were satisfied.

The sad thing about the trip to Banchetto that night was that I must have overfed myself. I ate so much of the panna cotta, takoyaki, salmon, maki, and the burger, that I’m so stuffed I couldn’t sleep by the time I got home. So much for watching my food intake.

Seriously though, Banchetto is still the best place so far to get your money’s worth when it comes to food. There are just so many dishes to try out and so many types of cuisine to choose from. Will there be a third time here? I sure hope so. After all, I haven’t tried the kebabs.


Episode 23: Fasting

Fasting is primarily the act of willingly abstaining from some or all food, drink, or both, for a period of time.
– Wikipedia

In medical terms, a person is considered fasting when one has not ingested anything three to five hours after a meal (the period when a meal is absorbed by the body), and 8 to 12 hours after that. One may perfrom an absolute fast (no food intake 24 hours or more), an intermittent fast (a period of alternate fasting and non-fasting, or other forms of diet restriction. A person is also required to fast before surgery and certain medical tests, or as part of detoxification.

Roman Catholics are encouraged to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. They may instead reduce food intake to one full meal (which may not contain meat during Fridays in Lent) and two small meals in the morning and evening (known liturgically as collations). Eating solid food between meals is not permitted. The Catholic Church also encourages performing a partial fast during the Lenten season, to commemorate the 40-day fast observed by Jesus during his temptation in the desert.

Fasting is also practiced by other religions, such as Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, and other Christian and Protestant denominations. Some prescribe more days of fasting, and implement stricter rules.

Researchers say fasting has major health benefits, such as reduced risks of cancer, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and more generally, the slowing of the aging process. Excessive fasting is however dangerous; if not controlled, fasting can lead to starvation, which causes complications in bodily functions.

Fasting also has a religious meaning, especially this Lenten season. Symbolically, fasting means to abstain from fulfilling the needs or wants of the flesh.It means denying oneself of physical needs as a form of sacrifice or self-affliction. It is also a way to re-establish our link with God, and spend time in prayer and meditation.

Today is Good Friday, and for 24 hours from three in the morning, I resolved to avoid eating pork and dining heavily at that. I actually did the same yesterday (Maundy Thursday), but today is a different matter, because for the rest of the period I would like to spend the rest of the time in reflection.

I’ve always thought that dining is both a physical and spiritual activity. You partake of someone’s life, whether animal or vegetable, and you show appreciation to them for committing the ultimate sacrifice. You also show appreciation to the cooks, the waiters, the farmers, the butchers, and the other people that made your meal possible. This is the reason you say grace before meals.

Take note of the traditional Catholic grace recited before and after eating (emphasis mine:)

  • (before eating) Let us pray. Bless us, O Lord, and these, thy/your gifts, which we are about to receive from thy/your bounty. Through Christ, our Lord. Amen. (Preceded and followed by the Sign of the Cross.)
  • (after eating) We give thee thanks, Almighty God, for all thy benefits, and for the poor souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, may they rest in peace. Amen. (Preceded and followed by the Sign of the Cross.)

(Also take note that nowadays, we say a shorter version of the grace after meals, it’s probably squeamish to think of dead animals while eating.)

The opposite is quite true: not eating anything is just as beneficial to the body and soul. Aside from the medical benefits mentioned earlier, you are able to cleanse your body of physical impurities (cholesterol and toxins from the food you eat) and spiritual ones (you let go of earthly worries, vices, and other matters that ruin your relationship with God and other people).

I’ve fasted physically, having foregone eating as much food as I can, and I still have 12 hours to do so. I found it easy to stop my cravings and discipline myself from seeking comfort in food.

But spiritually, well… I realized there are a lot of things I have to settle somehow and move off my chest. There are a lot of people I have to forgive and seek forgiveness. I have so much to change within me. Most of all, I have yet to forgive myself and let go. After this, on my way out, I’m gonna have a really long talk with God.

There are better people to tell you about fasting, but let me say this: Whether you’re fasting or not, let’s make the most of the rest of the Lenten season until Easter Sunday. Let us reflect on the death of Jesus Christ, and how he sacrificed His life for the forgiveness of our sins. At the same time, let us reflect on the sacrifices we ourselves have to do, be it for our own or for others’ sake.

As we dine and refrain from dining, may we be reminded of our mortality and our spirituality. And may the blessings of God be with us always.

Episode 22: Return to Cafe Vinny’s! Celebrating my birthday, and then some!

After Cafe Vinny’s reopened around December, I visited the restaurant several times to see how things there have become. It’s nice to be back in an old hangout, with the old crew, and the old sights and sounds still intact.

Let me brief you on what Café Vinny’s has become right after it reopened. The bar’s still a nice, quiet place to dine and hang out as it was before, but it’s still pretty much empty. There were a few changes, though.

First, they installed a karaoke machine. Sure, it’s just a Magic Sing set, but theirs had a good collection. This is why for the past weeks people have been dropping by the restaurant, partly to drink and chill, but most especially to break an Aerosmith or two.

Second, there were additional items that they have but did not include in the menu. Chef Toffee said but their ingredients in stock are enough to make new stuff such as Insalata Caprese, Pizzetes and other pizza varieties, and pasta marinara. Toffee says he had other stuff he can cook but did not have the opportunity to do so at the moment.
Third, the fine dining part of Café Vinny’s has been toned down, but this doesn’t mean visitors can’t enjoy a fine dining experience. Which is what happened that on my birthday. I thought, how about I celebrate my birthday there. I mean, maybe a three or four-course meal, some music, a bottle of red wine or two, and the God knows what else, with my family and a few close friends or guests.
Lyn the bartender (she’s also the manager now), Chef Toffee, and Angel the waitress were outside to greet me that afternoon. The call time was 5:30pm, but I expected my guests to come by dinnertime, which is around seven in the evening. That means we had a lot of time to set the table, see what’s cooking and what’s to be served. I had a few goblets of red wine and finished my book while waiting.

A few hours later, my dad, MC, and Sam (a family friend) arrived at Café Vinny’s. Only the closest in my family came for dinner, which is fine and all (too bad my sister was in Baguio and couldn’t come to Manila).

First up was bruschetta, grilled bread rubbed with garlic and topped with extra-virgin olive oil, salt and pepper, basil, tomatoes, and onions. The bruschetta was fresh and filling on its own, but just enough to whet our appetite.

Pumpkin soup came up next. The soup was thick, sweet and savory, and warm to the belly. One can think it tastes just like liquefied pumpkin because the vegetable’s taste is there. (Sam, on the other hand, had asparagus soup.) Now that I think about it, Café Vinny’s had a few soups in their menu, but since they have yet to get more customers, that’s fine.

Then came the main course. Mine was a Rogan Josh Lamb, prime diced lamb in Rogan Josh curry sauce, lined with tomato, onion, garlic, and special Indian herbs (or so the menu says). Chef Toffee warned me that the lamb would be spicy, which was all right with me, and he was right. The lamb was soft and juicy, savory, strong and spicy and fragrant.

My dad chose for himself a pesce lemone, fish fillet in lemon sauce…

while MC ordered a pollo alla valdostana, which looked like a chicken roll. 

 Sam had a chicken madras, an Indian chicken dish. Strangely, it looked like my Rogan Josh.

For dessert, we had tiramisu… Actually, tiramisu was the only dessert they had. The batch we had was freshly made, chocolatey, soft and smooth to the palate. They even placed a candle on top of the whole platter as my birthday cake. How nice.

Weeks after Café Vinny’s reopened, Vince and I talked about his bar’s future. He’s worried that customers still don’t come by, or that sometimes, the bar doesn’t get any customers at all. By now, though, he had acknowledged that he can’t attract a lot of patrons especially that Malate’s crowd consists of drunk, rowdy partygoers. “I want my bar to be a place where everyone can relax, drink quietly, listen to music, and chill out,” he kept telling me.
I simply told him, “Only a few people can appreciate a quiet, laid back bar such as yours. If such an audience comes by frequently, it’s all right.”

Today Café Vinny’s has a small following, most of which are from the adult crowd. Vince’s friends would come by for a meal and drink or two, and then sing. Small groups of youngsters or yuppies try out the menu, and then sing. Some Koreans come by too, probably to enjoy the night away from Malate’s noise… and then they start singing. (Watching those Koreans belt out something from Celine Dion is fun.)

Café Vinny’s became the hang-out place that they hoped to be from the start. Now people won’t feel turned off by its classy interior and quiet façade; they can actually come in, drink, and unwind. (Must be the karaoke.)

I’m 29 years old already. Until recently I never worried so much about getting old. All I needed were some changes in my lifestyle, a few check-ups, and then I’m all set for my next birthday, or something like that. Those changes include having to forego long nights at the bar, drinking less beer and eating more lean meat. Also, relaxing.
Thinking about my age left me troubled these past few weeks. Remembering the past, plus the drama I’ve been experiencing in my life lately, must’ve been why I’ve been depressed. It didn’t help that I just finished writing my project on Baguio, and trying to remember all that is heart-wrenching!
This is why I grew fond of visiting coffee shops, hole-in-the-wall restaurants and bars, and other places that are quieter than the usual spots. In such places I spend more time in deep thought and meditation, figuring out things both mundane and otherworldly, and swimming my way out of the chaos in my head. In these places I could think, and set aside time for myself in peace.
We all had a great time celebrating my birthday. We spent the rest of the night just drinking, singing, eating leftover tiramisu and gambas, and having a good time. It was definitely a great way to welcome my 29th birthday.
The next morning, I found myself on my bed, the only memories in my head include falling head first, being dragged somewhere, and throwing up red stuff. To put it in a song from The Police, “Woke up in my clothes again this morning, don’t know exactly where I am, I should heed my doctor’s warning…”
Oh well, happy birthday to me.

Episode 21: Balut is Luv

My doctor once told me to lay off the balut because of its high cholesterol content. Easier said than done, or so I thought. I actually found it easy to stay away from balut, though when I get really hungry, I storm the nearest balut stand and chomp one. Thankfully, my blood pressure hasn’t shot up.

While eating balut is normal in the Philippines, foreigners (except, probably, the ones I dined with in Binondo) still get queasy looking at, much more eating, that developed duck fetus lying on a partly-raw yolk in a half-shell. Still, this hasn’t stopped various people from having a taste of this thing.

Anthony Bourdain, for example, didn’t eat balut (referred to as fetal duck egg) when he visited the Philippines, but he did so in Vietnam. Hột vịt lộn, as it is called, is served there like a regular breakfast meal or snack. He found the dish to be just fine.

Andrew Zimmern (of “Bizzare Foods” fame) ventured to the Philippines once, and ended up in Pateros, where he learned how balut is made. The balut exceeded his expectations, and even called the egg’s juices “funky”. (This is Part 1 of the Philippines’ episode. Balut-chomping begins at 6:37.)

American Idol champion Kris Allen was challenged to eat balut when he came to the Philippines around last year. Good thing he endured it.

Ten-year old Remy of “Food Oddities” featured balut in one of his episodes. “Food Oddities,” by the way, is “Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern” hosted by a kid. (Heck, Zimmern himself liked the kid’s show.) He sampled weird food and then tells his fellow Americans how they taste like.

While there are brave souls who enjoyed eating balut, there also are unfortunate ones who are swallowed by fear and succumb to the sick feeling that goes with the damned duck egg… Such as this guy.

For some people, eating balut is a test of manhood, as in the case of these guys, Bau and Zeth, who were challenged by some Filipino bloggers to have one. The two kept playing with the eggs for a while, but they passed the test, eventually.

Seriously, balut, even in its high-protein, high-cholesterol glory, has been a symbol of a Filipino’s culinary prowess. It’s best eaten on its own, with beer, rice, or with any meal imaginable. It’s a “funky” (to borrow Andrew’s words), freaky dish that challenges the sensibilities of any food-lover, and rewards those who endure biting on its grotesque, abortion-reminiscent features with a rich, velvety flavor and a filling experience. It gives bonus bragging points too.

As for me, I’m still not allowed to eat balut.