Episode 39: Two Days and Three Nights in Vietnam (Part 4)

Day 2 – Oct. 6
It’s our last day in Vietnam, so MC and I had to eat breakfast as fast as we could. This time, Kim and her twin daughters are joining us for a trip around Ho Chi Minh City’s tourist destinations. We’re going all out.
Along the way, we stopped by a store several blocks from Duxton Hotel Saigon to get food for the kids. I remember seeing this store still open last night. Today, though, other food stalls have opened near it. Street food sure is popular here.

The whole store sold fruits, breads and freshly baked pastries, fried and roasted duck and chicken. Roasted duck and chicken on the street… feels just like Manila.

The store also had space for those who want to dine in. Again, pho is the star.

Several minutes later, we reached Diamond Plaza, a luxury shopping complex at downtown HCMC. As far as I’ve read, the complex includes two buildings, and serves as a shopping center, 6 cinema lounges, restaurants, café, and hospital.

The whole complex was luxurious, homey, and really classy. On the other hand, I felt like I was stepping into that shopping complex from “Crisis Zone” (it’s an arcade game that takes place in a commercial complex; think “Time Crisis” where you wreck everything and everyone with your machine gun). But I digress.

Speaking of arcades, after passing by the department store, we went straight to the arcades. It has a bowling alley, a coffee shop, and the usual video games.

“Simz,” anyone?

Now what got me interested in the place is that it has a cocktail bar, with a large collection of alcoholoc and non-alcoholic drinks. Plus it’s a smoking area too. I guess this area is supposed to cater to mall-goers of all ages, though it’s gonna be awkward if you got drunk.

MC took the time to visit the perfume shops to ask about a certain brand. Looks like they don’t have it, whatever it is.

After an hour or so of hanging out at the mall, it was time to walk around the city a bit. Along the way, we passed by the Basilica of Our Lady of The Immaculate Conception, also known as the Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica. It’s one of the establishments built by the French colonialists in Vietnam. What a grand-looking church, I thought.

 

I heard that the statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary in front of the church once shed tears, though this was disproved later on. I wish I had a closer look at the church.

Our next stop was the Reunification Palace (some also call it the Independence Palace), one of the most
important historical landmarks in Vietnam. Once the seat of government of the French, Japanese, and what was called South Vietnam, this was where the Vietnam War ended.

We had a tour around the palace’s numerous meeting areas, gardens, dining rooms, and other facilities. The palace also had a theater, dance floor, library, and a collection of artifacts. The place is so big, I might as well try making a separate post about it.

 

The Reunification Palace has a balcony where the president would come and give (probably yell) his speech to his constituents and followers below. As I stood on that balcony, gazing at the garden below, I felt like I was in that scene in “Evita,” except I’d probably be singing “The Heat is On in Saigon” instead of “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina.”

The fun part of the tour was when we went underground to see the palace’s war rooms. It’s like stepping into a war-torn past, except you’re a tourist learning Vietnam’s history and not Solid Snake infiltrating a military base.

Old radios and other communication equipment are lined up in every room, carefully preserved and set up like a functional palace facility. Each government function had its own office (plus a bed for the president). One room even had several maps, and a list of phone numbers of other countries, including the Philippines!

 

The tour ended at a museum highlighting important dates in Vietnamese history. Soon enough, it was time for our next stop. But first, snacks.
Pho 24 is a noodle restaurant chain that is popular in Vietnam for serving authentic Vietnamese dishes. It has branches in Indonesia, Cambodia, Macau – Hong Kong, Japan, and even in the Philippines (I hear there’s a branch at the Power Plant Mall in Makati). It’s also known for introducing instant pho noodles that can be enjoyed at home.

Pho is also called the national dish of Vietnam, as it “represents the heart and soul of the Vietnamese people.”

Our snack session (it felt more like lunch) consisted of pho, grilled pork with broken rice (rice grains fractured to give it a softer texture), and coconut juice to wash everything down. Of the numerous times I’ve eaten pho, this would be the best. I sort of added a bit too much chili, but who cares.
Before we knew it, it was already late afternoon. Kim had a few more places for us to see, though.
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Up next… The last night of the world, I mean, Saigon, er…

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Episode 33: Starting the year right at Casa Vallejo Hill Station!

I’m starting the year right with a quick dinner with my brother MC at Hill Station, the restaurant of Casa Vallejo in Baguio City. After spending the holidays with my family in the highlands, I figured it would be nice to check out at some place we haven’t been in the city. This place felt just the right spot.

Casa Vallejo was a wooden inn opened in 1909, while Baguio is being established as a hill station for the Americans. The place was used as a detention center and refugee camp. It withstood the Americans’ carpet bombing of the city at the end of World War II. In 1945, it functioned as an annex of the Baguio City High School, and once again as an inn and convention hall.

Casa Vallejo closed down in 1999. After several years of subsequent restoration, it was brought back to life; and now Casa Vallejo is recognized as one of the ten oldest institutions in Baguio. One of the results of the restoration of Casa Vallejo is Hill Station, the restaurant owned by restaurateur Mitos Benitez–Yniguez.

Hill Station is Casa Vallejo’s old ballroom/meeting area, now decorated with elegant and nostalgia-evoking designs. The restaurant is connected by two staircases to the inn’s lobby above, and also leads to the café bar below. The open space is surrounded by French windows and the wooden beams and floors, remnants of Casa Vallejo’s antique structure. Old photographs also adorn the walls. One can enjoy the view of the trees and the city lights at night. The ambiance is totally Baguio.

Hill Station was voted as one of Asia’s finest restaurants, and is included in the Miele Guide 2011/2012 Edition. The menu is a mix of Asian, American, and European dishes, mostly slow food, stews, steaks, pastas, and other home-cooked specialties. Hill Station’s website describes its cuisine thus:

 

“Mitos offers you robust dishes that blend the flavors of Asia’s hill stations with the tastes of Old World Europe and New World America. Here in her creations, these three worlds fuse harmoniously as never before, and a spoonful of history was never as good!”

Our dinner started with some mushroom soup, just enough to warm the first night of the year.

We then had Linguine with Sundried Tomatoes and Pecorino, a sweet-sour, rich mix of Roma tomatoes, white wine, and artisanal hard goat cheese.

MC ordered Shepherd’s Pie, a bowl of sliced lamb and beef baked with mushrooms, gravy, mashed potatoes and cheese. The bowl looked small but every spoonful of it was very flavorful.

 

My dinner was Ribeye Picado, beef ribeye cubes cooked medium well, and served with vegetables and mashed potatoes. The beef was soft and succulent, and the vegetables were cooked just right. The whole dish was filling, to say the least.

 

For dessert we were supposed to have a Death By Chocolate Cake, which was one of their best-sellers, but since the bar ran out of the stuff, we ended up with a sweet, creamy cup of their crème brulee.

 

The whole meal was quite expensive, which is not surprising given the setting and cuisine served here. The service was quite fast, and the staff was very accommodating. In any case, our stay at Hill Station was quick, but all in all we enjoyed a really sumptuous dinner.

Hill Station serves Filipino and American breakfast meals from 7:00 – 10:30am. Desserts are always freshly made but subject to availability. Cocktail drinks and other liquor are also available to cap your lunch or dinner, preferably enjoyed at the adjacent bar.

Guests can buy Hill Station’s red and white wines, homemade sauces and condiments that they can buy for their homes.Various handicrafts are also available.

Back in college I remember walking past Casa Vallejo, right when it was in a state of disrepair. How would I have known that this old, neglected building would hold such a rich history. Its nice to see how Casa Vallejo was revived. This is one place in Baguio where you can enjoy a warm meal, a nice view, and a relaxing ambiance that can engulf you in a wave of nostalgia.

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Hill Station
Casa Vallejo
Upper Session Road,  Baguio City 

Tel. No. 424-2734
423-9100
423-9558 

Aikyatchi: Mabuhay Germany!

The German-Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry presents “Mabuhay Germany,” a three-day exhibition celebrating the friendship of the Philippines and Germany. Now on its third year, the event gives visitors the chance to know more about Germany through its people, industry, and culture.

Mabuhay Germany’s theme this year is about “Winning Moments,” where exhibitors are invited to show their their so-called finest hour in any endeavor, from sports to business and from politics to technology.

The event features German products, services, and snippets of its culture and lifestyle. There will also be a job fair, culinary demos, movies, live music from Filipino and German musicians, and other activities for the family. And yes, there will be beer and sausages. Should I remind you that Germany is already celebrating Oktoberfest?

Visit the Mabuhay Germany Festival from Oct. 7 to 9 at Bonifacio High Street, Bonifacio Global City, Taguig. For more information, please visit the German-Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry website or its Facebook page..

Episode 27: Farewell, Cosa Nostra!

Cosa Nostra (or Cosa Nostra, Casa di Pasta), an old, hole-in-the-wall spaghetti house in Malate, is gone. This was one of my most recent discoveries, yet I would never be able to dine there again. Why? Because it closed down last June 30. How sad. 

I found this Italian restaurant by accident during one of my night-outs in Malate. It was standing on a dark corner of Remedios Circle, hidden in plain sight, a simple, plain-looking place that only a few who knew its story would visit.

Everything about Casa Nostra made one feel the place was frozen in time. Lamps, jars and old photographs (presumed to be the relatives or ancestors of the owner) lined up against the walls. Soft, ‘60s or ‘70s music played in the background. It’s cozy, good for dining alone, with a group, or a special someone. At night, the place is dimly lit, making romantic candlelight dinners possible.

The food was homemade, served hot and fresh. You had to wait for 15 minutes or so, but the wait is worth it. The taste, on the other hand, is up for debate; some loved the simple flavors while other found them too salty or bland or stale.
I’ve only tried a few dishes from their menu, namely: a hearty bowl of lentil soup, spaghetti carbonara followed by a cup of café rivello, pesto pizza, and seafood casserole, one of their best-sellers.
Lentil soup, warm, thick and hearty with sausage bits
Cosa Nostra’s carbonara, with ham bits, separate serving of parmesan cheese, and a thick heavy cream sauce

Cafe rivello, bittersweet with a cappuccino-like creaminess

Pesto pizza, a salty pizza with lots of cheese and a hint of pesto
Seafood casserole, oily pasta infused with the light, natural flavor of seafood and herbs
Other dishes they have are the lasagna, fried mozzarella, spaghetti with crab roe paste (also known as the heart-breaking “taba ng talangka”), and Black Spaghetti (spaghetti with squid ink sauce).
From what the patrons told me, Casa Nostra opened about 28 years ago. The restaurant was a favorite spot, much like some of the old restaurants around Remedios Circle. It was, as they said, one of the icons of Malate’s so-called bohemian lifestyle.
I was there when Casa Nostra closed for the last time, as the elderly staff served the last orders and the customers bid farewell to everyone, as the decors were taken down one by one. It felt like waking up from a pleasant dream. I never bothered to ask why it was closing down, but I might find the reason outrageous. I’m saddened that just when I have yet to fully appreciate the place, it would become out of business.

Now that I think about it, I’ve encountered other places that go down in Malate’s history but are now overshadowed by modern hang-out establishments, some of which get closed down in the process. Only the old patrons of Malate and those from the present generation would know of these places.

For example, we had Anthology, an institution for music lovers, that closed down a few years ago, and is now nothing more than a bunch of ruins. Cafe Adriatico closed down when fire damaged its second floor (thank goodness it didn’t stay that way, and it’s still as popular as before. ). And now, we have Cosa Nostra. (Then there’s Hobbit House, but I’ll save some space for that in my blog soon.)

Someday I’d like to seek out the old places in Malate that are still standing despite the changing times. I’ve had enough of the karaoke clubs and girlie bars sprouting all over Malate. I’d like to know how people hung out a long time ago, which were the spots that were popular among the youth, artists, businessmen, and so forth. I’d like to know which places were part of Manila’s old lifestyle.

Argh, I’m having a hard time explaining this. In any case, it would be nice to relive and preserve what’s left of Malate’s past, if only through where the past generation hangs out. I’ll think about how to go about this until my next discovery.

Episode 26: Lechon, The World’s Best Roasted Pig (Part 2)

Lechon is cooked in different ways all over the Philippines. One of the most popular types of lechon, aside from La Loma, is the Cebu-style lechon or simply lechon Cebu.
Nowadays, mention “lechon” and Cebu quickly comes to mind. Lechon Cebu is so sought after, some even have it delivered directly from Cebu, never mind the shipping fees. Eating lechon is also a must-do in Cebu. Which begs the question: How good is lechon Cebu?

The difference between lechon Cebu and other types is that the pig is seasoned with fresh herbs, spices, and flavorings throughout the cooking process. The pig is also roasted over charcoal made from a local wood, giving it the impression of smoked meat. The result is a pig that no longer needs the sauce to give it taste.

And why not? The meat is tender, and bursting with fat and flavor with an herby aftertaste. The skin is sweet and as crispy as chicharon. The whole pig is perfumed with an overload of scents. This is the lechon that made Anthony Bourdain say “I got the best pig ever.”
Lechon Cebu’s claim to culinary fame started a long time ago. According to the records of Antonio Pigafetta (the historian who chronicled Ferdinand Magellan’s voyage to Cebu in 1521), the locals dined on roasted “black pigs” with rice wrapped in leaves (locally called “puso”), roast fish, vinegar dip and rice wine. So lechon has been enjoyed by foreigners over 400 years ago!
Some lechon enthusiasts would refer you to Talisay City to get your lechon fix. Talisay is best known as the home of the “inasal baboy”, and most residents say this is where everything about the lechon industry in Cebu started.
Teresa Mancia Olo or “Nana Ising” owns the credit for starting the first lechon business in 1945. Legend has it that she single-handedly prepares her lechon and supervises the whole process. Mostly Americans and rich locals were fans of her pork. By the time Nang Ising retired in 1975, others in Talisay have opened similar lechon businesses.
Things changed for lechon Cebu’s reputation when Anthony Bourdain visited Cebu as part of an episode of “No Reservations” in the Philippines. Here Tony praised the lechon he tasted in the province, thus proving the claim (in extension) that “the Filipino lechon, a whole roasted piggy, is the best in the world.”
Cebu has no particular brand that stands out among the lechon businesses in the province. In fact, there are so many lechon brands in Cebu, one won’t be able to pinpoint which is the best.
One example is CNT Lechon House, probably the most popular among Manilenos. Then there’s Rico’s Lechon with their spicy roast pig (a favorite of former president Joseph Estrada and other celebrities), Alejo’s, Ayer’s Lechon Restaurant, and others more that are not well-known but whose pigs are just as good.

And then there’s Zubuchon. Now why the special mention? The lechon sold here is the same that Tony ate during his stay in the Philippines!
Zubuchon is the brainchild of food blogger Marketman, who joined Tony in the Cebu segment of the “No Reservations” episode in the Philippines. Marketman demonstrated to Tony the traditional way of cooking lechon, along with his own improvements to the process.
The Zubuchon pig is cooked naturally without any MSG, artificial mixes, and artificial painting of the skin. The lechon skin is also “acupunctured,” meaning, it is punctured during the cooking process to make it crisp.
“We use only the freshest and often home grown organic lemongrass, green onions, siling labuyo or peppers, local sea salt, and other herbs and spices. We use good olive oil,” Marketman said in his blog.

Needless to say, lechon remains the best dish to top a Filipino feast. Whether it’s Cebu-style, La Loma-style, a whole roasted pig (or even a few kilos of it) is the kind of stuff one will always love to dine on. Everything from the skin to the meat gives a taste of heaven. Nothing can be more exquisite than the lechon.

Episode 26: Lechon, The World’s Best Roasted Pig (Part 1)

Ah, lechon. One of the national dishes of the Philippines. A big, fat, red pork dish filled with mouth-watering, tender, juicy, crispy goodness. The star of Philippine fiestas and every other special occasion. Definitely one you can’t miss.


Lechon is not just your average pig on a bamboo stick. One can only marvel at this delicacy that is golden brown and crispy on the outside and juicy on the inside. It’s expensive, but it can attract the crowds to your side whenever you have a feast. One bite and you can never ask for anything better.
  
To prepare lechon, all you need to do is get a suckling pig, remove its innards (and cook something else with them), bathe the pig in sauces, stuff it with herbs and spices, and then roast the pig slowly over a fire. The sauces you may want to use can vary, much more with the spices (stuffing can include any combination of lemongrass, tamarind, star anise, garlic, green onions and/or chili leaves). It’s not as simple as it looks like.
Barangay La Loma in Quezon City claims the title of “Lechon Capital of the Philippines”. When we say “La Loma,” we’re talking about a barangay where the best lechoneros (lechon roasters) can be found.
La Loma has a rich history long before lechon was born. A long time ago, the district was synonymous with the La Loma Cemetery, the oldest cemetery in Manila, and the La Loma Cockpit, believed to be cockfighting’s oldest home in the country.
It’s said that one of the hottest places in town in the ‘50s was the house of Mang Tomas Delos Reyes, a meat vendor, which was located in front of the cockpit. After a day’s worth of cockfights, the winners would buy pork meat from Mang Tomas to be roasted and served for their merry-making.

Mang Tomas decided he’d rather roast the meat himself and sell the cooked pork. Eventually, he set up shop in 1954, and the first lechon business in the Philippines was born.

As a side note, Mang Tomas created a special liver sauce to complement his lechon. This sweet sauce is what we know today as “Mang Tomas All Purpose Sauce,” “Sarsa ni Mang Tomas,” or simply “Mang Tomas.” Cue the MacGyver theme.
Today, Mang Tomas is not the only lechonero in La Loma. The district gave birth to popular lechon brands such as Lydia’s, Ping-Pings’, Mila’s, and other less-known brands like Monchie’s, Nelia’s and others.
There seems to be a difference with each lechon. Lydia’s, for example, has a thick, crispy, fatty skin to go along with its tender meat. The lechon skin in Mila’s is thinner, and the meat goes best with its creamy, semi-sweet sauce. The lechon meat and sauce combination from Ping-Ping’s gives out a lemony aftertaste. It must be the preparation or the spices stuffed in the pig, I dunno.

The truth is that the lechon’s taste can vary with each person. What seems lemony for me may taste rich and tasty to another. Whether one loves the fat, the skin, or the flesh itself is another matter as well. Still, the praise for lechon is endless, “delicious” would be an understatement.

Of course, lechon is good and all, but one must be reminded that this dish, when taken in excess just like everything else, is unhealthy. 

Eating lechon on a regular basis makes for clogged arteries and cholesterol build-up in the body. And like any fatty food, lechon contributes to some of the leading causes of death in the Philippines, like stroke, heart problems, and the occasional stabbing by the drunkard who wanted that pig cheek on your plate… wait.

Time Magazine declared lechon as “The Best Pig” in the 2009 edition of its Best of Asia series. Time writer Lara Day described lechon in her write-up as a discovery waiting to happen, a recipe with the most desirable results imaginable, and a beloved dish of Filipinos. Old news, but worth reflecting on.
“You could call it the Platonic ideal of a pig, but it’s doubtful if Plato, or even an entire faculty of philosophers, could have imagined anything so exquisite,” she said.
Lechon represents a lot of things about Filipinos: the importance of bonds (family or otherwise), respect for culture, the pursuit of good things in life, and celebrating everything that is rich, delightful, and exquisite. So come over to La Loma sometime and try their lechon. It’s worth the food trip. Really.

It would be nice to note that lechon owes this distinction to celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, incidentally knnow for his voracious appetite for everything pork. Again, old news, but worth reflecting on too. 

During the episode of his show “No Reservations” shot in the Philippines, Tony ate his way around Manila, Pampanga and Cebu Among the dishes he tried was lechon.

The episode showed Tony sampling the skin of a steaming newly-roasted pig and jokingly asking his show’s guest/tour-guide, Filipino-American Augusto Elefano, not to let anyone touch the pig’s cheeks (or at least one side), intending to have it all to himself.

In his blog, he placed the Philippines at the top of his so-called “Hierarchy of Pork”, followed by Bali, Indonesia and Puerto Rico.

Let me quote his entry: “It can now be said that of all the whole roasted pigs I’ve had all over the world, the slow roasted lechon I had on Cebu was the best.”

Wait a minute, Cebu?!

Episode 25: Rediscovering Cafe Adriatico

Much have been said about cafés and the joys of hanging out in such places. Being a café lover myself, I’ve grown accustomed since my Baguio days to hanging out by myself or with friends in coffee shops. I’m particularly fond of places where one can dine or have a cup of coffee quietly while listening to music, have a conversation or two, and other stuff.
Such a pastime is something I rarely found time to do when I returned to Manila. I’m not sure if it was the crowd, the prices, or the ambience that’s stopping me. Or maybe it’s because I found drinking in bars more pleasurable during such stressful, lonely times.
In any case, it took a long time before I started appreciating cafes again. That started when Café Adriatico closed down for a short time.

Just so you know, Café Adriatico was damaged by fire last December. It was a sad day for the place’s patrons who thought another piece of history is gone. I for one thought I would miss out on dining in a famous spot like this. Thankfully, that wasn’t the case, because it reopened just several weeks ago.
Café Adriatico is an old-style restaurant at the corner of the Remedios Circle in Malate. The café was founded by restaurateur Larry J. Cruz in 1979. This is one of the most well-known, if not legendary, landmarks in Manila.
Lonely Planet had the right words to describe Café Adriatico: “Don’t be fooled by what appears to be a small and informal restaurant; this Malate legend right on Remedios Circle has good Spanish and Italian food to go along with top-notch people-watching.”

 In the old days, the café was not only a restaurant; it was a meeting place for artists, writers, lovers, and members of the city’s elite, among others. It also housed an art gallery and antique collection.

Café Adriatico retained its old-world look and ambience despite the damage caused by the fire. The interior’s antique motif is still there, from the furniture to the walls. The paintings and photographs from old colonial times still adorn the walls. Classical music plays in the background, adding charm to the surroundings.
The place boasts of a variety of options such as salads, sandwiches, omelets, main courses, fondues and other desserts. Last time I checked, there were Mediterranean items in the menu too.

First on the chopping block is Squid Tactics, cuttlefish deep-fried with brown garlic, green onions, and coated in a sweet and spicy sauce. This, I hear, is one of Café Adriatico’s best sellers.
Next was a bowl of Garlic Soup Catalan, clear, light garlic soup with a piece of bread (instead of croutons) and raw egg.
The main course is Lola Ising’s Adobo Rice, another of their best-selling dishes. The meat is juicy, tender, and falls off the bone. The adobo rice is light and flavorful, and goes well with the atsara and adobo sauce.
Washing down the meal is their signature Tsokolate Eh, an authentic Spanish hot chocolate beverage made manually with a native batirol or wooden mixer. It’s thick, warm, and comforting to the stomach, a must have when you’re hanging out. That came with a slice of tiramisu.

Perhaps Café Adriatico is to the old Manilenos what Starbucks would be to the present generation, except that Café Adriatico has that charm that spans through generations. The nostalgia exuded by its food and surroundings inspire diners and cafe lovers to remember a bygone era in Manila’s history.

It reminds me that Malate was home to a strip of old restaurants, bars, and other night spots that made the district distinct from other places in Manila. (Most of these I might never be able to discover, sadly.)
Aside from the Malate Church, Malate was known for places like Anthology Bar, Library, and other hang-out spots of the rich, eccentric, and popular. Malate is also known as the center of gay night life, and it’s near Ermita, once known as the city’s red light district, but that’s another story.
Café Adriatico is one of the reminders of Manila’s laid-back, bohemian lifestyle. It was a favorite dining spot and meeting ground then as it is now. More importantly, the cafe reminds me of simpler times, days when spending quiet time for myself after a long day was a way of life, just like the Manilenos do.