Acquiring a taste

The food at Manila Garden takes a little adjusting to, but then, like interesting music, is the kind of stuff you crave.

The food at Manila Garden takes a little adjusting to, but then, like interesting music, is the kind of stuff you crave.

Photo By David Robert

As a lifelong music fanatic, I have noticed that the songs I end up liking the most are those I’m not so sure about at first. If I like something right off the bat, I’m usually bored with it by the end of the week. But when I hear something and go, “What the heck is with this weird song?” I have to listen to it again. And again. And again a week later, in the middle of night.

This might be called acquiring a taste. And, since the analogy holds true both ways, a similar process occurs with food—dishes that initially seem strange (not bad, mind you, just unusual) might eventually garner my respect and affection. Sometimes it takes years, and sometimes I can learn to love over just one meal.

Inside Manila Garden is a small stage equipped with a booming karaoke system. Onstage, seated and wearing sunglasses, singing a wide variety of material (everything from Sergio Mendes to James Taylor to Eric Clapton to Filipino and Spanish songs) were Evangeline and June, the resident entertainers. At first I thought: Oh no, how embarrassing.

“Hello!” our waitress smiled enthusiastically. “How are you? Is this your first time in Manila Garden? Would you like some help?”

“Sure,” somebody said.

“Oh good!” She waved her arms in the air and then proceeded to read us the entire menu—the entire menu, which is in English—including the descriptions and ingredient lists. She pointed out the most popular items and recommendations for novices, flavoring her reading with anecdotes, recitations of scripture, nutritional lessons and a detailed and compelling dissertation on the many uses of coconut milk.

After having taken our order, she returned to our table regularly, about every three minutes—just when conversation was beginning to pick back up—to mention things she’d neglected during her initial introduction: She hyped the singers and told us we could recommend songs and even join them onstage for a number or two. She told us about the innumerable special events coming up in the Manila Garden calendar, including a children’s karaoke contest. We requested a few songs but declined the invitation to go onstage.

The food is served communal style and in large quantity. Our waitress recommended we get an appetizer, a noodle dish and two entrees for four of us. We had the Tokwa’t Baboy ($3.75), fried tofu and broiled pork with a vinegar sauce, as appetizers. The Pancit Sotanghon ($7.25), rice noodles with pork and vegetables, was our noodle dish. For the main course, we choose Laing ($7.25), spinach, shrimp and pork rinds cooked in coconut milk, and Beef Caldereta ($7.50), sliced beef, potatoes and carrots in spiced tomato sauce.

Every dish sparked a reaction and usually dissension within our group. We went back and forth countless times. Many of the dishes seemed strange at first and then started to taste good as we acclimatized to the flavor. Some dishes were initially intriguing, but the novelty lessened with subsequent bites. We each ended up picking different plates as our favorites.

One topic about which we could all agree on by the end of the meal was Evangeline and June: We really dig them. They’re great entertainers, versatile interpreters with terrific voices. Really great stuff—just takes a little getting used to.