I prefer eating out to dining at home for a number of reasons: First of all, I’m not that great of a cook, so the food’s usually better. Secondly, I’m lazy and enjoy the attention of good service. Third, eating out can be an exciting experience—you go to strange places, meet interesting people, try new dishes. My recent dinner at Manila Grill, a relatively new Filipino restaurant, fulfilled all my dining needs. Though I was eating exotic food, I felt surprisingly right at home because of the superb, friendly service.
This was largely because of the owners, Joe and Anna, who are accommodating, flexible and relaxed yet gracious. They’re more than willing to make suggestions and answer questions for novices—this was only my second time trying Filipino food—and they maintain a friendly rapport with the many regulars.
The one location drawback is that you must pass through the lobby of the fabulous El Cortez Hotel in order to reach the restaurant. But Manila Grill is like another, more comfortable world. The environment is comfortable and informal, though I was mildly irked by the enormous TV in one corner that seemed to suck in my attention like a high-powered Flowbee.
We started our meal by splitting a sago’t gulaman ($1.95), a sweet, iced tapioca drink. Joe kindly offered to be our intrepid guide through the labyrinthine menu. He suggested adobong manok ($5.95), a popular dish that his “American friends always seem to like.” Adobong manok, the national dish of the Philippines, is chicken stewed in garlic vinegar and soy sauce.
It sounded enticing, but I asked Joe what he’d recommend for the more adventurous. There was no hesitation: dinuguan ($5.95), a pig’s blood pork stew.
I was hungry enough that I decided to order both the adobong manok and the dinuguan. They were both delicious, and I actually slightly preferred the dinuguan—it has an intriguing, tart flavor and tastes great over rice. The meat in both dishes was perfectly tender.
The menu didn’t have much to offer vegetarians—the Filipino diet is meat-heavy enough to get a gold star approval for all you Atkins dieters—but they were flexible and accommodating enough to fix up something for Danielle. The veggie dish was loosely based on the pancit bihon guisado ($7.90—although for Danielle’s vegetarian version, they only charged us $5.95). It was mixed vegetables and braised tofu over rice noodles with vinegar and soy sauce, and it was served in enormous quantity, easily enough for lunch the next day.
Vinegar, if you haven’t noticed, is the magic ingredient in many Filipino dishes. As Anna told us, “Filipinos love vinegar for some reason.” Probably because they really know how to make it work.
Danielle totally enjoyed her custom veggie dish but didn’t enjoy her close proximity to my dishes and their strong smells—which I found delightfully titillating, but she found repulsive. She took this as an opportunity to discuss our dietary choices.
“How can you be OK with eating something like that?” she asked. “Doesn’t it bother you to eat meat?”
“No—not at all. Not if it’s this good.”
“What is that again?”
“Oh, it’s a pig boiled in its own blood.”
“I’m not touching you tonight."