One-Third Pounder with Potato Wedges
_Is a bigger burger really better?  For me it depends on what you made it bigger with.  Now, if you're making that burger bigger with more real, high quality beef, then yes, a bigger burger definitely makes me happier!  If Pergola Mall were on my way home from work I'd probably be eating here more often.

My usual order here is the One Third Pounder, no cheese -- gotta watch the calories, and also because I usually want to enjoy the beef without diluting its flavor.  Normally this burger's enough to fill me up, so I don't even have to order sides unless I'm really starving.  BBB's burgers are thick, juicy, have the crumbly texture of an all-beef patty, and because they're grilled, have a lightly smoky flavor.  You may have to wait a bit for your burger on a busy day, because they grill each order fresh; me, I consider the wait worth it!

Taking Cat here for the first time -- she was in Davao when BBB opened -- we got the One Third Pounder, a side of Potato Wedges, and the Chicken Parmigiana rice meal.  We loved the potato wedges, nice thick slices of potato, skin on, crisp outside and perfectly cooked through inside.  Cat says if she can't have mashed potato, her fave potato dish, she'll gladly settle for this any time.  Me, I think my next order of burger will have to include this.  There goes the calorie count!  We also liked the Chicken Parmigiana, the sauce was nice and savory, and there's a generous topping of melted cheese on top.  I'm a sucker for melted cheese on rice, so again this dish is a winner for me.

Chicken Parmigiana
_Still, if you're coming to Big Better Burger for the first time, you should be here for the burgers.  Yes, they're that good.  BBB's patties compare very well with the product of a classic Filipino chain we who're old enough to like retro stuff know well, but because it's grilled I'll have to consider BBB's even better. 

Big Better Burger is an up-and-coming chain with 10 branches already throughout Metro Manila, the Pergola Mall branch being their 8th.  The chain is owned and operated by the Teotico family, and interestingly enough is totally home-grown--it's not a US franchise at all.  Eric Teotico, who loves to cook, came up with the idea of opening a burger chain based on his own recipes.  Learning this story, I'm motivated to patronize BBB even more -- I like it when my peso goes to a local entrepreneur instead of a foreign corporation, and my palate tells me I'm getting value for my money. 
_I asked Cat where she wanted to have our anniversary dinner and she said she'd been craving Japanese.  And when it comes to Japanese food, Hanakazu will always be among the first restaurants I'll think of.

This traditional Japanese restaurant along Aguirre (near the Elizalde stoplight) -- now entering its seventh year of business -- is helmed by none other than the former chef of the posh Tsukiji restaurant in Makati, Hiroaki Otsuka.  If you're a fan of Japanese food you'll already know what that means; if not, then let us quote you what they've put at the front page of their menu:  "Fresh Sushi.  Delectable sashimi.  Crispy tempura.  Tender Beef Sukiyaki.  Mouth-watering Ebi Ten Maki."  The descriptions do not exaggerate.  From a small restaurant, Hanakazu has expanded its space to accommodate its growing clientele, a testament to Chef Otsuka's labor of love.

We ordered a perennial favorite, the Ebi Ten Maki, a sushi roll tenderly cradling crisp ebi tempura slices in its center; Miso Soup; a refreshing Kani Salad; Yakiniku (grilled beef); and Yakimeshi (fried rice). 

All the dishes were made to the high standard that this popular restaurant has come to be known for -- all the ingredients are top-grade and fresh, the flavors light and ethereal, very well balanced -- you can see the chef's expertise in the way every roll of sushi here is rolled just so, the sashimi cut so neatly you'd swear fish grow in neat rectangles and lozenges.

Ebi Ten Maki with Maguro Tatsutaage and Miso soup
_As I said, we nearly always order the Ebi Ten Maki when we eat here; Hiroaki's wife Lorna says she's not sure whether this roll is Hiroaki's own invention or not, but she does get comments from foodies telling her Hanakazu's version is the best they've had.  I agree.  We also received tiny bowls of Maguro Tatsutaage, breaded tuna slices fried crisp, as a complementary appetizer. 

A new revelation for us was the Kani Salad, a beautiful light salad of lettuce and assorted greens, carrots, and kani strips, tossed in a light semi-sweet mayo dressing and topped with strips of dried seaweed.  The serving of this salad was surprisingly large, easily good for sharing among three or four.  On its own, it can make a pretty filling meal for a health-conscious diner.  We also loved our Yakiniku, the beef so tender we could tear apart the strips easily with our chopsticks, with a light soy-pepper-slightly-sweet flavor.  The beef went perfectly with our sticky Yakimeshi. 
Yakiniku with Yakimeshi
Kani Salad
_Chef Hiroaki was too busy to interrupt, but we were able to get Lorna Otsuka to drop by our tatami room and tell us more about Hanakazu.  The restaurant's name is taken from their daughters, Hana and Kazuko.  They and their two sons, Yoshi and Sachi (after whom the two tatami rooms are named), are the reason Chef Hiroaki is happy in BF Homes rather than taking up offers to open a Hanakazu branch in commercial districts like Makati.  "We were tempted by an offer when Serendra was new, but when we found that we'd have to be open all week, my husband said no," reveals Lorna.  "He wants his Mondays off, because that's his day to be with his children.  That's the day he'll make them lunch himself as a treat." 

The rest of the week, though, is spent keeping up the quality that Hanakazu's become known for.  Though the restaurant opens at 11:30 a.m., Hiroaki arrives early to begin making the ramen broth, which he insists on making fresh every day.  He also does the marketing for ingredients himself every three days, and they regularly receive shipments of locally hard-to-find items from Japan. 

That passionate attention to detail  is evident in every bite here at Hanakazu, which is why we've been regular customers since 2005.  The staff even remembers my friends and I as "that noisy gang that always makes such a ruckus in the tatami room but orders a lot!", said with a smile, of course.  Lorna said that their loyal customers now have "Hanakazu babies" -- you could say that we could count ourselves among them as well.


Beef Burrito
_I found another hidden treasure of BF Homes earlier this month when, on impulse, I decided to eat at Mexan one evening I felt too lazy to cook.  This little restaurant is tucked away on the side of The Pergola Mall facing the Ruins bazaar, a side I rarely go to, and would've slipped beneath my radar if not for the placard they'd put at the mall's front entrance.

First impressions on entering: the place will only sit about a dozen or so people at a time, but the interior is very tastefully done in bright pueblo colors; there's Spanish guitar music on, and the only occupied table (it was early for dinner) was occupied by an expat.  He looked happy with his burrito, so I got one too.  Surprise!  My Burger Burrito had a good proportion of meat to rice, wrapped in a nice fresh tortilla, and the flavors were bright and right.  The cook, whoever he or she was, knew enough not to hold back on the cumin and other spices, so the burrito's contents had a really nice aroma.  This was served with a side of sour cream for dipping and some fresh onion and tomato salsa.  I had to take Cathy here!  I also got to meet one of the proprietors, Dia Velazquez, so we scheduled a shoot with her.
Chili Con Carne
_On our third visit, owners Dia Velazquez, Joanne Sta. Maria and Tess Vinluan were there to greet us and give us a sampling of their bestsellers.  We got to try the Chili con Carne, Beef Burrito, and Buffalo Wings.  The burrito was a known quantity - I'd had it before, and I knew I'd always have one when I eat here.  It's flavorful and filling, but my personal favorite remains the Burger Burrito -- also beef, but maybe the ground meat or the way they cook it makes it taste even meatier.  The Chili con Carne was exactly that -- hot!  Just the way I like it!  Again, I liked the fact that they didn't stint with the spices, and again, the proportion of meat to beans was just right.  And did I say it was hot? 

The best dish of the lot for both Cat and me, however, was the Buffalo Wings.  It's the kind of dish you dig into with your fingers, gnaw on the bones for as long as you can still get some flavor from them, then lick your fingers afterward.  Crunchy even when we ate it a little cold (in between the interview) and served with a sour-cream dip instead of the usual blue cheese or Cajun sauce, the wings had just the right blend of sweetness, a mild heat, with the tanginess of the sour cream rounding out the flavors.   It will keep you coming back for more.

I had to buy a take-home pack for my dad -- it made a good excuse to have a few more!  Also, the order is quite big; while on the menu it's describes as five pieces, Joanne says this is based on the number of wings that go into each order.  Since they halve each wing, an order comes to ten pieces -- if you're having this as appetizer, it's good for a group of three or four.  We had our food with iced tea, but for those who want it, there's also good old San Mig beer, Corona beer from Mexico, sodas, margaritas, zombies, and of course, tequila shots available.
Buffalo Wings
_There are no Mexicans, or even Texans, involved in this restaurant at all.  Instead, Mexan is the brainchild of Dia and Joanne -- credit for the name goes to Dia’s son Migs -- who, along with Tess, share the responsibilities of running the restaurant, developing recipes and taste-testing, with one another.  Although they only opened at The Pergola Mall last April, they've been doing Mexican food for six years, with a food stall in La Salle Zobel.  "We were a hit with the kids, because the way we cook is we're always thinking we're doing this for our own families," says Joanne.  "We developed our recipes together, researching recipes then testing and combining until we got what we wanted. Being moms, we knew what kids wanted." 

The buffalo wings got added to the Mexican lineup, Dia says, when they were talking to the mall management.  Taking the suggestion of combining the concepts instead of getting a separate stall for the wings, they quickly found the wings to be a bestseller too, along with their burritos, and soft tacos.  The popularity of the latter two has led to additional sizes, junior burritos and large tacos.

Perhaps the best validation for Mexan's taste is the number of expats who've been coming back as repeat customers.  "There was this American who ate here one day and he kept whispering to his Filipina wife.  It turned out he was a Texan, and he liked the food so much he wanted to order another!" 

Perhaps, we have The Pergola Mall to thank for for offering them a bigger space than their initial plan for a just a food stall.  It's given the entrepreneurial moms the creative space to come up with their culinary best.
Tess Vinluan, Dia Velasquez, Joanne Sta. Maria


He said:

While admitting it inevitably betrays my true age, I just have to say that if there's one burger I think of when I'm nostalgic, it's Tropical Hut's Classic burger.  We rarely feature chains here in Good Living BF, since our focus is on 'homegrown' restaurants and enterprises, but we decided to do this as a fitting tribute to our favorite burger since the 1970s.   

Tropical Hut was a burger chain way before McDonalds came in, or Jollibee morphed from ice cream parlor to fastfood giant.  The BF Homes branch is up to now one of the longest-running Tropical Hut outlets in the country -- if I remember correctly it's their second or third branch.  When I was a kid studying at La Salle Zobel, I'd often badger my dad into taking me there after school before we made the long drive back home.  But Cat and I don't go to Tropical Hut to eat history.  We go because, very simply, Tropical Hut still serves the juiciest, most meatily fragrant burger we know.   

The Tropical Hut Classic stands out because it's cooked quite differently from other fastfood chain burgers.  I often find the meat patties from other chains rubbery in texture, probably from a combination of extenders and the dry cooking method they use.  In contrast, Tropical Hut's burgers tend to fall apart on you while you eat, while the buttery, utterly beefy juices run down your chin.  The secret is in the thickness of the patty and the pouring of a special sauce over the burger as it cooks.  As the outsides of the burger seal from the heat, the sauce gets trapped inside, keeping it tender and packed with flavor.  I'm drooling as I write this!  

Unfortunately, Tropical Hut was never managed with the same level of marketing savvy as its newer rivals, and the quality of its products can be uneven.  I've been to Tropical Hut branches that were badly maintained, that stank (I didn't eat at those!), and been disappointed with various menu entries.  The fries can be bland and soggy at times; at best, they're crisp but still rather plain, when compared to say McDonalds' fries.  Sometimes the staff are not as well-trained as they could've been.  

I hope one day to see Tropical Hut undergo a management renaissance.  Better training, better marketing, investment in more effective advertising.  But please, please, if ever this happens, do not change the Classic burger.  It's the reason why, despite all the warts, I still keep coming back to Tropical Hut.

She said:

As I am a few years older than Dariel, my memories of Tropical Hut burger go even more way back, back to where I think it started in Ortigas in the 70s.  But here I plead a senior moment because I cannot exactly recall the name of the place or the building.  But what has stayed indelibly in my mind was the experience of my first taste of the burger that was then making waves all over town.  
Simply put, it tasted like no other -- not that I could compare it with a MacDonald's or a Jollibee's because as Dariel said, they still had to hit town or hit it big at that time -- but that it had its own very distinct taste.  A taste that, thankfully, to this day has remained in the Classic Burger.

Part of its appeal was its bigger-than-normal serving size -- rivaled only by the equally famous Dayrit's hamburger -- which the Classic has kept; and part of it was the de luxe way it was served, with chips and potato salad if memory serves me right.  .

Over the years, as its rivals overtook it in popularity, availability, and visibility, it has tried to hang on stubbornly, sometimes perhaps too stubbornly for its own good as when it seemed to resist upgrading its branches, making them look like holdovers from the past century.  But at the same time, that stubbornness is what may have kept its loyal followers like me coming back for the Tropical Hut burger taste--it had kept the flavor that had made it an institution, a go-to for a burger fix, and a must-have for those midnight cravings.

The relatively few places it had branches in became my landmarks -- in Greenbelt and Crispa in Gil Puyat opposite the Makati Post Office; the Greenhills branch was another favorite stopover.  The first two are now gone; I haven't been to the latter in ages.  So I am happy that although as whimsical as the food industry can be, Tropical Hut has endured.  And that the Classic Burger is still a classic.

Now, my only quibble is why don't they have a branch in Davao?
Beef Kababs, Chicken Biryani, Prawn Curry

When I was fifteen and living in New Delhi with my parents, I'd often get off the schoolbus a few blocks before our street and walk home from there so I could pass by the local bakery.  I'd pick up half a dozen piping-hot vegetable samosas, make half of them disappear, and arrive home with a cheery 'Hey Mom, Dad, look!  I got us samosas -- one each!'

My first bite of Raaz Mahal's vegetable samosas inevitably brought back this memory, as fresh and sharp as it was yesterday (Hey, it's not been that long ago! Uh, yeah riiiight.).  I guess another reason this memory got triggered was because our first visit to Raaz Mahal was at my dad's invitation, his treat for me on my birthday.  The two of us have had a real weakness for Indian cuisine ever since that stint in Delhi, and as Raaz Mahal serves Punjabi food, the same North Indian food we got used to, we're really happy we've now got a restaurant like this in BF.  A few days later, Cat and I visited again to interview the Arshad family, Raaz Mahal's owners, and of course to eat more samosas.
Vegetable Samosas and Potato Pakoras
Ordering for the family, I went for the tried and true appetizers: Vegetable Samosas, Onion and Potato Pakoras, and cheese-filled Aloo (Potato) Balls.  We followed this up with the Chicken Dal, Chapatti bread to scoop up the dal with, Beef Kababs, Prawn Curry, and Chicken Biryani, and on our return visit, we tried the Goat Korma and Naan.  

The great delight of Indian food, for me, is the way the complex blend of spices, the masalas, create a cascading explosion of flavors on the palate and the nose.  This is exactly what we got with Raaz Mahal's food.  The Samosas were crisp on the outside, soft and delicately spiced inside, and served with a sweet and tangy chutney sauce.  The Pakoras were also crisp, really nicely done -- flavorful, not oily at all despite their being deep-fried -- and went great with the provided chili dip.  The kids went bananas over the Aloo Balls, which were like potato croquettes filled with an herbed cottage cheese, and also served with chili dip.  
Aloo Balls and Chicken Dal with Chapatti

I would've liked more lentils in the Chicken Dal, which was a lentil-and-chicken stew with curry spices.  You scoop it up with torn pieces of Chapatti bread or Naan.  The Beef Kababs and Prawn Curry came next, and disappeared very quickly!  The kababs were delicately spiced, still moist inside (ground meat kababs dry easily, so this tells me the cook has a light hand on the grill), and served with a yogurt-mint-and-coriander-leaf sauce that surprisingly turned out to be the spiciest thing on the table, heat-wise.  The Prawn Curry was buttery and had just the right amount of heat for the family -- strong enough that you could tell this was real Indian food, yet toned to the level that my sister and nieces could still taste everything.  And the prawns were very fresh -- they had that sweet fresh taste.  Because of the strong sauce of the kabab and the prawn curry, I'm afraid I wasn't able to really isolate the flavor of the biryani very well; it was very fragrant though, and yes, it was made with real basmati rice.  
Goat Korma with Naan
I wish though that I'd thought to order the Korma while my whole family was there.  That was a knockout!  The yogurt-based sauce was very rich and creamy, nicely aromatic with the distinct yet far from overpowering mutton scent that tells you this isn't beef or pork.  (Raaz Mahal is owned by a Pakistani family and serves Halal food).  If I had to recommend a dish with which to break the common Pinoy aversion to goat or mutton, this korma would be high on the list, if not first.  We chose to have this curry with Naan bread instead of rice, and I'm happy to report that Raaz Mahal's naan is the kind made with sesame seeds, giving them a nice added crunch.  

I just wish the portions were bigger, a concern that manager Shala Arshad assures me will be dealt with when they come out with their new menu.  Now that they know their market and are more confident that their food sells, Shala says, they're ready to upgrade the 'sampler' portions to something larger.  Raaz Mahal is not a cheap place to eat, but given the complexity of their dishes, and the fact that all the spices they use must  be imported from Pakistan, you know what you're buying.
Shala, her brother Ismail (Ish), the chef, and their father Muhammad sat with us as we were wolfing down the korma to tell us Raaz Mahal's story.  The name Raaz Mahal means 'Secret Palace' or 'Mysterious Palace,' and fits right in with the tasteful, very Indian theme of the interiors.  The Arshads own the Orientique furniture and antiques stores, and it shows.  Raaz Mahal's interiors are painted in the gay hues of a bazaar in Rajasthan, and studded with plaques and statuettes done in traditional Indo-Persian motifs.  

Nor are the Arshads newbies at the restaurant business, having opened one in Jakarta sixteen years ago, and another in Lahore.  In fact, Shala says, the very reason for Raaz Mahal's existence is the love she and Ish have for their dad's cooking, which is based on traditional Muslim Punjabi recipes.  But when he finally caved in to their insistent clamor for a restaurant here in Manila, it was Muhammad Arshad who chose Aguirre Avenue as their first location; a tribute to the burgeoning BF Homes food culture.  
Chicken Tikka

We finished our meal the same way we did on the previous visit, with a Strawberry Lassi.  This sweet iced drink, with just the right amount of fresh strawberry and yogurt tartness, clears the palate beautifully after a meal rich in heady masalas and ghee; not surprisingly it's one of their bestsellers.  They also offer Mango and Banana Lassi, and we also tried their Kulfi; an ice-cream like dessert made with milk steeped with intoxicatingly fragrant cardamom and topped with crushed pistachios.  Dairy-based desserts are very important when you eat hot food like Indian or Malay, as the milk clears the burning sensation from the tongue.  (Alcohol intensifies it though; which is why, spice freak that I am, I had my appetizers and main course with San Mig Lite!).  

Ish Arshad says, though, that we've yet to try their real signature dish, the Beef Nihari.  It's a rich beef curry that takes all of seven hours to cook, and I can just imagine how richly developed its flavors should be from that treatment.  Looks like Cat and I have something to look forward to!
The Arshad Family

Raaz Mahal

Tom Yum Goong
There's a certain level of expectation you build when a restaurant's owner tells you they delayed opening until they had all the necessary herbs growing in their garden.  That electric feeling of anticipation was just what I got when we first talked to Thai Fusion Cafe's genial owner, Don Reyes.  Thai cuisine's unique flavor is built on a selection of fresh, aromatic herbs, so when a restaurateur tells you they grow their own, you know they're honestly passionate about their food.

Cat and I finally got to try Thai Fusion Cafe, and I'm glad to report that my expectations were met.  No, more than that -- they were totally bowled over!  Put it this way:  If ever a typhoon catches you in here and Aguirre floods, you can just imagine that you're in Bangkok eating at this secret locals' place beside a klong.  That's how I felt after sampling four of Thai Fusion Cafe's dishes -- Tom Yum Goong, Red Chicken Curry, Pad Thai, and Bagoong Rice with Sweet Pork.  There's an elusive quality that just tells you a real Thai hand is behind a Thai dish--the balance of flavors, the bright freshness of the herbs and ingredients, the respect  with which they treat the food.  Not surprisingly, Don's secret weapon is his wife Patty, a Thai he met while working abroad.

Bagoong Rice with Sweet Pork
Thai Fusion Cafe, Don says, was five whole years in development:  research, recipe testing, business studies; and yes, making sure their backyard herb garden could supply enough for a restaurant.  Despite, or perhaps because of all that research, Thai Fusion Cafe has a very down-to-earth approach that lets you know this is a Thai place, while making you feel very much at home. 

The interior of their new location, along Aguirre beside Arti's Boutique (the former site of Chi's) and near the Rodeo Spa, is simply yet tastefully done, with an atrium for al fresco dining that should be very inviting on clear December evenings.  Subtle clues to the identity of the chef can be found in the decor -- not the mass-produced  tapestries or paintings you'll find in Bangkok's tourist bazaars, but modern prints of signature Thai things such as kickboxing, temples, and portraits of the Thai royal family. 

Then there's the earnest tagline Don uses to market his food--not 'authentic Thai', but 'home-cooked Thai cuisine.'  Don's a great believer in letting the customer discover the quality of Thai Fusion Cafe as a delightful surprise and gratifying experience, a refreshing approach to branding compared to the hard-sell variety.  He's even humble enough to warn that they can't always have everything available, or always produce a dish the same way all the time.  That's why he's in no hurry to branch out even with offers on hand; to him quality, not quantity, is paramount and comes first.

Thai Milk Tea (Jumbo size)
Don had already revealed his aces -- herb garden, Thai wife -- when he asked how spicy I wanted my food, with a mischievous twinkle.  I asked for their normal level of heat, and immediately got insurance by ordering some Thai Milk Tea; I knew I'd need it!  Sure enough, Cat and I got the works!  Even at mild levels Cat's eyes were going wide as she ate her Bagoong Rice with Sweet Pork.  Me, spice addict that I am, I think I was pounding the table with joy over my Penang Curry. 

First impression: these fresh, bright flavors are really possible only when you've got fresh Thai herbs to use, and the cook really knows what she's doing!  The rich coconut milk sauce was smooth, creamy, shot through with sparks of unique flavor from the Thai basil and other fresh herbs in it.  As for the chili level, as expected, their normal is a cut above what you might expect from Malay or Indonesian; which in turn is a cut stronger than North Indian, what I'm most used to.  That Thai Milk Tea was indispensable!  I had the curry with white rice, as per Don's advice, so I could enjoy the sauce's flavor to its fullest.
Red Chicken Curry (Penang)
Same thing with the Tom Yum Goong, our usual benchmark for the quality of a Thai restaurant.  It was a bright, complex interplay of herbs and contrasting flavors -- sweet, sour, salty, hot, savory -- and capped by the sweet light texture of very fresh prawns.  Now, I'm allergic to crustaceans; the older the stock, the stronger its effect on me.  My allergies remained quiet during and even after our meal, despite the soup having several split prawn heads in it for flavor.  Conclusion: those prawns were still swimming a day or two ago.  This guess was borne out by Don's assuring us that he's very meticulous about freshness, keeping only three days' worth of stock on hand at any time. 

Cat was amazed by the complex balance of the soup, quite unlike the Tom Yums in her memory bank.  Don speculates that may be because, left to their own devices, Filipino cooks tend to gravitate to the familiar flavor of sinigang and make their Tom Yum closer to our local soup by using less coconut milk and a much more conservative use of herbs. It was a gamble, he says, to introduce his wife's Tom Yum Goong because the Filipino market might already have been used to a modified, Filipinized version of Tom Yum.  Me, I think that's a gamble Thai Fusion Cafe is going to win.

A note to the less adventurous -- Don stressed the importance of enjoying these dishes the Thai way.  Many Thai offerings, such as the Bagoong Rice with Sweet Pork, have their flavors balanced in such a way that not eating everything on your plate will totally alter your experience.  Under his guidance, Cat tossed the sweet stir-fried pork, scrambled egg, mango strips, chilis, chopped string beans and shallots into her rice, and immediately she tasted the difference.  I tried it too, and yes, the flavors now came together like a harmonious gamelan symphony. Then we both grabbed our Milk Teas!  I'm not sure if the chef was using Thai birdseye chilies or our siling labuyo, but a mere teaspoonful of the stuff is mighty powerful.  One reason why the condiments are grouped apart on your plate, aside from the presentation's appeal, is so you can mix as much or as little of each as you want  (although he says another reason for the compartmentalized presentation is that some customers may be allergic to some ingredients).

Pad Thai
The Pad Thai arrived last, when we were already starting to feel full. That we left not even a single bean sprout, noodle or speck of ground peanut surviving on that plate should tell you how we found it!  Don's recommended way of eating Pad Thai is to pair it with their Papaya Salad or with Satay, either chicken or pork.  Pad Thai has become a favorite of some regulars' children, he says; maybe this is a good way to trick kids into eating their vegetables?  It's also one totally non-spicy dish, so you've a fallback order if any of your friends or family are averse to chilies.

Thai Fusion Cafe was recommended to us by our friend Sheila Amora, owner of Funky Plum.  She was so eager to have Good Living BF feature this restaurant, she even followed up a few days after texting us her recommendation.  Now we know why.  Had my mom been born Thai, I think this is how she'd have cooked.  Honest, unpretentious, yet lovingly dedicated to quality.  This is the real stuff! 

You may also want to try their other bestsellers:  Chicken Pandan, Thai Toast, (Fried) Glass Noodle Spring Rolls, Pork or Chicken Satay, and the Papaya Salad.

Thai Fusion Cafe

"As a wife and a mom above everything else, I'd never feed anyone something I wouldn't feed my own family," says home baker-turned-entrepreneur Ria Ortega.  "So everything that goes into my baked goods has to be fresh and first class.  I wouldn't substitute to cut down on cost."  This uncompromising stance on quality is evident in every bite of Ortega's fine desserts, from her blueberry muffins to her traditional Ilonggo ensaymada.  That maternal attachment also shaped the name of her new business, Apron Strings - a name connoting strong and lovingly maintained family ties, and a long tradition of baking only the best.

Indeed, baking is in Ria's blood.  She recalls watching her Lola Rosita making ensaymadas and fruitcakes from her earliest childhood, an activity she thought so much fun that when finally allowed to mess around in the kitchen at age eight, Ria took to baking like the proverbial duck to water.   

"My father wouldn't allow me into the  kitchen before I was eight.  Since to a child whatever is forbidden just seems more enticing, my interest was really piqued.  Finally when I reached eight, my mom enrolled me in a baking class with Lorrie Reynoso, and I knew I loved to bake because I would wake up in the morning, already looking forward to going to my classes," Ria says.  Even now the ensaymada recipe she uses is her Lola Rosita's; thick, fluffy, buttery without being oily, the top fragrant with freshly grated queso de bola. "Eating that ensaymada just takes me right back to my childhood," Ria grins. "Heaven!"
Through her years growing up and later going on to a career in theatre and music, Ria maintained her ties to the kitchen.  "Ever so often I would bake again, trying recipes from books and magazines or sometimes trying to formulate my own.  I would want something, like a particular texture and flavor in brownies that I just couldn't find in commercial ones, so I ended up developing my own brownie recipe," she says.  

On marrying and getting pregnant with her first child, Ria discovered that her version of 'nesting' was to spend even more time in the kitchen, and took more classes with Sylvia Reynoso-Gala.  "That's when I began to realize my love of cooking and baking could be deep enough that I could turn it into a career," she says, and now she's finally making that leap of faith.
Apron Strings is starting out in the classic manner of homegrown businesses built with love -- on a shoestring, but with a ready and familiar clientele of friends who've known what Ria can do for years.  Working out of her home, Ria takes orders for brownies, cookies, ensaymada, and cinnamon rolls, and is developing new recipes in her spare time.  
One product we're watching out for with breathless anticipation is her cinnamon rolls with mango.  She'll be participating in the Cuenca bazaar at Ayala Alabang Village and is hoping to get into Mercato Centrale in Fort Bonifacio.  "When the demand gets big enough, I'll consider opening a bakeshop or cafe.  Slow but sure is the way to go for me," Ria says.  "Anyway, whatever happens or how long it takes, this will always be a labor of love for me.  Baking isn't just about producing breads or cookies or cakes. It's about creating memories as we enjoy our goodies, whether it's in the process of making them, or eating them."

To order products, you can email me through apronstrings.pastries@gmail.com, or text (0917)854-5143

Apron Strings

Pia de la Fuente-Kasilag and Paolo de la Fuente
BF Homes seems to have become an incubating ground for restaurant concepts of almost every type, with new restos mush-  rooming along the length of Aguirre seemingly overnight.  It's great for us residents to be sure, but I can only imagine the anxiety of current restaurant owners as the competition heats up.  Who will last? Who will break out of BF and make it in Makati, or Malate, or Timog? One of the homegrown concepts I'd take a bet on is Mediterranean-inspired restaurant Pito & Mita, which opened doors around nine months ago.

We'd been hearing good things about this restaurant for some time, so it was with great anticipation that Cat and I went to try it out.  Everyone recommends the Spinach Artichoke Dip with Melba Toast, so we tried that, while I got the Eggplant Lasagna and Cat the Parmesan-Crusted Baked Fish.  All three are among Pito & Mita's bestsellers, co-owner Paolo de la Fuente tells me, and I soon see why.
Spanish Artichoke Dip
The Spinach Artichoke Dip is light and creamy, with a subtle and somewhat smokey flavor; I suspect they roast the garlic they put in it, and they put in just the right amount, enough to give it a kick but not so much as to overwhelm the delicate spinach and artichoke.  I want chef Pia (de la Fuente-Kasilag, Paolo's sister) to start bottling this so I can have it on crackers when reading late at night!  Add their sauces and dressings, too, that they make from scratch.  
Eggplant Lasagna
The Eggplant Lasagna is also a must-try, whether you're a vegetarian or a dyed-in-the-wool carnivore like myself.  I love meat; I want the taste of meat with practically every meal; but as with Indian cuisine, I can go vegan on this dish and not miss the meat at all.  The serving is quite generous, and though this is indeed a meatless dish, the hearty eggplant-tomato sauce and baked cheese crust together with the pasta make this a real belly-filler.  Order this to share if you're a light eater.
Parmesan-Crusted Baked Fish
And if I thought the lasagna was good, the Parmesan-Crusted Baked Fish was even better (although Cat couldn't rave enough about the lasagna).  This cream dory fillet was baked just right, so the flesh was firm yet melt-in-your-mouth tender, the whole thing crusted in a crisp thin shell of Parmesan cheese.  Better yet, while this dish can be served with a side of rice, we had it with the Potato Gratin.  Double the cheese is double the fun in my book, and when half of that is on baked potato I can get really mellow!

We may have gotten the crowd favorites but Pia isn't resting on her laurels but is constantly adding new dishes like their newest appetizers, Mushroom Alajillo, Shrimp Gambas & Assorted Grilled Sausages, and a third soup, Cream of Pumpkin.  They have started to branch out to catering, just needing a two-week's notice from interested customers.

The secret behind Pito & Mita is chef Pia Kasilag's touch with her old family recipes.  "A lot of what we serve in Pito & Mita is the food we grew up with at home," Paolo reveals.  The de la Fuentes, it turns out, are a family of foodies with a special love for Spanish and Italian cuisine.  After serving a stint as flight attendant in Northwest Airlines, Pia returned to set up the restaurant with Paolo, bringing in family favorites such as the Sopa de Pamplina, a Spanish-inspired soup that's the family's traditional Christmas soup; the Eggplant Lasagna; the Steak Salpicao; the Sicilian Chicken Salad; and the lemon-flavored Moringa juice that they serve as one of the house's recommended drinks.  Cat and I washed down our meal with the Moringa juice, and found it very refreshing indeed -- fragrant, lemony, and not at all bitter as you might fear something made from malunggay might be.
And this I think is the reason Pito & Mita will be around for a while.  Simple, hearty, delicious food, familiar enough for anyone to get into yet with that unique touch from recipes incubated in family tradition, and all that served _healthy_.  

When we asked what has been their best experience so far, Pia said it was hearing rave reviews.  "We never know what to expect from business so it's nice to hear good reviews especially from walk-in customers," she smiles.  She can deservedly add this review to their growing list good feedbacks.

Pito & Mita

Lamb satay
There's a place in BF that serves lamb satay!  Whee!  That was my first reaction on reading the menu at Food de Sentosa, a Singaporean restaurant in Phase 3 that's been garnering quite a bit of attention lately.  Business has been good so they are expanding the restaurant and adding five to six more tables next month.

Food de Sentosa is owned by Mr. Ronnie Teo, a Singaporean who's immigrated and married here.  His son, David, turned out to be a co-teacher of mine at the College of Saint Benilde, but had to take a leave to help out at the restaurant due to the unexpected boom of demand there.  He is now its full-time manager but you can also find him inside the kitchen helping his dad cook.

The elder Teo is a retiree who started the restaurant simply because he got bored after retirement.  He had always loved cooking as a hobby and being the cook of the family, he brought in his family recipes as well as his own style of cooking and drew from Singapore's mixed Malay-Chinese heritage to build up Food de Sentosa's menu.

The eventual success of Food de Sentosa is one of life's quirks that just happens:  With no business plan, no formal culinary training, no background in the food business, but armed only with a love of food and cooking, he launched his restaurant in November 2009.  He never expected it would take off the way it has--they were even featured in the Philippine Daily Inquirer without their knowing a reviewer had visited--because he wasn't serious about it when he started, recalls David. 

Today, they have regulars in and out of BF, like a fellow Singpaporean who travels all the way from Batangas just to eat there three to five times a week.  Can you say Food de Sentosa addict? 

One other reason for his success may be that Mr. Teo simply can't say no to any customer requests--he once cooked tempura for a customer.  "Sometimes, he will cook something new on the spot and sometimes the dish would find its way to the menu the next day," David grins.  He will also create new dishes with in-season ingredients like tom yao, kay lan, bok choy, and tang-o either from the local market or flown in from Singapore.  (They also have kid-friendly dishes like Fried Fish Fillet with Chili Crab Sauce that's not spicy and custom-made prawn-flavored fried chicken). 

Nasi Goreng
Cathy and I decided to try out the Lamb Satay -- hey, I never say no to lamb satay! -- the Black Pepper Beef, and the Nasi Goreng.

We loved the Lamb Satay, grilled to tender perfection and served with Mr. Teo's own traditional peanut sauce.  Food de Sentosa's version of satay sauce is not as sweet as the Madurese version served in Pawon Ageng; I think it has more tamarind, and has a more herby aroma.  Which do I like better? Give me both!  Nobody ever died of a satay overdose, and one of these days when wifey is not watching I'm going to prove it!  The sauce went very well with the unique aroma of lamb.

The Black Pepper Beef had a nice savory flavor, though not as hot as I would've expected from a Singaporean restaurant; unfortunately there were some tough bits. 

I enjoyed the Nasi Goreng, Malay-style spiced fried rice with bits of meat, vegetables and egg, made savory with belachan, Malay dried shrimp.  I rather wish the portion was a bit larger because we finished it before we could consume all the beef.  The Nasi Goreng was really a meal in itself--a scrumptious one at that--so we could've gotten two and skipped the Black Pepper Beef.

I also wish I wasn't allergic to crab.  A serving of chili crab went to the other table just as Cat and I finished eating, and the aroma simply grabbed me and almost made me forget I'd already eaten.

I've always said BF Homes needs more restaurants like these, and I'll say it again.  Singaporean food is a great way for Pinoys to start sampling the wider galaxy of Asian cuisines, blending as it does the influences of Malaysian and Indian cuisine with the familiarity of Chinese, and Food de Sentosa is just the place for it. 

One last detail:  Why the color purple as the restaurant's theme color, we asked David.  Because his dad didn't want the all-too familiar red, David laughs.  Food de Sentosa's striking color was a great way to announce itself to the community a year-and-a-half ago, being the first restaurant here to use it in a big way.  Today, his cooking and can-do attitude has endeared himself to his customers and has established his former hobby into a full-blown business.

Food de Sentosa

Editors Note:  We'd like to thank Ria Quintos-Ortega for reviewing Chic-Boy for Good Living BF.
By Ria Quintos-Ortgega

I have heard many good things about Chic-boy from my friends and my party-legal children.  I have been told me about their delicious Chicken Inasal and garlic rice with chicken oil poured over it with extra toasted garlic sprinkled on top.  Doesn’t that just make your mouth water?!?!  So I decided to bring my brood to the Chic-boy branch along President’s Avenue, BF Paranaque for dinner so I could see for myself what the fuss was about.

Let’s talk about what’s good about Chic-boy.  First, parking was not a problem, considering it was a Sunday night, and the place was packed.  There was more parking on the left side of the building too. 

Second, the food was fantastic!  Chic-boy is a play on the words Chicken and Baboy.  We felt like the “boy” part of Chic-boy so we ordered the following items:  My husband had the salmon sinigang, a double order of garlic rice, a double order of ginisang kangkong to share, and the Whole Cebu Lechon Liempo.  My daughter ordered the SS-1 (Sizzling Special Meal Lechon Sisig served with rice and soup).  My son and I both ordered a CB-6 (Chibog Busog Meal Cebu Lechon Liempo served with rice and soup). 

The salmon sinigang was what I would like this dish to be.  No scrimping on the salmon belly and soup sour enough to make your cheeks pucker.  The garlic for the rice was toasted to perfection.  The kangkong was very flavorful, well-seasoned and had the right crunch and color to it.  The liempo is to die for with its delicious, well-marinated, juicy, succulent meat and crispy skin.  It was lovely.  The sisig was perfect - comparable to those served near the “riles” in Pampanga.  There all sorts of textures at play with the softness and stickiness of the fat and crunch of the skin and the tenderness of whatever lean meat there is.  Not to mention the added kick of the spicy sili!  It was a rock concert in my mouth. 

Third, Chic-boy is rice-all-you-can country!  Yes, you read it right.  This place serves unlimited rice.  For those of you who are big fans of the stuff, the waiters go around carrying rice buckets, ready to plop a hot steaming heap of unadulterated carbohydrates onto your plate.

Lastly, you get great value for your money here.  A very filling CB-6 meal costs P99.  If you add a bottomless iced tea, it will come to about P124.  Not bad at all!

Unfortunately, I do have some issues with Chic-boy, starting with the poor ventilation.  The minute we walked through the door, the air was thick with the scent of barbecue smoke.  It clung to my hair and my clothing.  You must not shower before going here.  Wait until after you get home or you’ll have to take another one if you do. 

When we entered Chic-boy, we waited to be seated.  The waiter approached us after a few seconds to tell us that we needed to place our order first, but we had to wait for a free table.  He quickly added that there were people who were almost done anyway, so it shouldn’t be a problem.

Well, it was.  After we had our orders efficiently taken by the person at the counter and was handed our order number, we had to look for a table.  I approached one of the waiters and asked if there was a queue for seating.  The reply was, “Wala po.  First come, first serve.”  I replied with, “That’s not a good idea.”  People were circling the area for tables like vultures prowling for a meal.  Some who came in after us got a table sooner just because they happened to stand next to some diners who finished earlier than expected.  Not exactly first come, first served, is it?  To be fair to the service staff, they rustled up a table once I grimaced at their response. 

Once we were seated, we were served in trickles. The first to arrive were the drinks, the salmon sinigang, my husband’s double orders of rice and ginisang kangkong, and my daughter’s SS-1.   My son had to follow up the rest of our orders 7 minutes into the meal.  By the time the Whole Cebu Lechon Liempo and one of the CB-6 orders got to us, my husband was halfway through.  They seemed to have forgotten my order, so I had to follow up on it.  My CB-6 didn’t arrive until everyone was almost done.  I was, then, pressured to wolf the delicious food down.  I was so rushed that I wasn’t able to ask for the soup which is supposed to be available upon request.

The restroom?  It was nicely appointed, but by the time I got to it, the liquid hand soap was so diluted, it may as well have been water.  There were no paper towels to dry your hands with, and worse, there was no toilet paper.  The toilet and urinal were not as clean as I would like them.

My verdict is this:  If you’re in the mood for a no-frills, insanely affordable pig-out meal, with extra helpings of rice and well-prepared meat, Chic-boy is the place for you. I’d definitely go back to eat there again!  Come on, guys!  I’m rooting for you!