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.
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?
Del's Kitchen is one place that could easily slip beneath your radar if you're not on the lookout for it. Tucked away along Elizalde (on the segment between Aguirre and President's Ave), there's only a small and simple black and white sign to tell you the house with the tasteful Mactan stone facing and patio behind the wrought iron fence is now a restaurant (a tarp has now been added). Chances are though that within a few months this restaurant will be lining its side of Elizalde with the parked cars of its happy diners. I'd even lay a bet on it.
Del's Kitchen is the brainchild of Julius Bernard Lopez and his high school friend, long-time BF Homes resident Deb Gutierrez, and is named for her late mother. The partners explored several concepts for the place before settling on the heart-warming idea of comfort food with a gourmet twist. "You'll see that all the foods we offer are quite familiar, we got from this and that cuisine but they're all familiar, but with an extra something added by the chef who developed our menu for us," Julius says. We got to try out some of Del's bestsellers, starting with the Potato-Bacon Chowder, then the Nobu Prawn Tempura, followed by Mussels Puttanesca, Chicken a la Mexicana, their most popular entree the Crispy Bagnet Kare Kare, and finally the opulent Triple Decker Chocolate Cheesecake, which has been voted a Top Food Choice of the Ayala Malls by online voting.
Potato Bacon Chowder
True to the concept of comfort food, all the dishes we tried were indeed very hearty and likely to be ordered again on your next visit. First, though, a word about the serving sizes: they're big. All the entrees come in servings good for 2 or more persons, and for some dishes like the Barbecued Beef Short Ribs you can order a plate good for four. Our first dish, the Potato Bacon Chowder, was a thick creamy soup full of tender cubes of potato and bits of real bacon. This is one soup I'd definitely ask for should I get a cold! Because it's so heavy, though -- think of an arroz caldo with potato instead of rice, and you'll get a good picture of this soup's consistency and filling power -- I suggest sharing.
Nobu Prawn Tempura
The next dish was the Nobu Prawn Tempura, named after Japanese chef Nobuyuki Matsuhisa who developed this style of tempura. Instead of being dredged in heavy batter, these prawns are only lightly crusted, allowed to curl elegantly over their tails and served on a bed of potato crisps and a ginger-soy sauce dip instead of the usual tempura dip. They're good even without the dip, as the coating seems to contain some spices, and all our prawns were cooked just right, retaining their full succulence. Cat and I found that it was best to dip our prawns just lightly, as soaking them in the dip made them a bit too salty.
Chicken a la Mexicana
This was followed by the Chicken a la Mexicana, which I could eat as either viand or as an appetizer shared between a small party. It's grilled chicken breast, served sliced on a bed of tortilla bread and topped with a salsa of mango, corn, and coriander, lightly spiced with cumin. The salsa really came together for me, with the zestiness of the coriander and the sweetness of the mango really going well with the slightly smoky chicken, and then you get that nice little crunch of corn. I can imagine this going really well with a bottle of icy San Mig.
We next had Mussels Puttanesca, one of their best-selling pastas. I just had to whisper to Cat, "This is puttanesca the way it should be!" The puttanesca was named for its spicy hotness, from the spicy hotness of Italian -- er, anyway, it's supposed to be hot. All too often, however, I order it and find that it's not. Del's Puttanesca gets that heat right, which sets off very well the sweet succulence of the fresh mussels in it. Those were really fresh mussels! If you're sensitive to hot food, though, remember to order this one mild. But do order it. Cat and I were already looking at each other with goggly eyes by now, but we had one more entree to sample.
Crispy Bagnet Kare Kare
And sample it we did, in fact we kinda scarfed it up, for who can resist crispy deep-fried Bagnet, that wonderful Ilocano take on lechon kawali, served on a bed of Kare Kare sauce and vegetables with heavenly dollops of bagoong and aligue on the side? "You can eat it with a clean conscience, because it comes with vegetables," Julius jokes, adding this is something he often overhears from customers when confronted with the sheer richness of this dish. The pork skin was very crispy, the kare kare sauce richly peanutty, and the vegetables done just right. I didn't sample the bagoong or the aligue -- though I would've wanted to -- because I was afraid of having an allergic reaction; Cat did, however, and had to say the bagoong was done just the way she liked it, flavorful without being too salty, and the aligue rich and delicately flavored. I just have to come back for this when my asthma isn't acting up. I also have to say the artful way this dish is presented -- not sunk in sauce like your usual kare-kare -- might be one way to get a Westerner interested in Filipino food.
Triple Decker Chocolate Cheesecake
To cap our decadently huge meal, we were presented with a slice of Triple Decker Chocolate Cheesecake, the creation of Mel Torre, who supplies Del's Kitchen with all its desserts as well as supplying the Parvati shop in Trinoma. It was through Parvati that this cheesecake received its Ayala Malls Top Food Choice vote, and Cat and I have to agree it deserves it. Despite being convinced, after the Bagnet, that we couldn't take another bite, we demolished the cheesecake in about five minutes. It's rich without being too sweet, the dark chocolate setting off very well the mild flavor of the cream cheese. I normally want coffee with my dessert, just to cut through the sheer sugaryness of most pastries, but this one can be taken without having to order coffee at all.
Del's Kitchen opened only last July 31, and as an introductory promo is offering a free order of pasta and chicken for kids; parties that come in with a child under four feet tall qualify for the promo. If we had kids we'd definitely bring them to Del's Kitchen; since we don't, we'll just go back there anyway and eat for them!
Seeking a coffee spot for me is usually a case of 'let's find a joint that isn't Starbucks.' Not that I don't like Starbucks' coffee, but a) there are usually too many people and too much noise for me in the Starbucks branch here, and b) why should I patronize an American chain when I can have coffee exactly as I like it in a real homegrown Filipino cafe? Which is precisely why I like Figaro at the Pergola Mall. Not only is the coffee good, it has exactly the kind of quiet, classy but laid-back ambiance I find most relaxing.
What I'd never done before, though, was eat lunch at Figaro. Like most cafe-goers, this is a place I usually find myself at in between traditional mealtimes. This time, Cat and I tried their new entrees, the Chicken a la Kiev and the Cream Dory Provencal. The Chicken a laKiev is a chunky, hefty roll of chicken breast enfolding a pretty thick slice of ham and creamily melted cheese, served with Carbonara pasta and fries (also cut thick, as I like 'em). I must confess I was deceived by the size of this serving, thinking it was rather smaller than it really was; that chicken roll is not only sizeable, it's stuffed to bursting. Coupled with the fries, this dish moves comfortably to Medium-Heavy on my Meal Heftiness scale. Did I mention I liked the taste? My portion disappeared in less than ten minutes,which I guess should tell you all you need to know :-)
Cat also enjoyed the Dory Provencal, which came with Arrabiata pasta and green salad. Arrabiata's supposed to be a hot sauce, but Figaro's version is quite mild; however, we loved the flavor, very rich and not too oily. Cat thinks it was made with sun-dried tomatoes, as there was a sort of smoky intensity to the flavor of the tomato. I'm not sure about that, but I am definitely sure that I like this pasta, especially with more chili flakes poured on. The dory was fresh and tender, cooked just right, and its mild flavor with the mustardy, herby Provencal sauce made a nicely balanced contrast to the pasta. Next time anyone tells me healthy eating means eating like a rabbit, I'll confront them with this dish. (By the way, I used quite a bit of the Provencal sauce to dip my fries in; if you order the Chicken a la Kiev, by all means use the Force to influence your companion to order the Dory Provencal!)
Both dishes come with your choice of iced coffee or iced tea. I went for the coffee, Cat for the tea. Figaro's coffee is quite strong, the way I like it, but if you like your iced coffee sweeter you should ask
for sugar or syrup to go with yours. Both drinks were of course very welcome in the oppressive heat.
We had our meal, by the way, in Figaro's mini-function room. This enclosed rectangular space at the side of the cafe looks like it can seat 24 or so people, more if they re-laid out the tables. The back
wall is a bookshelf filled with Readers' Digest compilations. It feels like a library in here, and when it's not otherwise booked it'd be a perfect place to read or use the cafe's Wi-Fi in isolated peace. It would also serve very well for a meeting, seminar for small groups or a small party. Wonder if they'd be open to me taking my gaming group here?