Casa Manila, on a weekend, is more like a church after party than a restaurant. The particular Sunday that we head north of the city to pay a visit, we happen to crash a private Baptism bash for eighty. We tiptoe past the glistening suckling pig, the platters of desserts and swerve between the grannies and rosy-cheeked children lined up for their private buffet, to the back of the restaurant, where those who aren't on the list are cast away.
Located in a strip mall surrounded by office towers, the space is large, clean and typical of any Asian restaurant. Their dizzying menu may be a bit hard to navigate for first timers, but owner Lilian Velasco-Co has a knack for anticipating what customers will enjoy at first glance. She patiently goes through a range of possibilities before we narrow it down. A menu splashed with colourful images also come in handy.
Bicol Express ($8.99) shows just how cross-cultural Filipino cuisine really is. A dynamite mix of bitter melon, aubergine, bell peppers, okra in a buttery coconut milk, laced with shrimp paste and pierced with a sharp chili heat, is a harmonious blend of flavours.
Chicken Adobo ($9.99, pictured in lead photo above), possibly the most well-known dish hailing from the Philippines is easily adaptable to Western taste buds. Like chicken with a thick, salty gravy, Casa Manila adapts to Western tastes by using skinless, boneless chicken breast and being shy on the vinegar.
Philippine's national pride, Milkfish ($10.99), is seared to a golden brown, doused in a light soy sauce, sprinkled with salt and finished with a twist of lemon. The texture of the fish may not be for everyone as it is on the drier side and is rather firm. It's a fish dish that I can easily see my mother, or grandmother make and serve with love. Simple, slightly bland and completely de-boned (so that the young ones don't choke), this is evocative of typical Asian homestyle cooking.
It would truly be a travesty to leave Casa Manila before trying their heavenly Halo Halo ($5.50). A mountain of shaved ice topped with a rainbow of beans, a river of condensed milk, caramelized plantain, sweet taro paste, yams, coconut jellies, lime jello, taro ice cream and flecks of sugary pseudo Frosted Flakes, this vibrant dessert instantly etches a smile across my face.
The friendly staff, children playing hide-and-go-seek and rustic home cooking, all make me feel comfortably at ease and very much at home in Casa Manila.
Photos by Francis Jonas Yap