In Manila’s red light district you'll find a vibrant food scene waiting to be explored. While walking the bustling streets of Makati, there are mouthwatering street eats, 24-hour party halls and elevated on-trend restaurants that are akin to those you’d find in Brooklyn or Brixton. Makati has it all, and if your stomach is up for the challenge, you will find no better place to chow down on a Philippines food safari.
Located right on Makati Avenue is a bona fide food zoo. A. Venue Mall’s food hall is a street-food delight. Housed beneath a giant tent, your plate-up wish is your desire here. Sisig (pig head and liver), puto bumbong (steamed rice cake), lechon manok (spit-roast chicken)… You name it, it’s here, and at amazingly cheap prices. The scents and endless array of food in front of me has my mouth salivating as I make a beeline for the exotic meats and marinated chicken intestines grilled to perfection.
I was promised they’d be a savoury delight not to be missed, and they don’t disappoint. My only wish besides eating more is opting to not know exactly what it is on each skewer. Luckily, the live music distracts me from my nonsensical phobias and, of course, the cold (and cheap) San Miguel beer is plentiful. It washes down the spice and any unsavoury thoughts about the dish ingredients.
A brave slide down Jacobo Street, carefully navigating past midget boxing and waves of prostitutes throwing advances my way, I arrive at a secret hip restaurant in old downtown Poblacion. Violet neon signs welcome me to Polilya, a restaurant and lounge that’s so cool I wonder if I’ve just walked off the streets of Makati and into Brazil circa 1960.
Designed to within an inch of its life, it’s obvious the people of Polilya take food and drink very seriously. World-class bartenders create ambrosia in a glass on a nightly basis, and it’s all dangerously delicious. Jesse Estes is commanding the zinc and copper bar tonight and, with a shake here and a mix there, he serves me a drink so tasty I’m in danger of becoming addicted.
The cocktails aren’t the only things that delight my taste buds, though. The food here is toothsome, forward-thinking and a novel take on classic Philippine dishes. The spice of the Gangnam-style chicken wings melts my palate, but I have no doubt the Bangla mussels are the kitchen hands’ favourite order – each bowl returns to the kitchen as if already cleaned. And that’s just the entree.
Steak and ale pie, crab cakes and a burger that makes me rethink my religion are all on the menu for the main course. With belly full and legs light, I’m a happy camper. I take one last look at the menu and can’t help myself. I order a serve of the Zen chicken nuggets and decide it’s my favourite dish. Its holy trinity of sauces is so good, I wonder if this is what they mean to be at peace with the universe.
After a fine meal, I ascended to heaven at the I’M Hotel, which hosts one of the coolest rooftop bars I have ever seen, Antidote. Can you say jellyfish wall? Yes, a wall that is a tank filled with glowing jellyfish. The only thing perhaps more beautiful than these balletic sea creatures is the panoramic views of Manila.
It takes a few more cocktails before I stumble into the Filling Station on Burgos Avenue. Truth be told, I’m not sure if it’s late or early when I roll into the cafe-bar, but the place seems to be pumping. I look at my watch – it’s 4am. I’ve never seen a venue so busy at that hour.
The Filling Station is struggling with an identity crisis, embodying part 1950s cafe, part pool hall and part rowdy bar. But somehow, it works, creating an atmosphere that sees me losing track of time. It’s the Vegas of restaurants, with its kitchen and bar open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The people around me is a mix of locals, expats and lost tourists, and from the moment I enter I know I’m in for a good time.
The drinks keep coming and, before I know it, a menu is in front of me. I watch the food arrive at tables around me: perfectly cooked burgers and tuna melts reminiscent of those served up at a diner back home in Queens. I figure, as it’s early morning, a classic American-style breakfast fry-up is in order. I don’t know if it was my mindset or over-stimulated taste buds, but the plate of juicy ham steak, sausages, golden fried hash browns and filling beans are served with some of the best scrambled eggs I’ve ever eaten.
As the sun rises, I find myself back at the opulent I’M Hotel. This time I stay a bit closer to the earth at its insanely cool pool bar where you can have anything from mixed drinks to fresh juices. I sit in one of the oversized birdcages suspended over the pool, contemplating a dive that would test my faith in Filipino construction. The glass-bottom pool, which stretches across the entire face of the building, hangs directly over one of the busiest streets in Manila and is one hell of a way to get over a hangover.
Manila has proven itself deserving of a spot in the pantheon of great cities to imbibe and gorge. From inspired modern menus to the powerful flavours of street food, you simply cannot go wrong in this city that never stops.
GANGNAM-STYLE CHICKEN WINGS
GANGNAM-STYLE CHICKEN WINGS
2 tbs oil
8–10 garlic cloves, chopped
1 tbs chopped ginger
6–7 bird’s-eye chillies
8 chicken wings
3 tbs red chilli sauce
1 tbs soy sauce
1½ tbs chilli vinegar
1½ tbs brown sugar
thin strips of green, red and yellow capsicum, to serve
Heat the oil in a non-stick wok. Add the garlic, ginger and bird’s-eye chillies
and stir until fragrant. Add the chicken wings and sauté until the wings are browned.
Reduce heat and add chilli sauce, soy sauce, chilli vinegar and brown sugar. Stir so that the wings are fully covered and simmer until the wings are cooked through (about 15 minutes). Add a pinch of salt.
Transfer to a serving plate, garnish with the capsicum strips and serve hot.