Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Back Home Again

I have recovered from the cold I caught on our trip to Manilla and we are finishing up our packing for a trip back to the US. We leave in the morning and will be staying for a month. I may put up a post or two while there, but for sure will start posting upon our return. I plan to start with a tour of our (finally) furnished apartment. There is some interesting travel on the horizon for Ken and I plan to tag along on a few of the trips. We are also expecting some company to start visiting this summer. So there will be lots to tell and I look forward to telling it.

Chinese Temple and Family Dinner

The remainder of the day we explored more of the city. One of the very beautiful places we stopped at was the Chinese Temple. It is very old and very peaceful in the midst of this bustling city.

Following our visit to the temple we decided Mickey need a little entertaining. On our way to the arcade we stopped off at Razon's where you can get a "homeburger" and fries along with the best halo halo. We skipped the burger and fries and homed in on the halo halo. The name means mix mix in Tagalog and there are many different recipes. This one is Rommel's favorite because of its simplicity.The drink comes layered with tapioca, jellies, shaved iced, condensed milk and topped with two slices of leche flan. (I never said lo-cal.) 

You mix mix your drink till all of the layers have disappeared and then grab a spoon and enjoy. Following this break we continued on to the arcade. Mickey enjoyed the taxi ride while Rommel had some fans join him on the dance machine. A little basketball was in order and the rest of us played a game or two as well. It was a fun break.

Evening plans included (what else?) a great family dinner. The chef genes run deep in the Ong family. Ronald, the oldest brother, manages a restaurant at a resort and steps in as a chef when needed. Roman Jr., the youngest, also has worked in the restaurant industry and helped prepare our meal. Rommel says he is also a great cook, but since his apartment has no formal kitchen the jury is still out on that claim. He will just have to cook in mine one of these days.

As we pulled up to the family home, we saw a family of kittens being taken care of by Rommel's dad. They are strays and he is caring for them until they are old enough to fend for themselves. Then they will be taken to an area of markets where the food is plentiful and there is less chance of being hit by a car. I guess this is a habit of his whenever he finds stray kittens.

All of the homemade dishes were wonderful and the company even better. It was a great evening filled with good food, good friends and great memories being made.

Our stay in Manilla was made special by the friendliness and generosity of all the people we met. The sights were interesting and beautiful, but the real treasure from this visit was the people we met whom we now call friends.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Chopsticks & Spoon

On Monday we went to another market mall at the base of a high rise residential building and discovered some of the best food in Manilla. Rommel's Uncle Jose takes fine dining food and serves it up in a "fast food" format. Chopsticks & Spoon is an offshoot of a fine dining restaurant Jose owned which was very successful. His newest idea is to use those recipes and presentations in a more relaxed setting. It isn't completely fast food since all dishes are cooked to order. He uses the kitchen in his stall as well as a remote kitchen in a van outside. This allows him to offer charcoal grilled items and items which take more prep than the usual offerings in this setting.

Uncle Jose invited our group for lunch and much of the family joined in. There were brother's, a fiancĂ©, a cousin and mom along with the brood we brought. Once we were all gathered together the food started arriving and the feasting began. 

We started out with hot and sour soup followed by lettuce wraps and green beans with dried shrimp, broccoli and carrots. The veggies were cooked to perfection and the sauce yummy.

A favorite of mine (and everyone else) was the charcoal grilled grouper with shredded mango salad. I have to say, this was the best grouper I have ever tasted and the best presentation.

Pineapple fried rice was followed by warm prawn salad. It was quite a toss up as to which I liked better, the grouper or the prawn salad. The prawn are perfectly cooked and piping hot when mixed in with a cool fruit salad. The dressing is light and tasty and the overall effect is out of this world. Jose also told us that this dish is a favorite of Imelda Marcos who orders it every time she comes (which is quite regularly). I can see why she considers it a part of her top foods list.

It was Cuong's birthday and in honor of his Vietnamese roots we hard a yummy noodle dish as well.

With each dish surpassing the others it was a true feast. We all sat around the table getting plump...

...except for the grouper.

Soon he was nothing but bones and a little shredded mango. But his sacrifice was greatly appreciated.

At the end of the meal we gathered with our host, Jose Toh, his daughter Johanna and others of our group for a quick photo. (Notice Ken and I were so full we couldn't move.) Jose told us that several of his U.S. friends are trying to talk him into expanding his concept to some of their home cities. We would love it if he did. Thank you to Jose and Chopsticks & Spoon for a memorable feast.


Sunday saw us all heading out of the city to Taal Lake in Tagaytay. It is about a 56 km drive mostly through two lane roads up into the mountains. The drive gave us an opportunity to see suburban life and cool down a bit in altitude. Taal Lake is huge with several islands in it. On one of these islands it Taal crater. This is still an active volcano with the most recent eruption being in 2009. It is a very small volcano and when it erupts it is mostly lava flowing down the sides without all of the spitting ash and fire.

We drove through town to see what was there and finally settled on a restaurant for our lunch. Alexander's sat on the cliff overlooking Taal Lake. We ate on the big veranda porch with a warm breeze blowing and lots of good food. Mickey was having nap time at first, but soon joined in to help us consume all of the goodies Rommel chose for our lunch.

Following lunch we took a walk to the edge of the cliff for a spectacular view of the lake and the crater.

Remember the bicycle taxis in the city? Well out in the countryside the bikes are replaced by motorcycles. I actually saw one with seven people riding it. Even some of the shops have these vehicles.

That's the Starbucks logo on the back of this very fancy one.

Tagaytay is primarily a vacation spot. What we would call cottages are considered rest houses in Tagaytay. A friend of Rommel suggested we stop at her family's rest house for a short break in the afternoon. 

This home actually has a history behind it. A pair of young Filipino actors who played opposite each other throughout their childhood decided to marry. They commissioned an architect to design a rest home and the main criteria was that everything be white. The exterior, the interior, the artwork, the furnishings - all white. Well the marriage did not last and the parents of Rommel's friend purchased "the white house" as it is known locally. Most of the home remains true to the original design with a few new personal touches added here and there.

From the road it looks like a white concrete wall with several windows and a garage door. But, once you enter, the home and the view it commands take your breath away. The house is on four levels with each having indoor and outdoor areas. All rooms look out over Taal Lake, the volcano and the countryside far below. It is incredibly unique.

The house is built down the side of the cliff and the various terraces have beautiful flowers and ferns. 

After our tour Auntie Anita served us goodies from the local bakery while we signed the guest book.

Following our rest it was Sunday mass at Our Lady of Lourdes church. At the time we chose the mass was in Tagalog. It is fairly easy to follow most parts, but the sermon went right over our heads. 


I mentioned earlier that I would talk more about the Jeepneys. These unique vehicles are found all over Manilla and I found them and their history fascinating. At the end of World War II when the Americans were leaving the Philippines they left behind a large number of jeeps that had been used during the war. The enterprising Filipino people decided that with a little bit of customizing these jeeps could help solve the shortage of mass transit following the war. Thus began the Jeepney.

A leftover jeep was cut in pieces and additional seating capacity was added to the back end. Individual owners then painted and decorated their Jeepneys to suit their personal tastes (and use available materials). This was the basis for what is now the most prolific form of mass transit in the area. 

Today's Jeepneys continue to be put together by local mechanics using parts from several different vehicles for the inner workings and custom bodies for the cab and passenger compartment. Owners still decorate as they choose and the result is a collection with no two Jeepneys looking alike. If you study the photos below, you can see different themes, car emblems, adverts and most have a "How's My Driving?" sign on the back.

If you are the observant type, you will have noticed one photo with no Jeepneys in it. It is a photo of Jollibee. When you think of Jollibee, think Colonel Sanders meets Ronald McDonald with a large helping of local flare. The Bee is to the Philippines what the Golden Arches are to the US. And both are found throughout Asia. But Mickey D's does not serve halo halo.