From Lugang’s eat-all-you-can ‘xiao long bao’ to Saboten, how can one go wrong?By Clinton Palanca
Philippine Daily Inquirer
Several sources of intelligence have confirmed the existence of a Korean grill restaurant in the Fort Strip, where you eat all the meat you can within one hour of the first dish. My curiosity about this place was tempered by pictures of its wait staff dressed as, you guessed it, Korean pop stars, and of a huge stage with laser lights.
My younger cousins seem to enjoy the place, and since they aren’t into K-Pop, I can only guess it’s the idea of 60 minutes’ worth of unlimited meat for P500 that lures them. I’ve never known of any 20-year-old who can turn down the challenge of beating the house when it comes to promotions like this, but restaurants don’t run promos they can’t make money on, so somehow, I’m sure, there’s a wily businessman rubbing his hands with glee and raking in the cash.
Eating out with friends or family means deviations from the usual: a tacit understanding that when you take a seat in a restaurant, you will pay for the food; the food is cooked in the kitchen, served, and then eaten; and then finally one pays, leaving an excess that is in proportion to how one is pleased or displeased with the service.
I don’t like buffets. I don’t like having to strategize about my meal or leap up mid-conversation because a new platter of oysters has appeared. They bring out the worst in all of us, especially me.
I’m usually a stickler for queuing and I believe that queue-jumping is indicative of moral degeneracy. But if the queue is getting longer from the middle because of people “just passing through” and the person in front is balancing three tiers of plates hoarding all the juicy middle bits of the roast beef, then all bets are off.
Lugang Café has introduced a variation on the buffet where one doesn’t have to run back and forth from one’s place to replenish one’s plate. I haven’t participated in an eat-all-you-can since college, when I tried to beat the house in Saisaki’s unlimited prawn tempura.
But this was eat-all-you-can xiao long bao! For P588! How could one go wrong?
The xiao long bao is as close to perfect food as one can conceive: it has the essential food groups (meat, carbs and soup) in a perfect package, and pops in one’s mouth as addictively as bubble wrap.
I discovered, about 10 baskets later, that there is such a thing as too much xiao long bao, especially with roast pork, roast duck and fried prawns in mayonnaise on the side.
We ended the meal with a peanut smoothie dessert and rolled out of the restaurant.
Down the street, Gloriamaris was doing a promo for its first anniversary in its cavernous new building. I’ve always preferred its more intimate rival, Choi Garden, on Annapolis Street, but the promise of 30-percent off allowed me to be swayed.
I can imagine that the principle behind shabu-shabu—of dipping one’s food in a communal pot and cooking it to one’s liking, thus allowing one to be participatory yet individualistic—once made sense for Chinese families huddled around a warm stove in winter. I’m sure they didn’t have my family in mind because there are four generations of us, everyone cooks, and everyone has an opinion.
We first argue about the broth, then the ingredients, then, while cooking, we battle about the heat, the order in which ingredients go in, whether it should be at a rolling boil or a simmer, whether kidney can be eaten pink or must be cooked through, and so on.
I’m sure it’s an enjoyable activity for people who meekly boil their beef and eat it without criticizing others’ tofu, but with my family, it’s an exhausting activity.
My wife and I ended up at Saboten to try and have a normal meal that did not involve buffets, eat-all-you-can or promos. We had in mind something of a detox-cleanse kind of meal that involved fried pork.
Saboten was very good, with snappy service and impeccable standards that make you forget about assessing. You just have a good time. That said, if one must compare, I still think that Yabu has stronger, more satisfying flavors when comparing like with like, i.e., the basic pork chop.
But Saboten has more interesting combinations and better service. The only things, fortunately, that were unlimited were the cabbage and the soup, and you’d have to eat a lot of cabbage to try and beat the house.
The food was cooked in the kitchen, by chefs, as one would expect in a restaurant.
There were no long queues, and no one picking through the leftover to see if you’ve hidden any unfinished meat under the vegetables.
We’d never been so happy to pay the full price of our meal.
Lugang Café is at 115 Connecticut St. Call 5420196; promo until end of June.
Gloriamaris Shark’s Fin Restaurant is at Missouri cor. Connecticut St. Call 5700921; promo until July 17 (weekdays only)
Saboten is at G/F Serendra Mall, Bonifacio Global City. Call 6252000 (no reservations).