When I was growing up, the closest grocery to the house was called One-Stop, a dark place slightly larger than a sari-sari store, to which I was occasionally dispatched to buy a tin of corned beef or a bag of pan de sal.
For our weekly haul, the family would pile into the car and head to Uni-Mart supermarket in Greenhills. The trip wouldn’t be complete without a detour to Virra Mall, where we bought hotdogs on buns and ice cream.
For those of us at Xavier School in the 1980s, Virra Mall was where we could find everything—from Betamax tapes with advance copies of American soap operas to comic books and pornography. The school’s truant officer took to waiting for us at the mall rather than trying to catch us escaping over the campus walls.
In search of halal restos
Unlike Makati Cinema Square, which has gone to seed in a graceful way, Virra Mall today is stretched out, pumped with Botox and made up with foundation as thick as plaster.
I like buildings that have been renovated but still retaining some of their old features, rather than razing everything to the ground as most developers prefer to do; but the attempt to rebrand and gentrify is futile against the relentless sprawl of the great shadow market of cheap clothing, knock-off watches, mobile phone unlocking, stolen mobile phones, pirated software, real and fake jewelry, too-cheap-to-be-true pearls.
Once in a while someone will walk past quickly from behind and hiss “Dividi!” and then glance if you’re inclined to follow. The labyrinthine alleyways and staircases are like an old town medina, with the great tapestry of mercantile life unfolding within the nooks and crannies.
It would be a wonderful subject for photography, if your camera wouldn’t be snatched and resold within five minutes.
I was in search of the famed but secretive halal restaurants at the Virra Mall side, mostly canteens for the Muslim vendors in what has essentially turned into a large souk, but the crowds were too claustrophobic on a Saturday afternoon and we found ourselves gravitating to the more familiar chaos of the Promenade area.
There was food everywhere: shawarma stand, fish and chips, dubious dim sum, suman sa latik, Vietnamese pho, leche flan, Portuguese egg tarts, Korean barbecue, Thai noodles, ramen and tonkatsu.
My mind was still fixated on halal food so I ended up at Arya, a Persian restaurant. I know that’s not quite the same thing, but it filled the same need for something flavorful and exotic
that wasn’t available in the usual malls.
Part of the fun
I almost always get the lamb koobideh because it’s the best you can get in the city. Those who grew up with Virra Mall in the ’80s would probably have partied at Club Dredd in the ’90s—beside it was Behrouz where the chargrilled beef kebabs looked good in the dark and tasted fine especially when one was drunk.
Arya’s lamb koobideh is the serious, grown-up-with-kids version of Behrouz’s kebabs, at commensurate prices, and I think it’s worth it. It comes with a generous serving of rice and two grilled tomatoes, but to go whole hog on this you have to order it with a bowl of fresh yogurt and a bowl of tabbouleh: a bit much for one person but just enough if most people at the table are having kebabs of some kind or other (those who don’t like mince might prefer the skewered chunks).
You’ll burp onions for the rest of the evening, but that’s part of the fun.
The biryani is recommended as well, though the lamb dish I like there is the dizi, lamb and chickpeas stew, an ancient Persian comfort food (also known as abgoosht), similar to the traditional Turkish kuzu etli nohut yemegi.
The version that Arya serves is the most common, with tomato sauce and diced potatoes mixed in; you can eat these as part of the stew or, in the Iranian household manner, have the soup on the side and all the vegetables and meat mashed up into paste. This goes well with good bread, either good pita or preferably taftoon (tandoor or clay oven) bread.
Unfortunately, the weakest spot of Arya, the Achilles heel of this Persian stronghold, is its bread. Its pita is quarters of shoe leather, redolent of improvers, which despite arriving at the table wrapped in layers of curtain fabric, is tough and inedible. And without good bread, there cannot be good meze. It’s quite a pity, really. But you can order the food to go and make your own pita at home, which is not that difficult, or you can eat the dizi with rice.
There are some traditional Persian desserts on the menu, but there’s no obligation to linger since there’s lots of other choices in the area. I had made a mental note to grab a luscious leche flan that I saw at a stall for P80, but only remembered on the way to the car. The price for the same at Rockwell is P220.
There are many reasons why the Greenhills Shopping Center can be a bit of a drag to get to and to navigate, but, just like in the ’80s, it’s impossible to stay away from.
Arya is at the G/F, Promenade, Greenills Shopping Center; tel. 5846266.