Lovers of grilled food—and who isn’t?—better take note of a piece of information from veteran restaurateur Vicvic Villavicencio.
Raw food exposed to temperatures above five degrees centigrade is good for only two hours, said Villavicencio. Unless you have proper facilities to chill them, these raw items quickly deteriorate.
“Remember, typical buffet lunches can extend up to three hours,” he said. “I’m not saying raw food is dangerous, but the quality steadily deteriorates without a proper chiller.”
Apart from open, theater-style kitchens, which enable kitchen staff to monitor, anticipate and immediately replenish cooked dishes on the buffet line, all Sambo Kojin branches have invested in several open-type chillers that keep fresh ingredients not only accessible to diners, but also constantly chilled at temperatures not exceeding five degrees centigrade.
That’s probably one feature that sets Sambo Kojin apart from other yakiniku restaurants in Metro Manila.
Sambo Kojin, Villavicencio’s latest eat-all-you-can restaurant chain featuring yakiniku cooking, has just gone south with the recent opening of its SM Southmall branch in Las Piñas.
Yakiniku, which refers to the Japanese-style of grilling bite-size meats, seafood and vegetables using a gas- or wood-fired grill, is heavily influenced by Korea, as countless Korean immigrants brought the cooking method to Japan before and immediately after the war.
Sambo Kojin’s huge SM Southmall branch can accommodate up to 350 people. Each of its 67 tables with matching cream-colored chairs comes with a gas-fired grill equipped with a specially designed exhaust system that drags smoke down to keep the place and its diners from smelling like grilled bulgogi.
Sambo Kojin’s older branches in Eastwood, on Edsa (in front of the Corinthian Gardens entrance), and on West Avenue (below an older Kamayan/Saisaki/Dad’s branch) have the same ambiance and grilling system.
Only less than two years after it opened in Eastwood, Sambo Kojin now has four branches. Villavicencio and his children will open a fifth branch as soon as they find an ideal place in Makati.
Villavicencio pioneered the eat-all-you-can concept with the opening of the first Kamayan/Saisaki/Dad’s restaurant on Edsa in 1977.
Although Sambo Kojin puts more emphasis on fresh raw items, which diners can either cook themselves or ask waiters to do for them, the new restaurant chain has adopted established practices Villavicencio and his well-trained staff have perfected over the decades.
Buffets are all about giving diners plenty of choices. Sambo Kojin’s concept, although common in Japan, particularly in the country’s Kansai area, is unique in itself.
It’s neither a Korean nor a Japanese restaurant, but the product of influences from the two great Asian cultures. Because of this unique marriage, diners can choose from more than 150 dishes, including a range of sinful desserts.
But the place isn’t just about quantity. Running a successful restaurant buffet chain is more about quality, which can be achieved only by sourcing the best and most authentic ingredients and making sure they stay fresh. To ensure consistent quality, for instance, Sambo Kojin gets its beef from the US.
“Most of our seafood is sourced locally,” said Villavicencio. “Since our cattle industry isn’t mature yet, we’ve had to import beef to make sure we have a steady and consistent supply of quality meat to provide diners.”
In the family’s two restaurant chains, there has been a move away from a “static” buffet to a more personalized and hybrid type of service provided by well-trained waiters and food servers at both Sambo Kojin and Kamayan/Saisaki/Dad’s.
“In essence, all buffets are static,” said Villavicencio. “You line up, fill your plate and go back to your table. If you want more, you go back to the buffet line. Instead of doing that, our service personnel can bring the food to you. If you know what you want, you can simply tell them and they will get or cook the dish for you.”
Apart from such Japanese staples as kamameshi rice, tempura, sukiyaki and sushi, the restaurant offers diners Korean dishes such as bibimbap, chapchae, kimchi and, of course, bulgogi, which literally means “fire meat” in Korean.
Bokie Villavicencio, 28, one of Villavicencio’s children, chose the name Sambo Kojin or “god of the kitchen” in Japanese.
These days, the elder Villavicencio is happy to simply dispense advice since he has delegated most of his day-to-day duties to his adult children.
Apart from taking care of the Sambo Kojin brand, Bokie manages the restaurant chain’s Eastwood branch. Each sibling is tasked to manage a particular location.
“Diners get as close as possible to a real yakiniku experience at Sambo Kojin,” said Bokie. “Judging from the volume of diners we have, especially during weekends, Filipinos have really warmed up to the concept. They know what they want since most of them are well-traveled and exposed to good food.”
Older sister Mara, 33, who was exposed to the business when she and her identical twin Cara were just six years old, takes care of the Kamayan/Saisaki/Dad’s brand. Mara and Bokie are managing directors of Firstfoods Food Service, Inc., the company behind the family’s two restaurant chains.
Sambo Kojin is also ideal for couples and families to bond through cooking. What’s more, you don’t have to be an expert cook to produce something palatable. Since every item is fresh and pre-cut, you need only to grill them properly to bring out their natural flavors.
“We provide diners with everything, including our in-house special sauces, to maximize their cooking and dining experience,” said Mara. “The Sambo Kojin sauce, our signature sauce, for instance, is ideal for aspiring ‘chefs.’”
Open from Monday to Sunday, Sambo Kojin is one of the main come-ons of the newly launched SM Southmall’s Food Street.
Weekday lunch buffet at all Sambo Kojin branches is priced at P499 per person (no leftovers, please), while dinner is P599 per person.
As part of its opening promo, the SM Southmall branch is charging diners P599 per person for lunch and dinner buffets on Saturday, Sunday and holidays. The offer, which is P50 lower than the regular price, is valid until Dec. 2.
These days, Villavicencio couldn’t be happier seeing his children participate in the continuously growing and evolving restaurant business. After all, “I only have two hands,” said Mr. Kamayan himself.
“Now that the business has been turned over to them, I’m glad to see that they’re very involved in it. They run it like professionals. In fact, they’re now on top of the concepts. I’m just here to help them build it.”
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PHOTOS BY EDWIN BELLOSILLO