After the intense debates in the “Off the Menu” Food Forum last month attended by industry leaders, the clamor to further promote Filipino cooking to the world was heard loud and clear.
So, restaurant enthusiasts wondered, which restaurant in the Philippines encapsulates native cuisine? What restaurant can we single out for a great first impression of our food, or which reminds us of real Pinoy home cooking?
‘Kare-kare,’ crispy ‘pata’
Back in the day, there was Barrio Fiesta, which, along with Kamayan, represented the quintessential Filipino restaurant. Barrio Fiesta was famous for serving kare-kare and crispy pata. An affiliate restaurant established later, Singing Cooks & Waiters, replicated the menu of Barrio Fiesta but made the staff’s live performance the centerpiece of the dining experience.
Sadly, word-of-mouth reactions have come to generally revolve around regret and disappointment over Barrio Fiesta (as well as Singing Cooks & Waiters). What is recognized as a Filipino food institution has slipped in both taste and overall dining experience. I visited both restaurants recently, hoping I could say that, on the contrary, they remain a beacon of Philippine cuisine. Sadly, the general sentiment is true.
If you lined up various Filipino restaurants for a village fiesta, one house for each resto, Barrio Fiesta and Singing Cooks would be the houses to skip. While the menus remain extensive and homegrown favorites are in the lineup, the execution has left much to be desired.
For instance, on a long soup list, Barrio Fiesta highlights the bouillabaisse as its delicacy. “A must-try!” the menu proclaims. Instead of promoting something of Pinoy origin, the resto puts the exclamation point on a Marseille specialty.
That would be forgivable if it was executed well, like Margarita Fores’ bouillabaisse which highlights Filipino seafood such as apahap and diwal. However, in place of an intense broth from a stock of seafood bones, heads and shells, Barrio Fiesta’s bouillabaisse was creamy, and tasted as if it used a quick mix from a sachet. When I asked the waiter to double-check with the kitchen, he came back with confirmation that the soup was made using “powder and milk.”
Over at Singing Cooks & Waiters, the sinigang is prepared as the cook sings. As he hits a high B-flat, he grabs a pail from under a table that is part of the makeshift stage and pours the liquid into a kaldero. That is your sinigang. Who knows how long that pail has been there?
Then there was the seafood in bawang (garlic), described as “heavenly” on the menu. But angels and saints would pray dearly for salvation from this affront to garlic.
The binukadkad na plapla was likewise drab. The inihaw na tadyang could have been the restaurant’s salvation if it was flavorful and fall-off-the-bone tender. Alas, practically a fourth of the tadyang was also litid (tendon).
Back at Barrio Fiesta, the chicken barbecue, while marinated well, was served undercooked, with blood evident on the bone. The dinuguan, served without innards, lacked sourness, a poor example of this provincial favorite. The kare-kare, which would have been good as its sauce hit the right notes, was practically a vegetarian dish with very few slices of oxtail. And the meat of the bistek Tagalog was a tough chew.
The good news is that the waiters in both restaurants were friendly and always smiling. But at Barrio Fiesta, expect a 20-minute wait before the soup is served; and at Singing Cooks & Waiters, prepare to hear your stomach growl because once the repertoire starts, restaurant responsibilities are put on hold while the place becomes a stage and the cooks and waiters become singers.
Your food will be served after the set. Our orders took half an hour.
On these past few visits, I am happy to note that Singing Cooks was clean, in stark contrast to Bakahan at Manukan’s ambiance a few years ago, when our group shrieked when a rat as big as a kitten scrammed from the dining area to the kitchen. (Bakahan at Manukan on Roxas Boulevard is on the ground floor of the Singing Cooks & Waiters building, but they share a kitchen).
Is there a redeeming factor for these Barrio Fiesta restaurants? Sure. At Singing Cooks, you can come for the singing (though not for the cooks). And in both restos, the servings were heaping, usually good for three persons.
What they lack in quality they evidently make up for in quantity. But that’s like being in a relationship without love: you leave stuffed but not satisfied. It’s an empty experience—something you can do without.
Thankfully, other restaurant groups have not yet developed calloused palates. Aristocrat has impressively improved through the years, with efficient service and consistent cooking; the Larry J. Cruz restaurants (Abe, Fely J’s) are great representations of Pampangeño cuisine; and Sentro 1771 has been consistently serving Filipino food that can easily be appreciated (its corned beef sinigang still draws applause).
So we can take comfort in the fact that each disappointing dish at Barrio Fiesta has a better counterpart elsewhere. For chicken barbecue, Aristocrat reigns supreme. For binukadkad na plapla, Abe beats Singing Cooks by a mile. For soups, throw away that bouillabaisse and go for Mamou’s kurobuta sinigang.
For dinuguan, there is Café Juanita. And for crispy pata, there is fierce competition even from, of all places, Victoria Court (the dish you can order by phone and have your messenger pick up!).
With such disappointing depictions of traditional Filipino recipes, it is no wonder that other branches of Barrio Fiesta, such as the one on Wilson St., Greenhills, have closed. Whether it is bad management or bad taste that ruined this institution, one thing is clear: If you want to show your guests the best of Philippine cuisine, Barrio Fiesta and Singing Cooks & Waiters may no longer be the restaurants to recommend.
Barrio Fiesta is at Edsa cor. Rochester St., Greenhills, San Juan; tel. 7267836. No reservations required. Major credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible
Singing Cooks & Waiters is at 56 Sta. Monica St. cor. Roxas Blvd., Pasay City; tel. 8320658. No reservations required. Major credit cards accepted. No wheelchair access. (Interestingly, waiters volunteer to carry the person in the wheelchair up the stairs.)