Only over a month since its opening, Un Cuenca in Molito, Alabang, is already making a huge buzz among foodies.
It’s not just because of the place’s signature crisp, golden brown and tender pugon lechon belly. Or the plump and juicy shrimps (gambas) swimming in olive oil and toasted garlic. Or the sharp, buttery chunks of US prime rib-eye salpicao. Or the arroz valenciana moistly cooked in cazuelas straight from stovetop to the table.
More than anything, it’s also because of the man behind the kitchen of Un Cuenca: chef Ariel Manuel.
But Manuel places the credit squarely on the Spanish-Filipino dishes he and his cooking staff beautifully create every day, and he recognizes that most of Un Cuenca diners are from his Lolo Dad’s days.
“I was surprised to learn that many of my clients at Lolo Dad’s are from Alabang,” he says.
Almost everyone’s happy that Manuel—after a two-year hiatus since Lolo Dad’s closed its doors in Malate, Manila, on Dec. 31, 2013—has donned his apron and started cooking memorable dishes again.
Part of the family
It took long-time friend and business partner Susan Cuenca to convince Manuel to go back to the resto business.
“Initially, we both wanted to put up a restaurant, but somewhere in Tagaytay,” Manuel says. “But it didn’t push through, until she saw a space in Molito and she called me again.”
Manuel insisted on naming the restaurant after her partner.
“It’s a family business and I am part of her family,” Manuel adds.
Running the business with Cuenca and Manuel are Cuenca’s nieces, Mary and Ana, and nephews, chefs Paolo and Ivan, who both used to work with Manuel at Lolo Dad’s.
Un Cuenca offers Spanish-inspired Filipino dishes that Manuel says he was inspired to create after a trip around Spain (Barcelona, Pamplona and Sevilla) where he learned the simple traditional dishes and cooked these his way.
The Kesong Puti and Tomato Basil on a bed of lettuce is a fresh and cooling starter. It has a nice, sharp dressing enough to pique your taste buds and is great for the tropical heat.
The whole lineup of tapas—from homemade mackerel sardines and Boquerones (white anchovy sardines in white wine vinegar) to Manchego cheese in olive oil and Pugon Lechon Sisig—is worth trying, and will not disappoint pica-pica lovers.
The restaurant also rustles up a selection of arroz; not paellas, Manuel says. Arroz Valenciana, peppered with the traditional chorizos, tomatoes, peas and mushrooms minus the egg, makes for a silky rich, almost buttery, filling and flavorful dish.
The piece de resistance of Un Cuenca is its big fat slab of bone-in pugon lechon belly—tenderly done, with a nice smokey flavor and golden-brown hues.
When ordered, it is served cut into pieces with its succulent meat and crunchy skin on, paired with homemade liver-mustard sauce.
If foie gras was to Lolo Dad’s, it’s definitely pugon lechon to Un Cuenca.
“It’s a distinction we are proud to have for Un Cuenca,” says Manuel. “We created a specialty that would make people come back for more, and it’s the pugon lechon.”
Manuel explains that the pugon lechon came up by chance during the conceptualization of Un Cuenca.
The restaurant sits on a 65-square-meter space, including the second-floor dining area. With only a 25-sq-m space allotted for the kitchen, Manuel had to make do with the space that can fit only a freezer, a chiller and locally made pugon, supposedly for making pizza.
“The Molito administration sold the pugon oven to us from the previous owner,” says Manuel. “Since it’s a charcoal-operated oven and I know Filipinos are into pork, I recreated a lechon cooked in pugon.”
It’s like a traditional lechon minus the rotating spit. The pork is simply seasoned with salt and pepper.
“For takeout, I suggest to get the whole slab,” says Manuel. “Do not chop until before you’re ready to eat it, to keep it moist and juicy.”
Un Cuenca has a relaxed, casual atmosphere. The dining area is a gallery of little masterpieces by various arts students. The wooden tables and chairs and simple floral table arrangements create the perfect setting for its comfort cuisine.
“People keep coming back for the restaurant’s simple, homey, very friendly approach,” says Manuel.
“I think this is [the way to go for] modern cuisine. We have to simplify everything—straightforward cooking, no shortcuts and nothing fancy,” he adds.
While he was away for some time from the food scene, Manuel says he had no apprehensions about whether people would take again to his new venture or not.
“Because I always believe in my product,” he says. “If you believe 101 percent, you will never go wrong. If you serve only quality food, people will come back and look for you. We put the same quality standard of Lolo Dad’s here, but at a very friendly price.”
Un Cuenca is at Molito Lifestyle Bldg., No. 5 Cluster 3, Unit 11B, Alabang Zapote Road, Muntinlupa City; tel. 8154811. It is open daily 11 a.m.-2 p.m.; 6 p.m.-10 p.m.