It has been a week of magical eating, but much of it was done revisiting restaurants I had already been to previously.
I’ve previously raved about the ultra-fresh sashimi of Izakaya Sensu, which I had visited on its opening day upon their invitation. I’m happy to report that the food was just as good more than a month later, when we popped in without a reservation.
I also popped in to have an excellent dinner at Prime 101, courtesy of the Balvenie single malt marketing team. I don’t usually drink in public without my wife to catch me in case I keel over, but I think I acquitted myself respectably with the four generous glasses that accompanied each course.
Prime 101, incidentally, will be opening another branch in a more mainstream location soon.
So I did have a bit of restaurant fatigue by the time the weekend rolled around, and my wife and I were happy to accept the invitation to dinner with old friends at a quiet neighborhood place in New Manila. This is yet another step in our journey to find the best kare-kare in town, a quest that has led us to out-of-the-way joints, dingy carinderias and hotel dining-rooms.
One of the criteria is that the kare-kare has to be accessible: in other words, not something that’s only available if you know someone who knows someone who will bring it in from the province by private jet and has to be eaten blindfolded in a safehouse.
This unfortunately rules out the fare at the Manila Polo Club, which serves up what would have been a top contender, or the dismal version at Rocky’s Café at the Rockwell Club, for that matter. But for decades I’ve been firm in my belief that restaurants are by their definition democratic establishments; they were founded as such, and any dining establishment that is not open to anyone who can pay the bill for their food is by its very nature not a restaurant but a kind of in-house catering of some sort.
This ideological stubbornness on my part has led to my being unable to cover some of the most innovative chefs, notably Myrna Segismundo whose work is always behind some sort of barrier to entry. But, in my view, a restaurant must be public in order to call itself that.
Mateo’s Restaurant is a converted old house in New Manila, just past the gates of Horseshoe Village and a stone’s throw away from the bustle of Robinson’s Magnolia. When I say “converted” I am using the term generously; most conversions leave only the structure and turn the inside into a commercial space, leaving only the bare bones.
Mateo’s feels like they just moved the furniture to one side and put up a few tables and chairs, and looking for the bathroom felt like getting lost in one of the old houses in the area: You might wander into a few bedrooms or broom closets before opening the right door.
But this is part of the charm, as is the home-printed menu slipped into pages of clear acetate, and the driveway full of cars parked bumper-to-bumper. It’s about as far from the slickness of a mall restaurant or one of the new hipster restaurants with industrial interiors and Instagram-ready plating as you can get.
The menu is equally unprepossessing: there are a few nods to contemporary trends (sisig sliders), but most of it falls within the realm of home-cooked party food. The crispy pata is one of the best I’ve had recently, and might even be better than Pamana’s (sacrilege, I know).
The kare-kare is a serious contender: none of this deconstructed nonsense, more wobbly bits than you can shake an ox’s tail at, and a properly thick, gloopy sauce.
It didn’t have the tubes, though; of all the Manila-based kare-kare recipes, only the old chef at the Aristocrat bothered adding those yellow tubes full of fat (I’m not quite sure what they were, though I imagine it’s what my aorta probably looks like), and the sauce had a propensity to go watery upon agitation.
We also tried the paella, which was decent but not extraordinary, and the sisig, which was not quite canonical and a little heavy on the raw onions, but otherwise well-flavored. They are rumored to have good churros, as well as callos and lengua, but we were feeling more insulares than peninsulares that evening, so we will be back for these.
On the whole, the restaurant had more hits than duds, and of the duds, the worst that could be said was that the execution was unexceptional.
This is not a restaurant that one should necessarily travel for, but neither does it set itself up as one; it is a neighborhood restaurant, and for me there is as much joy in discovering a good neighborhood hangout with comfy banquettes and reasonable prices as there is in trumpeting the newest culinary superstar.
However, the hunt for good kare-kare continues.
Mateo’s is at 54 N. Domingo St., New Manila, Quezon City. Call 6963724.