The place is easy to miss. Not only is there no signage on the door, the façade gives you no clue, either, that here lies the best Asian cooking in the country.
“Go past the Mansion House, then when you turn right, you’ll see a Marlboro sign. That’s us,” was the instruction we were given.
“Us” is husband-and-wife tandem Alvin and Gina. He used to be an executive chef at Novotel Resort in Phuket, Thailand, and she a lounge singer. He is Malaysian and she is Filipina. They fell in love but, instead of the Filipina moving to Malaysia, the Malaysian moved to the Philippines. The lady is from La Union, so the place they chose to settle in is Baguio.
Past the Mansion House, immediately after you turn, just as the road begins to go downhill, you spot the Marlboro signage on the second floor of an apartment. But underneath is no restaurant—or is there? There is a sari-sari store. If you look closer, within the sari-sari store’s perimeters are three tables good for four, though expandable to six. A sheet of cloth divides the area from the kitchen. A white board serves as the menu.
Amiable Gina will greet you and seat you with her charming smile. On a light day, you get her full attention. But when the shop is full, don’t come hungry. You will have to battle with other customers to place your order. Then expect to wait a good half hour before you actually eat, as there is just one cook, Chef Alvin himself, who whips dishes in a kitchen as small as a confessional box.
But good things come to those who wait. You are served no less than Asian cooking at its finest. I dare say the food at this sari-sari karinderya can beat those served at any fine-dining restaurant or hotel in Manila.
The tom yum soup is just like what you would find in Bangkok—so spicy that, if you don’t slurp it right, it may pierce your throat; yet it also gets away with being refreshing. The beef rendang clings to your tongue, its flavors deep and the beef so soft. The squid salad offers all the joys of summer. The nasi goreng is good enough to be eaten on its own.
If you get the chance to hunt Chef Alvin down, ask for chili crabs. Gina will happily bus out a bowl with calamansi to make sure you wash your hands and appreciate this delicacy correctly. It is so beautifully savory, with just the right punch of spiciness and, of course, the beautiful texture that is innate with crab. If I lived in Baguio, I would have this every week with a bottle of cold beer or (when feeling sosyal) pinot grigio.
The chef’s secret is in using a gazillion ingredients with every dish and having these ingredients flown in from various parts of Asia. Cumin, coriander, basil, sambal sauce, garlic, chili—you name it, it’s there for flavor. The couple has friends from various countries whom they contact for orders. The tom yum soup, for example, uses Thai fish sauce flown in from Bangkok. Other ingredients are flown in from Malaysia or Indonesia.
There are also unique recipes. “Coffeelicious” is pork rolled in coffee sauce then sprinkled with sesame seeds. It looks like pork buchi! The risk here is that the coffee sauce may stick to your teeth, but the flavors are amazing. The chef mixes cilantro with the coffee sauce.
Another hit is the chef’s roti. Make sure to reserve, especially if you are in Baguio for a long weekend, or you may miss out on this dish. Word has gotten out about its goodness.
All this from the garage of a sari-sari store. Can you believe it?
Alvin and Gina also accept take-out orders. But it deprives you of the sense of bewilderment at seeing how, in this hole in the wall, where the aluminum spoons are bendable and have the dual purpose of functioning as your knife, such flavors abound.
Watch out for chef Alvin Emuang. He’s the next big superstar in our culinary scene.