There are two places with the best cheap eats: university strips and red light districts. Since it’s balik-eskwela (back to school) season, we will talk about a few favorites on that wholesome strip that leads to Ateneo, Miriam and the University of the Philippines: Katipunan.
To be truthful, there are way too many choices on this road. From the fiery fast food Flaming Wings to native favorites like Ilocos Empanada to dessert favorite Xocolat, you will not run out of choices.
But the recent darling of Katipunan is a restaurant owned by the Inquirer food columnist Sandy Daza. I didn’t even know he owned it until I walked in and saw him behind the counter (thankfully he didn’t recognize me!). In a simple orange collared shirt, he would greet guests with a nod as they walked in and checked up on their needs and wants during the course of their meals.
Mind you, the place is no fancy restaurant. For that, there’s Ninyo Fusion Cuisine on Esteban Abada. That’s the date place: Asian-inspired elegance just off Katipunan.
Daza’s Wooden Spoon is bistro cum diner and seats just about 20. But it’s Pinoy food with Asian influences and it’s fabulousssarap!
What Daza does is he gets institutional Pinoy dishes but puts his own Asian-influenced spin to it. The adobo, for instance, does not bask in fat as Tagalog adobo usually does, but maintains the deep savory flavor of adobo sauce that you cannot mistake it for anything else. Meanwhile, tuyo is used as stuffing alongside ground pork in a pechay roll. This is made to sit in a spicy coconut cream sauce, and successfully blends sweet, salty and spicy; meshing together flavors of Asia in a simple pechay roll. The dinakdakan, an Ilokano specialty, made a friend convert back from vegetarian to carnivore, pig’s ears and all, by its tempered sourness and “tamang-tamang anghang (just the right level of heat)!”
Some dishes are outshone by the others. The Bicol Express is less spicy than the one made famous by Tita Cely Kalaw (may she rest in peace); the squid with chili and mushroom, while easy to appreciate, is best ordered as a supplement to a main viand. But the desserts are stars in their own right. The tapioca cake, for example, was served atop a beautiful, very light coconut sauce, reminding you of the concept of suman and latik (rice cake and coconut crisps).
The magic of Sandy Daza’s cooking is best felt when you leave the restaurant: You don’t feel heavy at all. Usually Pinoy food makes you feel mad stuffed after—“bondat”—but not at Wooden Spoon. The only thing heavy here are the flavors. This can only be achieved by someone who really understands his ingredients. Well, he is a Daza after all. We wouldn’t expect anything less.
Another restaurant that is a word-of-mouth favorite is Gino’s Brick Oven Pizza. It’s quite hidden: on the second floor of a small shopping complex beside SM, on the second floor of a building with Mercury Drug and Figaro on the ground. The only downside to this restaurant is that it’s not handicap-friendly; there’s a climb to the second floor. But once you are seated, everything’s cool.
How can it not be when the name of the owner is Jutes. (Jutes is slang for marijuana, by the way. He must have had very happy parents!) But the pizzas at this joint are special in a wholesome way. He is not wanting in elements.
It starts with the dough. They have a customized charcoal-fired brick oven that they blast to 8000 to create a very light Italian-style dough. Then they play around with the pizza toppings. There are, of course, the basics: margherita, prosciutto. But true to the owner’s name, the pizzas aren’t all traditional.
For meat lovers, they offer a sausage pizza with sausages made right in their kitchen. The whiff from the meat when the pizza arrives at your table is its first impact. A bite reveals a very manly dish, with strong meaty flavors.
For non-meat eaters, the Bianca Verde has ricotta, parmesan and our very own kesong puti, with basil and arugula. It sounds simple but it is easy to indulge in this. An execution of the statement that basic is beautiful. Most intriguing is the Buffalo Pizza. Conceptualized when the buffalo wings craze happened a couple of years ago, this has thinly-sliced bits of spicy buffalo wings. Personally, I found the combination weird but Body Building Benjamin, who is still in college, loved it. Jutes explained, as he made the rounds of tables, that they really created this pizza for teenagers. A pizza for every demographic!
They don’t stop at pizzas here, though. Do not miss out on the salted duck egg pasta. What a curious combination! Bring your friends and ask them to guess what it is without them looking at the menu-it’ll be a riot because you will not miss the flavors of the itlog na pula (salted egg) although you can’t see it.
Right beside Gino’s is Cello’s Doughnuts & Dips. The story here is that Jutes and Cello are married and their son is Gino. Cello has a cult following among Katipsers for her uber-soft donuts.
But nothing beats Manang’s although it is located inside Ateneo. Why, even “others” come over for a taste of Manang’s liempo. Beautifully charred and marinated, the inihaw na liempo (grilled pork belly) must have a secret recipe that everyone is curious about. No need for a review-generations testify to Manang’s inihaw na liempo: small in size, big in taste. Whether your generation called it Eagle’s Place or Clubhouse or simply Manang’s, it’s definitely a Katipunan institution.
Best of all in these restos, everything is affordable even on a college student’s budget. I ate enough for eight at Wooden Spoon and paid only P2,000! A pizza at Gino’s that is good enough for three is just around P300. Sorry La Salle, but on this, we can’t beat Ateneo. •
Wooden Spoon. 2/F 329 Katipunan Ave. Open 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. except Mondays (beside Ilocos Empanada). Major credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible though quite cramped.
Gino’s Brick Oven Pizza and Cello’s Doughnuts. 2/F K2 Building, Katipunan Ave., Quezon City (Above Mercury Drug) 0917-5386847. Open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. except Sundays. Cash only. Not wheelchair accessible.