A few years back, brothers DJ, Quito and Martin Jose put up a restaurant called Ninak down South. Unfortunately, business wasn’t kicking in the way they had expected. “We were catering to the wrong market,” DJ reflects. “Our prices were really low, but people weren’t patronising the brand there. We ended up closing it down and turned it into a delivery area.” However, the chef, Quito, still wanted to put up a restaurant that was close to home because he wanted to personally supervise the goings-on. While on the lookout, they found a location in Kapitolyo that Quito was willing to gamble on.
And so, Ninak—or Ninak 2.0, technically—was reborn.
“We did a lot of tweaking to the menu,” DJ shares. “Quito traveled around Asia to study Asian cuisine. He was trained in classical French and Italian, but there are too many of those around already. He wanted simple, good food that people can enjoy at pocket-friendly prices.”
Bean Sprout with Salted Fish (P160), a highly-recommended vegetable dish, was the first taste test subject of the night. For something so simple, it comes off as an enjoyable dish because the bean sprouts are fresh and crisp. This was followed closely by one of DJ’s personal favourites (now mine, too), the Tinapa Rice (P135). This all-in-one dish is comprised of garlic fried rice with special seasoning topped with tinapa flakes, salted egg and tomatoes. Ninak’s fried rice dishes are definitely value for money as the servings are large and they can stand on their own even without additional orders.
The Crispy Beef Belly (P320) is the kind of dish that anyone can appreciate. The meat (US beef belly) is crispy on the outside and juicy on the inside, and its overall spicy flavour provides a little bit of excitement. Going well with it is the Lamb Massaman Curry (P320)—tender, flavourful and exotic-tasting.
We also got to try two chicken dishes: Soi Chicken (P299) and Chicken Satay (P255). The Soi Chicken, a special dish to Chef Quito, is braised before it is deep-fried and garnished with garlic, shallots and served with a sweet dipping sauce. Chicken Satay, of course, is well-known for its sweet, nutty flavour. Ninak’s rendition is traditional and delicious. The chicken is tender and tasty, and it goes well with the cucumber relish and the spicy dip it is served with. The Lemon Grass Fish in Banana Leaf (P255) is a medley of exciting flavours. The dory fillet is marinated in lemon grass and other spices, garnished with cilantro and peppers, and served with nuoc mam sauce.
Ninak does not limit their menu to great savory dishes. They are also experimental when it comes to their desserts and drinks. The Turon Halo-Halo (P120) is what it is—turon with halo-halo filling. Instead of just the usual banana, you get all the ingredients of the well-known halo-halo inside the turon wrapper. It is definitely something to try as it provides the customer the best of both worlds by combining two popular Filipino desserts. Even their fruit slushies are a little different than most. We chose the Watermelon Lychee (P110) and the strange, bold Green Grape Basil (P110), which is bound to come off as a pleasant surprise.
Ninak is also home to surprise creations from Chef Quito. Because he goes to the market everyday, he has the opportunity to purchase ingredients that he can experiment with. “We have specials,” DJ says proudly. “All you have to do is check with the servers.”
Despite facing certain difficulties, the brothers did not find it all too hard to transition from fast food to sit-down Asian cuisine. “It wasn’t difficult to crossover from burgers to a restaurant,” DJ says. “We have the basic know-how. But unlike Brother’s Burger, we don’t want to go aggressive. We want Ninak to have a following. We’re not going to jump from one branch to another branch to another branch—we want them to come to us so we can socialise and meet our customers. This is what I miss the most about owning a restaurant.”
With the promise of simple but good food at friendly prices and owners who are passionate about their brand and what it stands for, who wouldn’t want to cruise by Ninak? It’s a great way to experience the flavours of Southeast Asia.
Additional photos courtesty of Ninak.