This first piece from my newest (and probably biggest) writing gig was supposed to be easy: “Where do chefs really eat?” I figured this was going to be a walk in the park–all I had to do was list down the places I frequent after work or when I really want some honest to goodness happy food. Well, that idea was going great for a while until it hit me–what if I just asked my chef friends to contribute, and check where they liked eating, too? Were we going to have similar answers? Are the food spots geographically strategic to where these chefs work or live? Were they going to be of street food variety, or the 'sit-down and please have air-con' ilk? The possibilities are endless!
I proceeded to hitting up my phone book to send a message to people with “Chef” before their names, asking about their favorite food haunts, and the answers started to come in instantly. I didn’t even have to prod nor bribe these chefs to cough up an answer.
All the places my chef buddies mentioned are food meccas in their own rights. The words “old school” kept popping up, but some interesting names of the up and coming variety were there, too. Without further ado, I would love to share with you the penultimate guide to where chefs really eat.
I started with those closest to me and hit up an old pal whom I’ve shared a kitchen with a couple of times, Chef Sharwin Tee. His was simple and straightforward: Le Ching. It’s not groundbreaking food but the comfort it brings in him, the memories of his childhood growing up in San Juan, is what keeps him coming back. “Plus the chili sauce is absolutely delicious!” he adds. His regular order? It includes spare ribs, siomai, steamed tripe, and tao ho kin (beancurd roll). Again, as a final reminder – “Don't forget the chili sauce!”
From Sharwin, I asked another culinary samurai (topknot man-bun and all) plus all-around good guy Chef Kalel Chan of Raintree Restaurants. He was one of the fastest to respond and his answer could plainly state why: North Park. Was there a childhood nostalgia that led him to this answer? A first date, or a eureka moment, even? The answer was so much simpler yet sublime. “It’s the only 24 hour Chinese grub that’s near my place for late night eating,” he says. His regular orders are crowd pleasers: tendon dry noodles, Manchurian calamares, Lechon Macau over fried rice, Fookien fried rice sauce on the side (solid expert tip by the way), shrimp dumplings, and a tai pao. Asked when he frequents the venerable 24/7 establishment, Kalel answers with two deliberate timeframes: “Either drunk or morning hangover.” This author concurs.
After these two chefs, I then asked another two who live within the same vicinity and for me have very similar techniques and flavor profiles when cooking. Did this translate to liking the same food too? I decided to pursue this hunch and was rewarded handsomely. Both Chef Niño Laus of Ninyo, Alamat, and Agimat fame and Chef Him Uy de Baron of the timeless East Café gave the same answer: Goto Tendon. “It’s fast, it’s simple, it’s sulit, and it’s on my way back home,” says Poblacion royalty Niño, while Him’s answer is straightforward enough you don’t even have to ask him to expound: “Because tendon is lyf!”
Him opts for the sizzling tendon with a side order of tendon pares, while Niño goes for the store’s namesake itself, the goto tendon. Chef Laus also finishes his meal with Ube Halo-halo, which really is a work of art in itself. I have seen this masterpiece and tried it myself. The shaved ice is of Bingsu levels of smoothness, while the ube speaks to you in earthy sweet tones of dessert umami. Top all that with freshly grated cheese, and one has to wonder if a halo-halo only spin-off restaurant by the same people behind Goto Tendon could actually beat its imaginary predecessor.
From my close culinary confidants I decided to ask a couple of chef legends in their own rights – stalwarts in the culinary academe that have enough kitchen experience combined for me to consider their late night haunts as meccas of good old comfort food. I went to ask Chef Joey Herrera and Chef Gene Gonzalez for their thoughts on the matter and was both pleasantly surprised and validated by their answers – they were of the same ilk as the previous ones!
Chef Gene’s answers were varied based on what time he would be snacking. Before 10pm, you'll find him in the San Juan noodle joint Mien San ordering his favorite spicy beef goto flat noodle mami, pickled cucumber, seaweed, and fried shanghai buns. A little closer to midnight though, and you might see him snacking on a classic mami and siopao in the generations-spanning Masuki. The Café Ysabel chieftain also mentioned that he frequents Ohayo Ramen and Maki Bar on Ortigas Extension for their Tsukemen, potato salad, and grilled corn. Three varied restaurants but were all tied together by different versions of slurpable liquid gold.
ISCAHM instructor and Hogsmith Aprons mastermind Chef Joey had a fun quirky answer: Best Friends Pares! Why? “Masarap siya!” Well, this author has tried it once and was left with much to be desired – only to find out I was ordering the wrong items on the menu. Chef Joey says he always goes for the Sate chami bihon and the tapsilog. Both choices sound simple enough that one has to wonder, why have I never ordered these two sure-hits before?
After gathering these answers from six professional gourmands, does it seem that where we really like to eat makes us chefs a stingy bunch? That we don’t actually like eating hifaluting food all the time? And that we eat at mostly 24-hour joints because we end work late and don’t have normal eating hours? Well yes, and more than the radiating yes to all these questions, I believe the deeper, underlying fact here is that people who cook for a living understand the soul of food. The kind of food that sticks to your guts and goes straight to your souls. Thick, warm broths that have thickened over hours of low heat and utmost care; the softest of meats and offal parts that were usually thrown away and not deemed fit to serve were the tiny, irony, uric-laden treasures that chefs actually prefer. They reinvigorate and warm every part of our tired bones after long days of cooking in the kitchen or staring at computer screens making sure our recipe costings are done right.
So the next time you eat at your favorite late night pares, tapsi, or lugaw joint, and you encounter stinky, burly men in loose-fitting checkered pants or black kitchen clogs that are the bane of fashionistas the world over, dumping everything into one bowl and inhaling their food while having a cold San Mig Light on one hand – offer them another round of drinks or two. You never know, they could have been the ones preparing your favorite culinary deconstructed avante garde meal just a few hours ago, and are now enjoying the brief respite of cheap comfort Filipino soul food, before heading back to the culinary trenches once again.
[Writer’s note: Where do I get my quick fix of comfort food goodness, you ask? The place is hidden in plain sight along the Northbound lane of C5 on the same block of Lydia’s Lechon, right after you pass Arcovia City. It’s called 128 EL’s and is less than a kilometer away from where I live. They have the best Goto and Lomi Batangas prepared by OG cooks who call that province home. Come in with P200 in your wallet and you already get to eat like a king. It’s criminally underrated.]