Binagoongan at Mesa
Over the years, I've had the pleasure of showing friends from other countries a bit of the Philippines. We usually visit historical sites and eat at Filipino restaurants . . . but since I don't force them to try the more "exotic" stuff on the menu, I wonder how much of a "Filipino experience" the latter is to them. The next time I host someone, I'll just invite them eat everything my family is used to at home.
On the other hand, it has been a blast eating at Filipino restaurants with fellow Filipinos, as I learned when I brought fellow language learner La Traidora (Guess what language she is learning!) to Mesa.
"Why are we here again?" she asked.
"I thought Filipino restaurant reviews would complement all the Filipino books I'm going to be blogging about," I said.
She may or may not have made an expression I would have read something into to give this post into a more dramatic narrative. In any case, she didn't protest!
Mesa describes its cuisine as "Filipino moderne." I would describe the decor as "Filipino generic." While there was definitely a local air to everything, there wasn't really a single vision tying them together. I liked the bamboo elements in the cutlery and the water glasses, but there was no trace of bamboo in the darker woods of the tables and chairs. Even the lechon-orange upholstery seemed to have been picked more for its subconscious influence over the appetite than for its connection to roast pig. But it's not the decor you want to read about, is it?
We ordered the pork binagoongan, the (green) mangga salad, garlic-fried rice, and dalandan juice. For the uninitiated, the first two would be an entree of pork belly sauteed in shrimp paste (bagoong) and a side of julienned green mango. I had wanted the (green) mangga salad for its own sake, so it was a happy coincidence that it went with La Traidora's preferred entree: the sourness of green mango is traditionally offset by the saltiness of bagoong. When the food finally arrived, we tucked in happily.
And soon were disappointed.
For one thing, there wasn't enough of the binagoongan for two to share. Not that the menu hinted or the server promised there would be; but my friends and I are usually eat lightly enough to split a single entree between two, and this was the first time I had to agree an entree would have been pushing it for one. But at that price . . .
"I guess the bagoong at Barrio Fiesta is expensive these days," La Traidora quipped, alluding to another Filipino restaurant's line of gourmet sauces. It probably wasn't very nice to think that Mesa was secretly sneaking a competitor's (delicious) sauce into its own dishes, but we weren't feeling very nice, you know?
As for the mangga salad, I liked the sweet fish sauce (whatever it was; it's not Filipino!) that neutralised the sourness and the little "bite" of the cilantro . . . but I didn't think the shallots were happy to harmonise. And I had to admit that killing the sourness made it less of a complement to the bagoong. La Traidora was much less impressed--and by something much more fundamental.
"This is carabao mango," she groused.
It matters? "Don't all mangoes start out green?"
"I'm just used to green Indian mangoes in this type of salad . . . Or maybe I just personally prefer Indian mangoes."
Fair enough. I'm including that point in case there are any mangga connoisseurs among my readers.
Then there was the dalandan juice. Dalandan is also known as the Philippine orange (sometimes kahel from the Spanish cajel), and when I was tutoring Scrap Metal (Remember him???), I was tickled to see that the new textbooks teach that the Tagalog translation for "orange" is kahel. Anyway, the points I'd like to give Mesa for using freshly-squeezed dalandan juice instead of concentrate are kind of offset by the points I have to take away for their watering it down. I can't really fault the quality, given the price--but dalandan juice is one of my great loves and I would have been willing to pay more for something better.
Finally, La Traidora and I ordered the dessert that our server recommended: crispy leche plan.
Instead of the usual block of caramel-coated custard, we got the twist of custard in fried lumpia wrappers drizzled with caramelised sugar. I liked the crunchy new concept, but felt we got stiffed (again) on portion size. La Traidora said she would still go for traditional leche flan over this.
As we were paying, I asked, "Would you eat here again?"
She didn't hesitate. "No."
But I would probably go back if all I wanted was another salad. The talong (eggplant) salad, green papaya salad, and pomelo salad with latik (coconut curd) still tempt me.