Sometimes, when grazing from an all-you-can-eat buffet, it's best not to know exactly what you're stuffing into your mouth. More on that in a minute, but first some background: Gold Ribbon Bake Shop, contrary to its name, is not just a bakeshop. It's a gorge-yourself-till-you're-fat-and-stupid buffet of Philippine dishes combined with a Mongolian stir-fry bar. (It's three, three, three restaurants in one.)
For just $6.95 per person, you can get pretty fat and stupid. For the Mongolian stir-fry -- I'm still not sure how Mongolian stir-fry migrated to the Philippines, but never mind -- you must head to the cold bar, where you choose from a wide assortment of raw beef, chicken, seafood, scallops and veggies, and nice, thick noodles. You put your selections in a bowl, add your choice of sauces (I'm particularly fond of the half-and-half combination of wine and ginger) and bring it to the stir-fry area, basically a large, flat, round grill. In a few minutes, a piping hot bowl of stir-fry is delivered to your table. You pick the ingredients. You pick the sauces. What's not to like here?
The Philippine buffet is also included in your $6.95 cover charge. I didn't know much about Philippine cuisine going in, but with a little research, I learned that it's a culinary melting pot that borrows from Malay, Chinese and Spanish cultures, and even from American and Indian cuisines. Given my general unfamiliarity with the food, I figured I'd try a little bit of everything, then speak to the manager, George Calayas, nephew of chef/ owner Dolores Mahanggas. My game plan was partly derived out of necessity: Many of the dishes on the buffet were missing identifying labels, and even those marked didn't supply any information about the dish.
I was familiar with two dishes, the chicken adobo and the pork adobo, the national dishes of the Philippines. In an adobo, pork or chicken (and sometimes both) is simmered in a mixture of soy, vinegar (a common ingredient in Philippine cuisine), sugar and bay leaves until tender. The meat is removed from the liquid and fried to give it a crust, then the cooking liquid is reduced to make the sauce. Both the pork and chicken were tasty, but I preferred the latter, since it retained its crunch (while remaining moist and flavorful within) even while swimming in sauce.
Other standout buffet dishes included pork afritada (a lovely combination of meat, carrot and tomato), ginisag repolyo (beef and cabbage), sotanghan (a bean thread and vegetable dish), paksiwna lechon (chunks of fried pork in a terrific vinegar sauce) and chicken tinola (a light, flavorful soup thick with chunks of chicken and chayote).
Which brings us to dinuguan, which I alluded to at the beginning of this review. It was unidentified on the steam-table buffet, but it was my favorite dish: chunks of pork (I assumed) in a rich, dark sauce that I thought was some sort of black-bean concoction. It had a marvelously earthy flavor that had me stumped, so I asked Calayas what was in it. "Do you really want to know what's in it?" he asked me worriedly. This question is never a good sign.
(Warning: If you are planning a trip to Gold Ribbon -- and you should -- and don't necessarily want to know what you're going to be eating, do not read the following paragraph.)
"Sure, I want to know," I replied. Calayas began: "Well, there's pork and pork stomach" Okay so far, I thought. "And the sauce?" I asked. "Well, that's basically pork blood, thickened with vinegar, and flavored with chilies and garlic."
For some reason I began a brief conversation with myself, rationalizing the whole thing. "Well, the French use blood as a thickener in traditional sauces, and I really like it. I also love blood sausage. And just what does it matter, anyway?" I grinned and told Calayas, "You know, it's still my favorite dish." To prove it to myself and to him (he looked a bit doubtful), I helped myself to another spoonful. Indeed, it was still my favorite. (In all fairness, I must report that another woman at the buffet, overhearing my conversation with Calayas, confided to me, "That dish used to be my favorite, too. At least until I knew what was in it.")
But even without dinuguan, the buffet's still a fun adventure. And talk about a bargain: Between the stir-fry and the buffet, you're certain to get more than your money's worth. Just remember when you pay your bill in the bakery section to pick up a few goodies to take home. There are beef pies ($1.15) and steamed meat rolls ($1); there are yenne balls (little milk-and-sugar things, 75 cents each), purple yam and jackfruit tarts (60 cents), mamon (lovely little sponge cakes, $1 apiece) and perhaps best of all, sylvanna ($1.10 each for a sweet and creamy cashew pastry that's as good as any I've had from a French bakery). As a keepsake of your meal, consider buying a box of "special polveron with peanut" ($7). They're individually wrapped cookies that taste like well, they taste like Christmas. The bakery box states that Gold Ribbon is "home of your favorite cakes, pastries and well-liked Filipino delicacies." I couldn't agree more. It's also home of some bloody good Filipino dishes as well. Sorry, couldn't resist the pun.
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