Pugon de Manila Is Authentic Filipino Food for Those Looking to Try New Things
All the food — like this pancit, chicken adobo and pinakbet — is served in a styrofoam to-go box, even if you're dining in.
Initially, the waitress refused to serve me.
"This one?" she asked, pointing to a dark brown stew in a chafing dish behind the counter.
"That one," I said.
We went back and forth like this for a while. Are you sure? Yes, I'm sure. Really? Really. You want this? I want that.
Eventually she seemed to acquiesce, and she began spooning the thick, chunky stew into a styrofoam cup. Then she stopped. She put down the spoon. She looked at me again, up and down, as if assessing my culinary prowess.
"Why don't I just give you a taste first," she said. "Just to see if you like it."
After even more convincing, I eventually got my bowl of dinuguan, a Filipino blood stew littered with bite-size pieces of chewy, whitish offal. And just as I suspected, I liked it.
The broth — if you can call something that thick and luscious broth — was a deep brown, so brown it was almost black, thanks to the large quantity of pork blood that gives the dish its signature earthy flavor. It looks somewhat like a dark gumbo, but the taste is entirely different. It's gamey and sort of gritty, a product of the combination of chile powder and the barely congealed blood that gives the dish its sour flavor and unusual texture. The grittiness is preventable with some well-timed stirring, but it doesn't really take away from the rich, complex flavor of the gravy, enhanced with slimy bits of offal — an acquired taste, and one authentically Filipino.
Though it may sound shocking or unappetizing to foreigners, it's not unlike British black pudding or Spanish morcilla, both made with pig's blood. Filipino food is heavily influenced by Spanish food and by other cultures and cuisines, particularly those of nearby China, Indonesia and Malaysia, which are in turn influenced by their own colonizing countries. In this sense, Filipino food is sort of a melting pot of different culinary sensibilities, from French pastries to Indian stews.
It's the more unusual offerings that I'm after, though, and Pugon de Manila, which opened in the Medical Center area in March, delivers. Whether I'm craving the salty, pink, shrimp paste-coated vegetables of pinakbet or the earthy dinuguan, I'll find it here. This is a Filipino restaurant for Filipinos unfazed by blood in their stew or innards in their stir-fry. Thanks to the kind staff, it's also a place for people like me who want to expand their horizons and try new things.
Just be prepared to convince the servers that you are, indeed, ready for what they're about to give you.
Compared to the number of other ethnic food joints we have here in Houston, there aren't many Filipino restaurants. There are a few out near Alief, and there's the roaming food truck Flip 'n Patties, but that was about it for the past several years. Then, last September, the Filipino fast-food import Jollibee opened in a shopping center at Main and Kirby, paving the way for Pugon de Manila to open in the same center just a few months later. Could Houston be developing a "Little Manila" in the Medical Center?
Dining at Pugon de Manila is certainly enough to make you think so. On each occasion I ate there, I was the only non-Filipino in the joint. I overheard people speaking to each other in Tagalog, and the flat-screen TV in the dining room blared the odd sounds of a bizarre Filipino game show in which people wore giant grocery bags around their necks and attempted to catch produce being launched at them. I loved it.
For a first-timer, the menu at Pugon de Manila can be about as confusing as that game show. It lists nearly 100 items ranging from baked goods to various stews and veggie dishes, but not all of them are available at any given time. There are about ten chafing dishes set into the front counter, and those are the dishes of the day. Anything else you might want to order is available only for catering or perhaps if you call ahead. Otherwise, you just have to hope that your favorite is one of the daily specials.
Fortunately, adobo, the unofficial national dish of the Philippines, is always one of the selections. It will be either chicken or pork marinated in soy sauce, vinegar, oil, bay leaves, black peppercorns and garlic and simmered until juicy in a clay pot called a palayok. The word adobo is Spanish, but this cooking method is distinctly Filipino. At Pugon de Manila, the pork adobo is a little on the dry side — not in the sense that it's light on sauce, which is actually a different preparation of pork adobo — but the meat itself isn't incredibly juicy. It's like something in between carnitas and jerky. It has a wonderful salty and sour flavor with a bit of heat from the garlic and pepper, but the texture is a little off.
I imagine the fact that it sits in chafing dishes most of the day dries it out, and unfortunately, that's the case with some of the fish as well. A whole fried tilapia chopped into thirds and stewed with ginger, garlic and tomatoes isn't quite as juicy as I'd like, but again, the strong ginger flavor makes up for any textural issues.
One of the best dishes at Pugon de Manila is available every day starting first thing in the morning: Pancit. Pancit is the generic term for noodles in the Philippines, but in this case, the offering is almost always pancit bihon. It's a simple preparation of thin, clear rice noodles mixed with spaghetti and pan-fried with soy sauce, fish sauce, citrus, chicken and vegetables like carrots, cabbage and celery. The overwhelming flavors of the dish are chicken and soy sauce, which makes it a comforting alternative to plain white rice. A combo plate of pancit and two sides is only $8.99, a great deal for a lot of meat and noodles.
When dining here, though, you can't ignore the freshly baked bread. Literally, you can't ignore it, because one entire wall of the place is filled with rolls and cakes and loaves of Filipino pandesal, Spanish-influenced rolls similar to Mexican bolillos. There are also more American options like cinnamon raisin bread (a great breakfast treat) and round little breads that look like sweet Hawaiian rolls.
Bibingka is a traditional rice cake usually eaten during Christmas but available year-round at Pugon de Manila. As is typical in Filipino cuisine, it combines sweet and salty in one item; in this case, rice flour and coconut milk are formed into a loaf, topped with slices of processed orange cheese and baked in a banana-leaf-lined mold. Here, each round, sweet bread is served with a little cup of freshly grated, ice-cold coconut meant to be sprinkled on top. I ate both items with a fork, mixing the elements together in my mouth. And I ate them far too fast, according to the server, who eyed me curiously when she noticed I was digging into the food with such gusto.
"You must really like to eat," she said, clearly still confused by me. I had just devoured dinuguan, and now I was tearing into a cake usually eaten alone or with tea.
Realizing that I should probably save some bibingka for later (mainly so as not to embarrass myself with the sheer elasticity of my stomach), I thanked the server and got up to leave.
Without missing a beat she said, "See you next time!"
She could tell I'd be back.
It's hard to say why exactly I like Pugon de Manila. I've always had a soft spot for funky, hole-in-the-wall ethnic restaurants. I enjoy the charming staff, the idiosyncratic and ever-changing menu, the weird Filipino game shows. I'm wowed in general by any place that stocks that much bread at a time. But I'm not sure if I like Pugon de Manila because the food is good or because it's different.
Yes, the dishes that sit in hot plates behind the counter all day are less than fresh, but that's why Filipinos use so much vinegar in their food — to preserve it. Perhaps I need to abandon my Western notions of freshness and accept the cuisine at Pugon de Manila for what it is: Authentic. It's a little dry and at times a little chewy, but the food and the atmosphere rolled into one make for a very real dining experience. This is why the place is always full of Filipinos. It reminds them of home.
And it reminds me of anywhere but home, which is something I seek out in restaurants. I like to be challenged by food while at the same time feeling welcomed by the culture.
On my most recent trip to Pugon de Manila, the server recognized me. She smiled and announced to everyone, "Hey, the vampire is back," referring, of course, to my insistence on eating dinuguan.
And then, when I asked for a whole fried fish head, she didn't question my order. She put it in a styrofoam container, handed it to me and grinned.
"Magsaya," she said. "Enjoy."
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