Virginia Woolf once said, “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.” These wise words and my insatiable thirst to be on the move – to always be on some sort of adventure, no matter how small – are what drive me to seek new places to eat, try out new dishes, or, at the very least, treat myself to a good old-time favorite meal every so often. Oh – and my unreasonably big appetite, of course.
At this point, before we can continue, it must be mentioned that I live in the South, as the people who live here so endearingly call it. Don’t worry; it’s not a mindless social moniker constructed by people to sound cool. It is actually in the geographical south of Metro Manila. Although, if I am to be completely honest, the cool-sounding moniker is reason, too.
Having gone to high school and having continued my education in a university in the north means many of my friends live on the opposite side of the metro, though. Determining where to meet for the habitual hangout has never been put to question (my gas receipts are proof of it) – except on occasions where they long for a breath of fresh air – metaphorically and literally (I’ve always said with conviction that the air feels cleaner in the South). My best friend Amica visited me a few weeks back as a last hurrah before classes officially started. Julia Child once said1, “People who love to eat are always the best people.” And, well, my best friend is pretty great. I am, too, but you already knew that. Ha-ha, just kidding! So go on a culinary cruise around town we did.
Our first stop was Neil’s Kitchen for lunch. It’s a gourmet restaurant that puts a modern twist on classic Filipino dishes. I’d first tried out this restaurant way back in June 2015 due to its stellar reviews, and I was not disappointed. Driving up to its castle-like facade and taking in the crisp whiteness (so clean! I loved this aesthetic, not just because of the millennial in me, but because it felt very out-of-town. I’d forgotten for a moment that I was only in Alabang.) fills you with a sense of refreshment and wonder at the same time, keeping your eyes glued to its humongous structure as you step out of the car. “Neil’s Kitchen” is scribbled in a neat black cursive at the top of the tower in the center, and black windows decorate the sides, but in the midst of the black-and-white scheme is an entrance, a yellow door, that beckons you right in. This scheme prevails through the entire restaurant – scores of monotone, disturbed by pops of yellow. When I skimmed through our photos in the wake of our visit, lyrics from (a band called) The Maine’s Color couldn’t be helped from running through my head – just trying to find some color in this black-and-white world. This place is quite the Instagram girl’s heaven – I had to refrain from taking snapshots of every trinket in every nook and cranny before placing my order – but the highlight still is the food.
I am in love with their Sinigang Paella with Grilled Pork Belly (P350). On days when I need comforting, I always crave for this dish. You might think, as my mom once did, that sinigang isn’t sinigang without its signature sumptuous sour soup. Let me tell you: the paella is bursting with all that flavor. I can taste it right now, writing this paragraph. I just can’t get enough of it. It is such a new, unique twist to this classic Filipino meal, and it works perfectly. The grilled pork belly is a great complement to the paella, the crispy kangkong on the side an extra treat. The paella’s moistness, combined with the dryness of the pork belly and the crisp of the kangkong is guaranteed to give you a foodgasm. You can’t eat at Neil’s Kitchen and not have a taste of this.
Amica ordered the Chorizo Rice with Callos (P395). I must say, it does not quite taste like how it looks. I tend to be reluctant in the face of thick, red-brown sauces, fearing an imbalance of sweet and sour, but this dish got it just right. It didn’t wow me like the Sinigang Paella did, but it is a pleasing surprise to the tongue when you taste it. I would have appreciated a bit more chorizo on the rice; nonetheless, it was a pretty solid dish.
A dish I had foolishly failed to take a picture of during my first visit to Neil’s Kitchen was their Tokwa’t Baboy (P250). I’ve never been a big fan of Tokwa’t Baboy, but this version is a must-try.
While I was on a camping trip a few weeks back, my parents visited Neil’s Kitchen without me (I would say boo-hoo, but they ordered Sinigang Paella to go for me, so I am an appeased kid.) and now recommend a fairly new dish – Escargot de Gata. My mom raved it about it and constantly tells me to visit soon so I can try it for myself.
Several celebrities have visited Neil’s Kitchen as well. The long list includes the likes of Martin Nievera, Lea Salonga, Judy Ann Santos, Iza Calzado, Piolo and Inigo Pascual, and Dani and Julia Barretto.
When Amica and I had gotten our fill of photos and the food, we made our way to Alabang Town Center (or Town, as the locals lovingly call it) for dessert. Amica and I love dessert, so we made two stops. The first was La Maripili.
La Maripili is a churreria, and this town’s equivalent of every romantic streetside cafe in Europe. Lounging in its sleek chairs, watching the world go by behind its tall white windows – sunglasses on my head, chocolate dip on the table, a churro in one hand and my camera in the other – is how I always imagined afternoons at Spain to be. All I needed was a cute guy behind the counter, or better yet, sitting beside me. Nah, I’m totally kidding. A cute guy will never compare to a best friend – I mean, who would take artsy photos of the place with you!? Really.
The churreria is crisp and bright, the interior illuminated not only by its pretty bulbs and lamps but also by natural light streaming from outside. One side is a balance of rustic and industrial – just how the mainstream millennial likes it – while the other side, containing the counter and kitchen, is perfectly charming and quaint. I could’ve lounged there all day, if it weren’t for our ridiculously small order ha-ha!
We were saving space for one more dessert parlor, so we only got one order of the small-sized classic churros (P60), with hot chocolate (P110). The small size consisted of the standard six pieces, and while I’ve always had a problem with finishing all six – even if I never go to a churreria alone, so I always have someone to share it with – I had no problem finishing this one. It was crunchy and golden on the outside, mouth-wateringly soft on the inside, and the hot chocolate dip was a delight to catch on your tongue. The dip wasn’t too thick or too sweet (the reason I never got on board with La Lola’s); it tasted pleasantly authentic. I’ve always believed that churros are overrated, but these churros reminded me of the only ones I’ve ever loved – the churros at Tokyo Disneyland (although my fondness for those churros may just have been tainted by my love of all things Disney). I’m definitely coming back, and not only for their churros. They have their own selection of toasts and sandwiches that I have yet to try.
We brought our gastronomic gallivanting2 to a close at Milkbox, the home of the wonut. The wonut is a cross between a waffle and a donut, and seeing as I love both those things, I couldn’t see how I would fail to love wonuts as well. Our last order of the day turned out to be their Salted Caramel & Mango Wonut (P230). It was just the right amount of salty and sweet, cool and fresh, to cleanse our palate from quite the flavorful day we had. A bit on the heavy side, though, so I suggest sharing one order between two people (time to let go of your inner Joey Tribianni). If you’re looking for a place to spend your cheat day, Milkbox would be it. It leaves you with the love-hate feeling you know all too well after you’ve eaten something so good your life has been significantly improved by it, but also something so damn sinful and heavy you feel like you deserve to go on a diet for a year for devouring it. I’m still trying to understand its low rating on zomato; I would definitely come back – I quite liked their Salted Caramel & Mango wonut, and look forward to tasting their other flavors, on top of their Cwazy Shakes and Waffle Sandwiches & Sundaes.
We struggled as the last remaining space in our tummies and in our memory cards was taken up. Not only is Milkbox’s signature creation yummy; its aesthetic was interesting as well. When the wonut came, it was so absolutely ugly and beautiful at the same time I couldn’t help but love it and take numerous snapshots of it. That wonut was the exact equivalent of the pretty girl in class who insists on dressing weirdly. Their vintage brown leather couches, white tiled walls, wooden boxes for counters, bright yellow lamps and blue steel chairs all make up quite the perfect Instagram shot as well.
At the end of the day, I’d soaked up so many new sights and meals I felt as if I’d gone on an expedition to strange, faraway lands. You need not search far and wide or journey to a land miles away for an adventure; adventure, if you want it, could be waiting for you, right at your doorstep.
1Beware: I have a terrible penchant for quotes!
2 Also, I have an annoying fondness for alliteration.