Updated 18:03 PM PHT Tue, March 21, 2017
Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Chef JP Anglo, for all his playfulness when it comes to food, is a little bit shy. When the Negrense restaurant served a sampler of its new dishes to a small crowd in its Rockwell Center branch, JP first had to consult his notes on his phone to get started on Sarsa’s brief history.
Sarsa would not have happened if not for a kind Ilonggo compliment — “Namit gid!” (very delicious) — that JP received for his pancit molo back in Mu Shu, one of his restaurants in his hometown. He wanted to have his own restaurant in Manila, but no one wanted to partner with him, until his sister and now business partner Tracie Anglo-Dizon agreed to do so. From then on, he was no longer “the TV chef who surfs a lot.” Consistent with his goal to bring authentic Negrense food to Manila, whose eaters “should know what inasal should taste like,” as he says, Sarsa has been churning out hometown favorites (such as the sizzling kansi and batchoy) that are also becoming the city’s own.
Explaining Sarsa’s new menu, JP starts out uncertain, but quickly reaches a momentum where he animatedly discusses how he arrived at each of the nine dishes. Two of the most recognizable dishes in Philippine cuisine — adobo and sinigang — are given the Sarsa treatment in the sinigang na bangus belly and the potential bestseller liempo pork adobo. Interestingly, the bangus in the sinigang is grilled and adds texture to the broth, soured with batwan and seasoned with ginamos (a kind of fish bagoong). The adobo features an old Sarsa staple, the chicken adobo flakes, and eggs two-ways (wok fried and soft boiled). Both are the products of a long process of trial and error, since both JP and Tracie did not want dishes that tasted just like anyone else’s.
“We already covered the basics for Filipino food … like our batchoy, our kansi — our kansi is sort of like a sour soup from our region. It’s kind of like sinigang already,” he says, “so that’s why we made that into a seafood.” The adobo, JP says, is a little bit different: the kind that he did not want anyone to be able to make at home. The pork belly is braised, the wok fried egg cooked as if poached, albeit in very hot oil. The inspiration for it came from a staff meal in Australia. Later on, he would give some diners a delectable tip for breakfast: a meal of wok fried egg with rice, with a little bit of sesame oil and oyster sauce, garnished with garlic bits.
With JP, there’s an infectious, if not initially restrained enthusiasm that reflects how he thinks and talks about food, his travels, and everything in between. Two dishes on the menu — the squid pinangat and the Negrense sizzling beef rendang — are inspired by his exploits in the Bicol region. Both feature gata (coconut milk) and will, says JP, hopefully become new crowd favorites. But JP’s personal favorite is the deep fried dilis with mango tuba sinamak and aioli sauce, a no-frills appetizer that also fills the belly. The small fish are tawilis, delicate and tender, garnished with a single blossom of squash.
JP says that he does not want to get too technical with the dishes, because he “does not want to over-deliver.” But Tracie, JP’s sister, says JP is a brave chef, who constantly experiments with food. For the new menu, they must have started out with around 25 dishes, which was whittled down to nine after the initial tasting. For her part, Tracie’s favorites include the sinigang, adobo, and the grilled squid with kangkong pesto. To make pesto out of kangkong — a nondescript leafy vegetable — is not only innovative, but for Tracie, also cheap. It’s an abundant local ingredient given new life in an unexpected yet satisfying way.
There are more seafood-based dishes on the menu, since JP noticed that most of it was dominated by pork and chicken. Aside from the dilis, sinigang, and squid dishes, there’s also the grilled fresh tilapia with chili garlic sauce and bell pepper tuba, and the grilled prawn skewers blanketed with talangka sauce and coconut milk, with small square pieces of coconut meat. For dessert, one can have fun with the kalabasa choco balls with pandan cream sauce, probably filled with either melted Curly Tops or Serg’s chocolate.
Sarsa has always been known for its straightforward, homegrown Filipino food, and as it introduces its new offerings, both JP and Tracie hope to preserve the restaurant’s roots while also keeping everything fresh. It’s the cooking techniques that give the dishes an edge, says JP.
He’s not afraid to add, subtract, or fix slow-moving dishes if the need calls for it. The same painstaking and practical ethos guides his new menu, which expands Sarsa beyond its strengths in Negrense cuisine, but takes care not to change its identity too much. “I don’t want to reinvent the wheel,” JP says. “I just want to put spare tires in the car.”