Food guide: Eat your way around San Juan City

Take a detour from the food hubs of Quezon City and Makati into San Juan’s little known food gems.


Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — San Juan has always had a rich food tradition, housing several old restaurants and eateries throughout the years. As of late, however, it hasn’t been getting much attention. It may not be as big as Quezon City or as posh as Makati, but the smallest city in the Philippines can stand toe-to-toe with any food destination in Metro Manila.

From old time favorites to new finds, here’s what San Juan has to offer.

 

MAP WL (EC).jpg
   Illustration by JL JAVIER

Thirsty BarberCarousel CreameryGreenhills Uno Seafood Palace
Tori Tori Kushiyaki Snack BarKonbini Store Tokyo MarketMala Tang
Sodam Korean RestaurantEat Fresh Famous Hong Kong Street Food
Little Store on the HillOyasumi

 

9 Thirsty Barber 2.jpg The drinks in Thirsty Barber are fashioned after barbershop terms. In photo, from left: Blunt Scissors, Please Don’t Tell, The Under Cut. Photo by JL JAVIER

Thirsty Barber

 

Hidden behind an alcohol-laden bookshelf of a barbershop is Thirsty Barber. The interiors are dark and sleek. Customers are greeted by a neon-lit bar facing an open area that can fit 70 people. Similarly, the drinks, too, are fashioned after barbershop terms, like The Under Cut, a Tequila Sunrise derivative with an underlying heat from cayenne pepper. The signature drinks are light, or pretend to be, which pairs them nicely with the food (before, during, and after).

The food at Thirsty Barber is straightforward Filipino, and not limited to bar chow, with favorites such as dinakdakan and binagoongan — even goat soup — all given a slick new look and the appropriate plating. Their take on the classic bistek is the Tapang Barako, lean beef tenderloin strips cooked in kapeng barako butter — similar, but more subtle, than red eye gravy.

@thirstybarberph
G/F Promenade Bldg., Wilson St. cor P. Guevara St.
+639773608130
1 p.m. - 10 p.m.

 

 

Carousel Creamery

Carousel Creamery is all about fun. Think Pop Tate’s Chock’lit Shoppe, with ice cream flavors beyond the basic vanilla, strawberry, and chocolate trio. It’s reminiscent of a traditional ice cream parlor, brought forward into the age of bing su bowls and nitro ice cream.

Trying out flavors — there are over a hundred options available — is part and parcel of the Carousel Creamery experience. Tubs of ice cream fill the chillers lined up from one end of the shop to the other. Beer and chicharon, anyone? How about mascarpone and figs? Think watermelon is too light for ice cream? Well, they have one there complete with (chocolate chip) seeds. Name an ingredient, and chances of them having it as a key piece in a flavor run very high.

The shop is also a sucker for pop culture references: Brittleney S’mores (peanut brittle and s’mores), Wonderous Woman (cherry blueberry), and Chewy Baka (Cow Label), among others.

@carouselcreamery
8 Missouri St.
+63 2 775 9092
10 a.m. - 11 p.m.

Greenhills Uno Seafood Place In photo: steamed prawn garlic over sticky rice, crab fie fung style, and chicken pie. Photo by JL JAVIER

Greenhills Uno Seafood Palace

At the corner of Annapolis and Missouri sits Greenhills Uno Seafood Palace. For the uninitiated, it’s a Chinese restaurant in its most classical sense: red linens, dressed up waiters, and complete cutlery circling a Lazy Susan. It is sibling to the Uno in Escolta with little differences.

The branch lacks the roving dimsum cart of Escolta, but still serves dimsum. Both have an extensive menu (17 pages to be exact) of Chinese specialties, which revolve around different kinds of seafood, meat, and poultry.

Greenhills Uno has some of the freshest seafood around — after all, it’s their specialty. Off-menu items are often requests of what is possible, such as their steamed large tiger prawns split in the middle, cradling minced garlic sitting on top of long grain glutinous rice — technically a two order feat, which can be combined, so the prawn drippings fall right between the rice crevices.

 

Other favorites include the grouper in Thai mango sauce, which not only highlights their seafood but also the chef’s knifework.

47 Annapolis
+63 2 721 1995
10:30 a.m. - 2:30 p.m. / 5:30 p.m. - 10:30 p.m.


Tori Tori Kushiyaki Snack Bar A selection of skewers and sushi — from chicken skin to wagyu beef to dragon rolls and salmon aburi — from Tori Tori Kushiyaki Snack Bar. Photo by JL JAVIER

Tori Tori Kushiyaki Snack Bar 

Like the tiny hole-in-the-wall eateries in Japan, Tori Tori is intimate, colorful, and, ultimately, all about the food. The sushi, sashimi, and maki basics are covered, using Japanese staples tuna, salmon, and uni.

There are little surprises such as the cream cheese roll and even a fancy foie aburi. While these offerings are great in their own right, the highlight of the place really is in its name, “kushiyaki,” the generic term for grilled skewered meats and vegetables.

The owner himself takes on the grill which is located at the front, where takeaway diners can order through the grill window itself. Most notable among the skewers are the Japanese wagyu beef cubes and komochi shishamo (grilled smelt-carrying roe).

Local and Japanese beer and whiskey are offered here, with buy one take one options available from Monday through Wednesday. A second branch is located a hop away at Pearl Drive.

@toritori.ph
197 Wilson St.
+63 977 795 0010
11 a.m. - 12 a.m.


Konbini In Konbini Store Tokyo Market, hot meals are also served for afternoon snacks or even take-home dinners. Photo by JL JAVIER

Konbini Store Tokyo Market

“Konbini” is Japanese for “convenience store”). If you’re on the hunt for some Japanese goods in the area, such as soba noodles or Cheeza crackers, the store has you covered. Hot meals are also served for afternoon snacks or even take-home dinners.

A short queue upfront has rows of order cards, where customers can pick up cards of their own choice, present them at the menu, and wait for them to be cooked up. Of the lot, the tandem of shoyu ramen and gyoza are worth noting.

An order of the special california roll (topped with chunks of unagi), will also take you far. Surprisingly, those aren’t even the best things about Konbini: for everyone that’s been looking for a place to buy Saikoro steak, you can buy it here. You’re welcome.

57 Connecticut St.
+63 2 7224263
11 a.m. - 8 p.m.


Mala Tang Mala Tang's famed roast duck rice. Photo by JL JAVIER

Mala Tang 

In a city dotted with Chinese restaurants and stores, it’s common to find a places that specialize in a specific dish. Such is the case with Mala Tang. The place is a frequented by San Juan locals and pilgrims alike, despite traffic along Mabini St. and limited parking slots.

While people flock here to “make your own shabu-shabu,” Mala Tang’s selling point is its roast meats — roast duck, especially. The presentation is simple enough: a quarter portion of sliced duck, served with bok choy leaves, on top of a bed of rice.

The duck is the star of the show, with it crispy skin cradling that rich dark meat. If you decide to get a whole duck to go, no one’s stopping you.

@malatangph
207 A. Mabini St.
+63 2 503 3550
11:30 a.m. - 2:00 a.m.

Sodam Korean Restaurant The side dishes alone are value for money: a generous spread of different kinds of kimchi, skewers, stews, noodles, and rice, sprawled out on a long table. Photo by JL JAVIER

Sodam Korean Restaurant

It’s typical to see a long line queued in front of Sodam, which customarily snakes through its two-storey structure. Like any Korean barbecue buffet restaurant, meals are banchan style, with plates of raw pork and beef for grilling. The place offers an incredible buffet at a price that isn’t harsh on the pocket.

The side dishes alone are value for money: a generous spread of different kinds of kimchi, skewers, stews, noodles, and rice, are sprawled out on a long table. On top of this, waiters will serve, on a constant basis, thin slivers of raw beef and pork that shrivel and crisp up on the table grill. All that, and then some, for a mere ₱365.

Buffets tend to have a price point boundary where you question the quality of the food served when presented at a price that is too low. Sodam is an exception to that rule. It’s worth a visit when you’re craving for Korean barbecue or when there’s a need to overindulge. Just don’t forget to make a reservation.

17 J. Abad Santos
0905 393 4190
11:30 a.m. - 2:30 p.m.; 6 p.m. - 10 p.m.

Eat Fresh Famous Hong Kong Street Food With Eat Fresh’s wide selection, everyone has their favorites. Photo by JL JAVIER

Eat Fresh Famous Hong Kong Street Food

Eat Fresh Hong Kong Street Food is famous for a lot of things. Outside its San Juan branch (the other is in Banawe, Quezon City), skewers ranging from dimsum to innards to Japanese yakitori are displayed behind a glass case illuminated by fluorescent lights, waiting to be dipped in boiling oil. Beside them, dozens of clay pots are prepped for either rice or congee, while across it, a giant wok works on noodles.

With Eat Fresh’s wide selection, everyone has their favorites. We recommend the taosi spareribs claypot rice and several orders of their isaw to begin with, accompanied by an order of black gulaman. And of course, no meal would be complete in Eat Fresh without their Hong Kong pancake balls.

691 J. Abad Santos
+63 2 2349059 / +63 2 2966573
9 a.m. - 12 m.n.

Little Store on the Hill Little Store on the Hill's lumpia plus: lumpia with nori. Photo by JL JAVIER

Little Store on the Hill

It’s impossible to bring up San Juan without mentioning the Little Store on the Hill. Upon entering the store, you’re greeted by several small aisles packed with canned and dried goods and bottles of sauces; to the left, fresh fruits and vegetables, and frozen packs of dimsum. It’s your typical Chinese grocery. Over the checkout counter however, an illuminated menu board lists down a blend of Taiwanese and Hokkien dishes.

While it serves several specials, Little Store on the Hill is an institution that was built on a single dish: the fresh lumpia. Their Hokkien fresh lumpia is an enormous, tightly packed spring roll, wrapped in wax paper and cut in half, reavealing a mixture of vegetables and fillings — all prepared by hand — that create a distinct combination of textures and flavors upon that first bite.

2 J. Abad Santos
+63 2 7219174
7 a.m. - 8 p.m.

Oyasumi Ramen In photo, clockwise from top left: truffle ramen, kara miso ramen, tonkotsu tantan, iekei ramen. Photo by JL JAVIER

Oyasumi Ramen

Ramen is alive and well in San Juan thanks to Oyasumi Ramen. Drawing its roots from Yokohama where its chef learned to make ramen, the restaurant’s concept is simple: serve ramen done right, which means making the broth and noodles in-house.

The core ramen dish in Oyasumi is the Iekei, made from tonkotsu and shoyu tare. The bowl is great on its own, giving diners a glimpse of traditional Iekei from Yokohama, but it also serves as the base for their more experimental bowls such as the truffle ramen and, surprisingly, the La Paz ramen.

Interestingly, Oyasumi also offers to turn customers’ leftover broth into a risotto. Based on their experiences in Japan where diners would dump rice in leftover broth, the owners decided to replicate that practice — with a little more finesse, of course. Regulars have been known to save their broth just for the risotto.

@oyasumiramen
308 P. Guevara cor Seaview St.
+63 2 2750309
11 a.m. - 10:30 p.m.