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July 02, 2004

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Publication Date: Friday, July 02, 2004

The thrilla' from Manila The thrilla' from Manila (July 02, 2004)

Casual Filipino eatery offers authentic delicacies, karaoke

By Mandy Erickson

Manila Grill on Castro Street feels a lot like home. The atmosphere is casual, workers and other diners are friendly, the food changes every day, and it's almost always open.

Most of the time it's a Filipino diner, offering a variety of stews, lumpia (egg rolls), pansit (fried noodle dishes) and eclectic ice cream desserts. But on Friday and Saturday nights, the place turns into a karaoke joint, where guests belt out songs in Tagalog, English and Spanish, sip beer and wine and sample appetizers.

Philippine-born owner Tess Nagrampa opened Manila Grill a year ago after her job as a lab technician went bust. For nearly two decades, she had worked nights and weekends catering parties, so operating a restaurant was the obvious next move.

The business became a family affair: the oldest of 10 children, Nagrampa hired four sisters and a brother to work for her and expects two more siblings to arrive from the Philippines soon.

"My grandma was well known in our province as a great cook," Nagrampa said. "It's in our blood."

The homey atmosphere at Manila Grill was evident as soon as we walked into the cafeteria-style dining room. The server behind the steam tables asked my dining companion and me if we had visited before, and when we said no, presented a dozen samples.

The food from the steam table, mostly stews of pork, chicken or beef with vegetables, costs $4.99 a dish and is accompanied by a mound of steamed rice and a small bowl of soup. If you want two dishes, it's $7.99. The soup looks like a bowl of standard chicken broth with a few leafy vegetables floating in it, but it's pleasantly tangy -- Nagrampa adds tamarind.

Our favorites of the steam table dishes included lechon, deep-fried pork that's similar to Hawaiian-style kalua pig. The skin is salty and crispy, the meat as soft as butter. Pork adobo, a signature Filipino dish, was another winner, a comfort food dish that manages to be both mellow and spicy at the same time. The cubes of pork are slowly stewed in garlic, pepper and vinegar.

We also liked inihaw, minced broiled pork with green onions and red bell peppers in soy sauce and black pepper -- it's like a peppery Chinese stir-fry.

These three dishes are always available, as they're popular with customers, Nagrampa said. Other stews and preparations vary. One we tried for lunch was guisado gulay, a clear-broth stew of summer squash, green melon, chunks of bright-orange winter squash, and chicken. The vegetables had a nice bite to them, the winter squash was earthy and rich, and the melon slightly sweet.

My friend wasn't up to trying the dinuguan -- tripe simmered in pork blood, hot pepper, garlic and vinegar -- but I was glad I did. The coagulated blood had an almost gritty texture and a dusky flavor. The taste and the gray-black color, reminiscent of squid ink, contrasted well with the soft, bland tripe.

Our drinks (all $3.25), however, were disappointing. The mango shake was icy and did not taste fresh, and the tapioca balls in the green tea pearl drink were stuck together in a mass. Sago gulaman, a banana drink, tasted mostly of sugar water.

When I returned with another friend on Saturday night, the tables had been moved and a stage was set up with a video screen. Although karaoke officially started at 8 p.m., nothing was happening when we arrived, so we snacked on a series of appetizers from the karaoke menu, which was priced differently than for lunch and dinner.

Fried Shanghai ($8.99 for 15 rolls), finger-sized egg rolls filled with pork, carrots and cabbage, were hot and crispy with a pork flavor that really shone through. We found that a small dab of the accompanying sweet-and-spicy sauce added enough of a kick without overwhelming the subtle flavor of the filling.

Fried lumpia ($4.75 for three) were big egg rolls filled with carrots, onions and green peppers that arrived with the same sauce as the fried Shanghai. These were similarly hot and crispy, the vegetables fresh and flavorful.

The pusit guisado, or fried squid ($8.99), was a disappointment after the lumpia. The chunky squid rings were rubbery and fishy-tasting, though we liked the batter, which was peppery and crispy. It came with a classic tartar sauce and a spicy vinegar sauce for dipping.

Karaoke finally started at about 9:30 p.m., when the lights dimmed and a strobe light shot beams of color around the room.

My friend found the courage to sing early in the evening. He's a journalist like me, not an entertainer, so it wasn't the best rendition of "Pretty Woman," but everyone clapped enthusiastically. The singers who followed him sang beautifully in both Tagalog and English, and their professionalism was enough to scare me away.

During karaoke, we ordered dessert and were presented with a spectacular finish to the meal. Halo-halo (pronounced "hollow-hollow") ice cream ($5.50) is plenty dessert for two or even three people. It's a mound of shaved ice doused with evaporated milk, then topped with your choice of ice cream -- ube (purple yam), avocado, coconut, mango and buko pandan, an herb.

Nestled in the dish are tiny treats: candied beans, strips of coconut, pieces of jackfruit and a glob of sweet red palm fruit paste. It's a delicious jumble of flavors and textures and great fun to eat.

Coco pinipig ($5.50) is a similar dish, with coconut milk instead of evaporated milk and cubes of flavored gelatin, caramelized yam and banana and crispy, dyed-green rice.

When you visit Manila Grill, keep in mind that it's a supremely casual restaurant. You need to go to the counter to ask for anything, even another beer. And you may find, as we did one morning, that it doesn't open quite when it says it will. But that's the way it is when you're visiting friends.

Dining Notes

Manila Grill
873 Castro St.

Monday through Thursday: 8:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.

Friday and Saturday: 8:30 a.m. to midnight

Call before visiting, as hours can vary.

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