We’ve all heard off “secret menus” and “off the menu” items at restaurants that are not listed as options on-menu; well, I happened upon my favorite Filipino restaurant (actually it’s the only one that I know about), for the simple reason that I hadn’t eaten there in more than a year – you know with COVID and whatnot – so I recently pulled up a seat at a table. In doing so, I learned the owners Benjamin and Librada Capuli were in-house, and as I chatted with them learned they are trying out a number of new Filipino dishes in their restaurant, that aren’t on the menu yet, which have to be updated to reflect the new items.
They are also dishes the Capulis say they think will please the local palate, considering they are still awaiting the return of their biggest market share, Filipinos that work on cruise ships who flock to Manila Grill when their ship is docked in Nassau, where they are certain to get authentic flavors and cuisine of their home country.
Librada suggested I have the Bagoong (fermented shrimp paste) Rice, which she described as a complete meal on a plate and which she says she ate loads of as a medical student, because it is inexpensive to make, and filling. I agreed, with one caveat, I needed a side of Manila Grill’s spicy wings considering the Bagoong Rice did not have meat, and well, I love their spicy wings.
The platter of fried rice placed in front of me was topped with thinly sliced red onions and cabbage, chopped tomatoes and mango and all topped with shrimp the paste condiment. You’re meant to mix it all together and dig in. Of course, I approached tentatively, considering the dish had a strong-smelling, salty paste atop it all. But its complex taste and combination of salty, sweet and umami flavors just worked. It was full-flavored and delicious. And I found myself asking for even more of the shrimp paste as I ate it. I’ve since come to learn that Bagoong Rice can vary regionally in the Philippines, so if I ever visit the country that’s something I will have to remember.
Librada suggested my mom, who was with me on that Saturday, afternoon try the Chicken Inasal, a grilled chicken dish done by marinating chicken pieces in a unique blend of spices and grilled until done.
The special marinade (vinegar, calamansi juice [a Philippine lime that is a cross between a tangerine and kumquat], and other spices like lemongrass and ginger) and basting sauce make the Ilongo (a term that translates literally “char-grilled” or “roasted” meat) version of the grilled chicken extra special. When you have it you will realize, it’s a delicious variation from typical chicken barbecue, with its distinctive basting sauce that makes it succulent and satisfying. My mom got her Chicken Inasal with a side of garlic rice that we have loved since the first day we visited the restaurant.
I had to have a taste. The chicken was moist, juicy, and had a deliciously complex flavor, and the garlic rice provided the perfect counterbalance.
My eight-year-old nephew Justin who deigned to run errands with his aunt and grandmother and who was with us during the visit, opted for plain chicken wings and white rice, but after one taste of his grandmother’s Chicken Inasal, he proceeded to ignore his own meal, to help her out, as he put it. Trust me, you will return to Manila Grill time and again just for this chicken. These are just a few of the items that are new to the restaurant that aren’t on the menu yet, so when you visit, feel free to speak to either Benji or Librada about a recommendation. They won’t steer you wrong.
And as you visit the restaurant, remember that adobo is their proudest crossover dish; Filipino spring roll lumpia are a must have; pancit which is akin to lo-mein is a staple; and Filipinos have an absolute love affair with pork – lechon kawali (deep-fried pork belly), crispy pata, or deep-fried pork knuckles, and then there’s sisig which features finely chopped cheek, snout, ears and organs tossed in citrus and spices and an egg that comes out to you on a screaming-hot cast-iron pan. And if you can absolutely lay your trust in the Capulis like I have, if they have dinuguan (thick brown stew of pork blood) on offer on the day, give it a whirl – it’s a must try, at least once. I have.
Go into the restaurant on Elizabeth Avenue with an open mind, and expect to be surprised by the boldness of the flavors. Also, expect vinegar to be everywhere – in Filipino cuisine it’s used for marinating, braising, glazing as well as a table dip for entrees. And Filipino cuisine is unapologetically meat-centric, but there are veggies to be had and that play an important role in the meals.