Day in, day out, I walk the litter-strewn streets of Ermita, passing by old, dingy office buildings with haste as hordes of OFW hopefuls take up the whole sidewalk. Jeepneys aggressively weave in and out of traffic as they ply their routes. Peddlers work tirelessly to earn a living. Looking at the dilapidated walls around me, I wonder what it was like to see it in its glory days. Bustling and pulsing under my feet, I rarely notice that I walk the very same streets of the once fabled city of Manila.
Manila is broken, but with the remnants of its glory days, Mabini’s Kainan Kapihan Tindahan’s Filipino food revolution might just be the spark it needs to rekindle the fire.
CR-EAT-IVTY AND GASTRO-NOM-Y
With the growth of ephemeral trends, Filipinos have become discerning and demanding with food.Call it the sands of time, but technology has changed the way we eat. As the top research channel, we now rely heavily on social media and word of mouth in trying out new and innovative brands—even just for the fear of missing out (FOMO). Now say it with me: “Guilty!” We now eat with our eyes first.
When asked about which dish was the most fun to create, Mikey Del Rosario, at the helm of Mabini’s operations as Chef Consultant, revels in transforming the tasty but unappetizing laing into a newfangled creation. “For me, that laing thing was super fun to create. Kasi parang we went kind of wild with our imagination and tried to see how to elevate Filipino food, especially the laing, to something that people would like to eat and look at. So from something that is the most disgusting-looking thing that people would never take a picture of, all of the sudden, it’s now the first thing that they would take a picture of.” Taking advantage of the digital era, Mabini’s winning combination of food and solid branding have locked down their Instagram game with flashy IG-worthy dishes that would get you hailing a ride to Malate. “It looks amazing whenever we serve it to people. Immediately, nilalabas nila yung cellphone nila. That’s how I know that it’s a successful dish. That’s the kind of marketing that you can’t pay for. Kahit anong lagay mo dyan sa Facebook, Instagram, hashtags, or whatever, if it doesn’t look good and it doesn’t taste good people won’t post about it.”
Although the menu may be teeming with myriad offerings with rather playful and very Pinoy-inspired names like Juan Tamad, Monggo Fridays, Bet na Bet Pakbet, and Ubod ng Sarap, Mabini’s is serious about setting a standard for serving and elevating Filipino food. The difference is in the taste and experience. Their Pancit ni Doreen, for example, is vegetable stir-fried noodles topped with crispy bagnet and toasted garlic longganiza (both from Ilocos), but what sets it apart is the fresh, hand-pulled noodles. “We don’t use commercially made noodles for our pancit,” Del Rosario informs as I stood watching one of their chefs skillfully kneading the dough and turning it into noodles right before my eyes. “You can taste it (the difference), you’ll know later,” he adds. And true to his word, opting for hand-pulled, the noodles did not bloat; instead it enhanced the flavors and mouthfeel, making the bagnet and longganiza shine.
I mean, imagine this and try not to hold your breath: their Seafood Platter Sungkaan is a tier of eggplant, tomatoes, okra, grilled squid, fried tilapia, butter garlic prawns, adobong mussels, steamed clams, a whole steamed crab climbing the pile, with pickles and an array of sauces served on a sungka board—hence the name—a seafood spectacle like no other! And if that’s not enough, Mabini’s attention to the delicate details of distinct taste for each succulent layer of seafood will convince you: the trip down Ermita is truly worth the effort.
MABINI’S GOT GRIT
“The goal is to be able to say that we are the first establishment and restaurant in Ermita that was able to bring in everyone else and bring the magic back,” Del Rosario talks about their aspiration of leading the charge of revitalizing and gentrifying the heart of Manila through their food that swells with Filipino pride.
“Basically, it took us four to five months to really nail down the food items that we wanted. It was long process, noh, kasi maraming trial and error, research and development.” Going the extra mile, such as getting the right ingredients to make the “sacred” Filipino dishes—like the chicken and pork adobo, sizzling bulalo, and spicy short rib kaldereta—as authentic as possible is their way of honoring the Filipino tradition. And at the same time, challenging their creativity by using a more playful approach on their other dishes, putting them on the next level—their dishes like Laing Inside and Balut Matapobre—can attest to this. “We’re proud of our food, hindi namin kinakahiya. Walang item on our menu na we feel like it’s latak (worthless).”
Sharing Tesoro’s mentality of forefronting Filipino art, culture, and now with food, Mabini’s profound ambition for people to come together in honoring and embracing what it is to be Filipino might just summon back the glory days of Manila.
Mabini’s Kainan Kapihan Tindahan is located at Tesoro’s Bldg., 1325 A. Mabini St., Ermita, Manila. Service hours are from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Follow them on Instagram @mabinis.restaurant, and like them on Facebook @MabinisKKT.
Photography by Jisa Atrero