Wednesday, April 4, 2012

still searching for the best xlb

It's been a while since I made a food post. In fact, it's been a while since I made any blog post at all. That's what happens when you spend more time reading books-- you spend less time online. It feels good to unplug.

However, due to popular demand by my lone reader, I have torn myself away from reading (or rereading) Dune and uploaded some photos I took of what we ate at Lugang Café on 23 March 2012.

This was not my first time at Lugang Café. Like most people, I'd noticed the hype which started in late 2010. It seemed like every blogger and his second cousin's high school classmate's best friend had eaten there and posted something about it. Now the truth is that I'm a bit of a snooty eater and I tend to avoid places that are too popular, but I'm happy to report that I actually like this restaurant.

The search for the best XLB is still ongoing. I am compelled to order it whenever I see it on a menu.

Steamed pork xiao long bao, P188+.

Lugang Café's xiao long bao is not bad at all-- and believe me, there are a lot of bad ones in Manila. I can't tell for sure if they taste better than Crystal Jade's, but they're definitely prettier. In terms of flavor, texture and appearance, they can't compare to Singapore's Paradise Dynasty and Din Tai Fung, though.

But then this restaurant is more than just XLB. I've had the three-cup mushrooms before and loved them, so this time, I ordered another mushroom dish.

Stir-fried mushrooms with XO sauce, PHP280+.

The mushrooms and veggies were very fresh, and although stir-fried, the dish was not too greasy. The XO flavor was pronounced but not overwhelmingly so. I tried to fool myself into thinking that this was a healthy vegetarian dish, but nothing this umami and meaty (even without meat) could possibly be 100% healthy.

Somehow we ended up ordering a couple of my childhood favorites. Every kid who has ever been dragged by his parents to a Chinese restaurant is sure to have been fed sweet and sour pork and fried shrimp balls at least once. These two dishes bring back lots of memories.

Sweet and sour pork, PHP290+.

The sweet and sour pork was very een-teresting. The coating was thicker and denser than I'm used to-- more crunchy than crispy-- and there was a strong five-spice powder aroma. Not unpleasant, but a bit unusual and could take some getting used to.

Shrimp balls, PHP380+.

A shrimp ball's guts. Look, Ma, no hardly any extenders.

Our server warned us that the shrimp balls take 20 to 30 minutes to cook, which is really not a big deal since the XLB, mushrooms and pork were laid on the table in quick succession less than 10 minutes after we ordered. Again, they were not exactly as I remembered them from my childhood, but I can honestly say that they're better-- less bread-like. These were steaming hot and fragrant, with a light and crispy exterior, and a moist but fluffy interior.

I made sure to leave room for dessert. Lugang Café is famous for their shaved ice concoctions, so that's what I chose even though I was a bit wary of what I thought of as simply flavored ice. I decided to go the purist route and ignored the selection of nuts, beans and cut-up fruit. I just wanted something cool, smooth and in-season. And you can't really tell if something's good unless you try it in its unadulterated form, right?

Mango and coconut shaved ice, PHP160+.

Me likey! The flavors were very intense and the ice just sublimated in my mouth. (For non-nerds, sublimation is the process of a solid changing into a gas.)  Now I'm excited to try other shaved ice dessert joints, like Caveman & Yeti which has several branches all over the metro.

With a pot of tea, PHP40+, and a bowl of steamed rice, PHP58+, our bill was about PHP1600 (US$38). Not cheap, but to be fair, we ordered enough food for three and a half adults with healthy appetites.

Verdict: I would go back, without hesitation. The menu is pretty extensive, the food that I've eaten so far is above average, the service is excellent, the location is convenient and best of all, the parking is free!

I've only gone to Lugang Café for early lunch, so I've never had problems getting a table or parking my car. From what I've heard and read, evenings are much busier. But given the high ceiling and huge windows, I would much rather go there in the daytime, when the dining room is filled with sunlight and I can see what I'm eating. And the natural lighting is better for my pictures.

Lugang Café is located at 15 Connecticut Street, Northeast Greenhills, San Juan, Metro Manila. Phone +63.2.7757599. Website

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