Filipino Feasts

29 March 2017

Get acquainted with authentic Filipino dishes at Laguna Restaurant.

Tucked away by the Bukit Nanas foothill along Jalan Gereja is a nondescript corner eatery. At a glance, the place could be easily mistaken for a Chinese restaurant with its red tablecloths and white cloth-covered chairs. However, step inside and you will soon notice that Laguna Restaurant serves a slightly different fare – Filipino food, one that Malaysians are not quite as familiar with.

While Malaysia has been touted as a melting pot of cuisines in the region, Filipino food is largely absent from the usual influx of foreign fare like Thai, Indonesian and Middle Eastern food; perhaps it doesn’t help that it’s widely identified for its Fear Factor-esque food like balut, a boiled duck embryo commonly sold as a snack.

Ronnie Tan, the proprietor of Laguna Restaurant is set to change all that by introducing more locals to Filipino flavours. His first foray into the F&B industry was by way of opening a Filipino bar in Malacca. After a couple of years and through suggestions from regular patrons to open a place in Kuala Lumpur, Tan eventually started Laguna Restaurant in September 2012.

Most of Laguna’s clientèle are Filipinos based in the Klang Valley. In fact, except for Tan, the entire restaurant crew are Filipinos too. During weekends, the place is crowded with churchgoers from the nearby St John’s Cathedral while weekdays see a steady stream of local white-collar workers grabbing lunch at Laguna.

Ambience is clearly important to Tan. He tries to evoke a sense of identity and familiarity for his regular patrons by commissioning large floor-to-ceiling murals of famous Filipino sights. The walls are currently painted with imagery of the Malacañang Palace, Mount Pinatubo, Pagsanjan Lake and Mayon Volcano, all famous landmarks from different regions of the Philippines.

The name “Laguna” is itself a reference to a province in Philippines. A cursory glance at the menu indicates that most items are listed in Tagalog with no English translations. However, Tan is usually at hand to help with recommendations, especially if you’re new to Filipino cuisine.

According to him, the food served at Laguna Restaurant is based on a “Tagalog standard" and similar to what you would get in Manila, the capital of Philippines. Although the menu covers food from different regions, the flavours are tweaked slightly to suit the general Filipino population. Many dishes also contain ingredients such as tamarind, calamansi and vinegar as is characteristic of the Filipinos’ penchant for tangy flavours.

Among some of the highly recommended dishes one must try is the pork sisig. Served on a sizzling hot plate and tossed with a raw egg that cooks through almost immediately, it is then seasoned with a squeeze of fresh calamansi juice. The resulting effect is an aromatic, moreish dish with textural bites of finely chopped pig’s head, brains and other bits mixed into it. While it might seem unappetising to the uninitiated, one mouthful is good enough to make you a convert.

The pork sisig at Laguna Restaurant is a must-try.

Tan also recommends the bangus, or milkfish as it’s known in English, considered to be the Philippines’s national fish – hence, widely eaten. "This fish is like ikan parang, a lot of bones", comments Tan while explaining how the Filipinos became so adept at deboning the fish that they’re able to remove the bones completely. Deep-fried on its own, the firm white flesh of milkfish pairs well with a dip of soy sauce, vinegar and cut chillies.

Bangus, or milkfish as it’s known in English, is considered to be the Philippines’s national fish.

Another dish to try is the pinakbet, a mixed vegetables dish comprising pumpkin, okra, long bean, tomato, brinjal and pork. What makes it unique is the fermented shrimp sauce akin to the Malaysian cincalok that is used to flavour the dish. No additional seasonings are used and yet the flavour of the pinakbet is robust enough to complement a serving of garlic rice, best eaten with the gravy ladled over.

There are a host of other dishes worth trying like crispy pata (deep-fried pig knuckles), lechon kawali (crispy fried pork belly) and kare-kare (Filipino-style oxtail stew with peanut sauce) that one visit to Laguna is not enough. Tan certainly takes pride in the quality of Laguna’s food: “The moment they try it, they love it, they come back,” he says, and the customers do come back with many, including locals, hosting their gatherings and social events at Laguna.

Crispy pata (deep-fried pig knuckles).

Tan has recently even expanded operations to a second outlet in Seksyen 19, Petaling Jaya. Although the menu remains the same, this establishment has a sleeker, modern-looking interior and would appeal to those looking for a more refined dining experience. Tan is also aiming to cater to the large Filipino population in Seksyen 19, many of whom work at call centres in the area.

Laguna Restaurant’s success and popularity among the Filipino community and food enthusiasts are testament to Tan’s unwavering passion and drive to create a welcoming place and an authentic dining experience for his customers. "We [are] the first that sustained [to] today," he says.

It’s a strong remark, but with more than four years of quiet and gradual recognition, it’s one that is definitely worthy of its salt.

Locations:
Laguna Restaurant, 3 Jalan Gereja, 50100 Kuala Lumpur (011 1910 1661). Open Mon, 10am-2pm; Tue-Sat, 10am-9pm; Sun, 8am-9pm. 
Laguna Filipino Bar & Restaurant, 14 Jalan 19/36, Seksyen 19, 46300 Petaling Jaya (011 1541 3639). Open daily, 10am-10pm. Closed every final two Mondays of the month.

By Lyn Ong

This article is related to FOOD CULTURE OFF THE BEAT PINOY FOOD BUSINESS

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