You won’t have a problem finding most of the steakhouses routinely rated among the world’s best. La Cabaña in Buenos Aires, for example, has a full-sized bull right at the door and a couple more in the hallway to let you know that you’ve come to the right place. The covered walk leading into Brooklyn’s Peter Luger is emblazoned with the word “Steak House” and the Peter Luger name on both sides.
That’s not the case with Elbert’s Steak Room on H. V. de la Costa Street in Salcedo Village, Makati. You might have to use Waze, first of all, to locate the Sagittarius Building, on the third floor of which it’s supposed to be located, and then you have to find the restaurant itself (a small, barely readable sign downstairs does confirm that it’s upstairs somewhere) by walking up the stairs in increasing darkness. The not-inappropriate phrase “bum steer” crosses your mind. There’s a big red door that looks more like a wall. “Are we lost?” asks my wife and dinner date Beng, who doesn’t know she’s about to have the best steak of her life.
No, we’re not—the door magically slides open; there are people inside—a young Pinoy millennial couple and a large round table of equally young Koreans; two more couples soon drift in, and the place is full. Elbert’s Steak Room isn’t only one of the hardest joints to find in town; it’s also one of the most compact (an extension called the Riedel Room has been added downstairs to cater to the cigar-and-single-malt crowd). Perhaps because of that, your first impression will be one of unpretentious coziness, with lots of old wood and broken leather—just a few tables spaced just far enough apart for conversations to remain private.
Peter Luger famously takes only cash and debit cards; it’s so busy that its notoriously snarky waiters don’t have the time to process credit cards. If that were the policy at Elbert’s (thankfully it’s not), you’d need to bring a thick wad of pesos tied up with a rubber band, because the prices relative to your dinner of boneless bangus at Pancake House can be eye-watering, starting at P3,200 for the USDA prime-grade New York cut to P6,500 for the USDA prime-grade porterhouse for two. That’s generally an extra zero added to the usual price of what passes for steak in these cowless islands. The same porterhouse for two at PL can be had for $100 plus-plus, so it all evens out, and you’ve saved yourself the plane fare to Brooklyn.
On the upside, Elbert’s prices are all-in, inclusive of salad, soup, one side dish, and coffee or tea, plus VAT and service charge. And on the real upside, the steak’s every bit as good, if not better than your global standard, and you don’t just have to take Elbert’s word for it.
Beng orders the “Double Gold” filet mignon, I have the prime-grade rib eye. When they come about half an hour later (and there’s a good reason for the wait, apart from the appetizers and the wine), they are absolutely the best steaks we’ve ever had and likely ever will. Medium rare, my rib eye is a symphony of grain and flavor, and Beng’s filet mignon has a milky smoothness that turns Beng, who normally disdains beef, into a believer.
I’ve known Elbert Cuenca for over 20 years. As Mac and Apple freaks, we’ve both chaired the Philippine Macintosh Users Group (PhilMUG) and I’ve followed his evolution from Mac guru to restaurateur with great interest, but it’s been a while since we’ve sat down for a conversation about anything other than OS’es and gigahertz. I’m curious as hell about how he got into steaks and why his steak room is so damn hard to find. He saunters over after dinner and, over coffee, drops a story on my lap that lifestyle editors have been chasing after for a decade.
Like many success stories, Elbert’s began with a spectacular failure. “I was running Restaurant 12 in Greenbelt. I had found an investor and had plunged into my dream project of a high-concept, high-risk, high-profile restaurant. We had guest chefs rotating, and you never quite knew what was going to be on the menu. But it was a flop and we had to close down after two years. I learned that people wanted familiarity, something they could keep coming back to if they liked it.” When the place closed in 2004, the San Beda economics dropout had to scramble for a job, and it was his techie side that saved him. “I decided to market myself as a personal Mac trainer, spending two to three hours with clients who needed help in setting up their systems. This put me in touch with a lot of affluent people, and one of them was the late hotelier Archie King, who became a close friend.”
At one dinner in Archie’s house in Forbes Park, Bacchus—the wine and meat importers—was treating him to steaks it had flown in from the US, and that’s when Elbert brought up his dream of opening another restaurant. “I told him that I wanted to find a small space—an apartment, or an office area—that I could turn into a private dining room. This was an idea that was trending in places like Hong Kong where the rent for restaurants was getting too high. Ben Chan had brought me to one such dining room called the Kee Club and I was wondering where we were going, up an old building in Central, until the door opened and there were these Picassos on the wall. I pitched the idea to Archie—not for him to invest, but as someone who was my ideal market. Suddenly he said, ‘I’m in!’ He didn’t even ask for a business plan. All I had was an idea for a single concept—everything that was the opposite of what I’d done before: low-concept, low-profile, not modern but conservative, and so on.”
A building was soon found in Makati—hardly the most promising locale—“with vinyl floors, Styrofoam ceilings, a sewer smell somewhere, an orange glow inside the room,” Elbert recalls, “but I got goose bumps when I realized what the place could be.” A designer named Noel Bernardo, who had plotted similar single-concept theme restaurants in Hong Kong, helped realize Elbert’s understated vision, and with some help from Archie, a skeptical mom, and a group of lawyers he had Mac-tutored, Elbert’s Steak Room opened in late July 2007.
Elbert Cuenca, owner
“We opened with three tables, and I bought just enough cutlery and glassware for those three tables. Archie was my first customer. Some guy was selling him a plane and he invited the guy over. My first customers were my Mac students, and the word started to spread. We were full every night, and I used whatever we earned to buy more things for the place. By December we had completed the restaurant. What was a 12-seater in my head became a 30-seater.” (Today, with the additional room downstairs, Elbert’s can seat 44.)
Of course, fixing up the place was one thing; cooking the right steaks was another. “I knew only what a good steak tasted like but had no idea what it took to make one,” Elbert confesses. “Bacchus had some good ideas—a Weber grill, certain temperatures. We hit a snag in the construction and I was getting worried because Bacchus had flown in P200,000 worth of steaks from Wisconsin for me, so I had to freeze them, going against conventional wisdom that steaks are best chilled, not frozen.” As it turned out, that “mistake” was the best thing that ever happened to the place and to its offerings.
“I had invested in a zero-degree chiller because chilled beef supposedly trumps frozen beef. But then, through a lot of trial and error, we realized that the thing to do was to move the beef from the freezer to the chiller for a couple of days, and then to bring it up slowly to room temperature when the steak was ordered. So the trick is in the thawing. Eventually I got a broiler of the kind used by some of the world’s best steakhouses, one that allows steaks to be broiled very quickly after proper thawing, one minute per side. Then we rest the steaks for five to 10 minutes before serving it.” That, in a nutshell, is the secret to Elbert’s success, and it’s not even a real secret because he’s posted the whole process in greater detail on their website at steakroom.com. “I learned a lot of what I know from the internet, so I’m just giving it all back!” he says, laughing.
Despite the near-absent advertising—the website is all there is, apart from the dozens of salutary reviews on TripAdvisor and Zomato—it didn’t take long for Elbert’s Steak Room to become a benchmark for local steakhouses, and to find a devoted following among its clientele, about 60 percent of whom are expats. “We got on the radar of hotels, and high-end steakhouses began opening up. But every time a new one opens, our business picks up, because our customers find that they miss us. As Panasonic’s Matsushita once said, you have to pray for your competitors’ survival—otherwise there’s no way you can be on top.” Today, phoned-in reservations from Singapore and one-year advance reservations for Valentine’s are pretty routine.
Married to the travel and lifestyle editor Liza Ilarde, Elbert travels a lot, and inevitably steaks have to figure on their menu on the road. “Our meat packers are in Green Bay, Wisconsin. I went to a steakhouse in Hong Kong, which gets its meat from the same place, but it wasn’t the same. I’ve tried many of the world’s top steakhouses and I’ve been surprised by how poorly their steaks compared to ours. An American customer once told me about Keens Steakhouse in New York. [Keens is a four-and-a-half-stars place in Manhattan, noted for its prime-only steaks and single malts.] ‘I eat there a lot,’ he said, ‘because the chef’s a good friend and he told me, if you’re going to the Philippines, you have to go to Elbert’s. Now when I go back, I’ll tell him that he has nothing on you!’”
At the heart of Elbert’s confidence is his conviction that the steaks, while supremely important, are just part of the whole dining experience. “You come to my place, and I feed you right, it’s as simple as that. My staff knows how to leave you alone. We won’t confuse you with a choice of eight different kinds of steak knives or sauces or salt. [I discovered that I could choose from three sauces if I had to, but we never did need them.] I don’t turn tables. If you make a reservation, you have your table for the whole night.”
And what’s with the difficulty of finding the place? Elbert tells this story: “A girl came up one day and she was fuming mad that we didn’t have signage and a proper door. Toward the end of their dinner, she and her date called for me, and I thought she was going to tell me off some more, but what she said was, ‘Please, don’t put a sign. Leave the door closed.’ And I got what she was saying.
This no-door, no-sign thing was not a problem, but an asset. A lifestyle editor had been dying to tell my steak room’s story. I declined the story but invited her over for dinner. When she came, it turned out that she knew everyone at every table. That’s when she said, ‘You’re right, let’s not do the article. Let’s keep this nice and quiet.’”
Elbert is fiercely protective of that quietude, to the point of being unwilling to branch out, as most others in his situation would have naturally done after a decade’s success. “I don’t see this branching out. Once you create two of something it’s no longer special. I have other restaurants—three ramen shops, a sandwich place. I could lose everything but this is the one I’ll protect and keep. I’ve had offers to bring it abroad but I’m not sure I can bring the same experience over,” he says.
Just 49, Elbert is prematurely white-haired—the price to pay, he acknowledges, for all the hard work he’s poured into the steak room—but he hasn’t forgotten how to have some boyish fun. In 2013 he won the BOSS Ironman Challenge (an endurance event for cars and motorcycles), completing a loop of Northern Luzon in just over 12 hours; he had won the same event the year before but now cut two hours off his own time.
It’s that kind of competitiveness and consistency that ensures that Elbert’s Steak Room will be around for a much longer while in its own quiet, no-fuss way. He sweeps a hand around the room and says, “This is the antithesis of restaurants. It’s a steak house with no cowboy hats or checked shirts. We’ve broken every rule—no elevators, lousy location, and so on. It’s like a speakeasy, a secret place you’ll want to tell your friends about.”
“You mean a steakeasy,” I say, and he laughs.“I like that!” he says. “A steakeasy!” Like his place, it’s something you’ll be hard put to locate in a dictionary, but will feel perfectly comfortable with once you find it.
This article was originally published in the April issue of Rogue.