For the last two years, some of the most innovative food in Metro Manila has been served in a hole-in-the-wall in Cubao Expo. It is the little corner where one half of Mogwai used to be, another drinking destination that happened to serve food that you couldn’t really get anywhere else.
“It’s what was in the budget,” admits Chef Ryan Patrick Dimapilis. The kind of food he cooks tends to be found in the more upscale portions of Metro Manila. It’s what food magazines might call “elevated” or even haute cuisine. But the setting calls for a lack of pretension. This isn’t a place for finely dressed people to ooh and aah over little bites of fanciful cooking. The food at Habanero is bold and straightforward, the advanced techniques all put toward maximizing flavor.
Balut Takuyaki and Lechon Habanero
The dishes are distinctly Filipino, losing none of the character in the application of modern ideas. The Lechon Habanero, a kilo of sous-vide, thinly-sliced, spiced pork belly isn’t trying at all to mitigate the qualities of lechon. It embraces the excess of the lechon, amplifying the fatty and the savory to a point that feels unsafe. The lengua spring rolls do not try to hide the fact that they are filled with ox tongue. The dish takes full advantage of the texture of ox tongue, and then adds welcome contrast with the crunchy fried lumpia skin.
Habanero Ramen and Lengua Spring Rolls
The menu is a constant work in progress. On the second floor behind a sliding door is Chef Ryan’s laboratory. It is a tiny room cluttered with all manner of equipment, all filled with the various components of whatever dishes he might be working on. There is a whiteboard laying out all the things he’s trying. It is incomprehensible to the layman.
Chef Ryan Patrick Dimapilis in his laboratory
Not all of it ends up in the menu. “Maybe half,” he says. There is a blackboard behind the bar that lists the experiments that he deemed worthy of sharing to his customers. Most recently: Habanero ramen, his own version of the Japanese comfort food, with the Lechon Habanero standing in for chasyu; Tapa Steak, a variation of tapsilog that changes the experience by applying the tapa-style cure to an entire steak and then making it tender through sous-vide; and balut takoyaki, which adds Japanese flair to our beloved local snack, while still fully maintaining the integrity of consuming a duck fetus.
The inventiveness carries over to the drinks as well. Rum is smoked with apple wood chips to impart body and flavor. Lambanog from Quezon is mixed with rather unique flavors like salabat and sago’t gulaman and then carbonated to create coolers with surprising dimension. They also serve cocktail shots in jelly form, the drinks bursting in the mouth, releasing all of their bright, alcoholic goodness directly on the palate.
Spicy Smoked Rum Coke and X-Bomb5 Bursting Shots
Habanero is quietly one of the best restaurants in Metro Manila. It doesn’t receive nearly as much attention as it deserves, its location and the lack of air-conditioning likely keeping it from the kind of coverage that other, more expensive, less interesting restaurants tend to get. But some of the best, most innovative food is coming out of this little drinking spot in Cubao X. Skip Bellini’s just this once and you might just get a taste of the future of Filipino cuisine.
Habanero Kitchen Bar is located at Cubao Expo. Gen. Romulo Ave. Araneta Center., Cubao, Quezon City, 1109