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Tuesday, August 16, 2022 — Houston, TX

Eating Cheap and Offbeat at Pugon De Manila


By Walden Pemantle     2/2/16 9:19pm

The food at Pugon de Manila isn’t quite as diverse as one would think from their extensive menu. The menu, which boasts 50-some preparations of vegetables, fish, pork, beef and chicken, is really more like a catalog from which 15 to 20 dishes are available per day for guests to choose from. The dishes in heaviest rotation are pancit, a fairly generic stir-fried noodle dish, barbecue chicken and sisig, a dish made from broiled pork marinated in citrus and vinegar. The trio actually makes a great starting point for first-time visitors. The pancit, with a mix of fried noodles, soft noodles and carrots for texture, and the moist barbeque chicken are both exceptional and likely be familiar to those uninitiated in Filipino cuisine. The sisig ventures more into the territory of “acquired taste” with a brilliant but pungent marinade of vinegar and juiced calamansi, a hybrid of mandarin oranges and kumquats. Other common menu items like the lechon kawali (fried pork belly), fried whole tilapia and peppery egg drop soup are also safe bets, but tend to be too oily with less nuanced, fragrant seasoning than the barbecue, sisig and pancit.

Beyond those dishes, the food is more polarizing. If you like Filipino food, it’s excellent: well seasoned, superbly cooked and faithful to traditional recipes. If you don’t, or have never had it before, certain hallmarks, specifically fish slightly pickled in vinegar and bits of hot dog added to the curry, might be too much. The servers at the counter are happy to offer small tastes of the food, so I recommend trying anything you’re skeptical about first. Some of the best dishes are the ones that seem the most utterly different in preparation from dishes outside the Philippines. The sliced pork in the bicol express has a pink hue almost as unnatural looking as the name “express” sounds. Yet, rather than the effect of food coloring, the pink is actually a product of the shrimp paste used to cook the pork, adding body to the sweet coconut milk broth. Red chili balances the dish with a healthy amount of spice, and in all, the pink pork comes out as one of the tastiest dishes in the restaurant. The ginataang lanka similar defies the expectations one might have while looking at the dull grey chunks of meat. For one, what looks like meat is actually jackfruit, a fibrous fruit hearty enough that once you’ve tried it, you may still think its meat. Cooked in coconut milk with a range of sweet and hot peppers, the dish is an excellent filling vegetarian option. Of course, other dishes like menudo (potato coconut curry with carrots, pork and hot dogs) or the bangus paksiw (vinegar marinated halves of fish) won’t be for everyone, but Pugon de Manila tends to reward the adventurous, so even if fish heads aren’t your thing, as cheap as they come at Pugon, they’re still worth a try.

Beyond serving lunch and dinner, Pugon de Manila operates a full bakery, serving breakfast, baked goods, boba and homemade candies. The turon and ensaimada ube are by far the best desserts. The turon is a deep fried banana roll dipped in burnt sugar to give it a hard, slightly bitter, caramelized coating. The ensaimada ube, baked in house is similar to a fluffy brioche roll with an added layer of butter frosting and sweet taro filling. The other bakeshop products range from milk powder candies to meringue cakes, and fairly straightforward loaves of bread, all of which are good, but are rarely as excellent as the ensaimadas or turon.

It’s hard to recommend Pugon de Manila without some qualifiers. It’s cheap, tasty and the kind staff makes ordering (which will be tough for any new guests) fun rather than bewildering. Yet, if you’re not ready to try a few things you won’t like, it’ll be hard to get beyond the steamed rice and barbeque chicken. Ultimately, Pugon de Manila is what you make of it, for adventurous eaters or fans of traditional Filipino, it’s a diamond in the rough; for others, it might just be rough.

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