I will now continue this “best food” list (no one asked for) from my last post. If the previous one featured the best individual dishes I’ve tasted, now let me share the BEST MEALS, at least for me, that I’ve eaten in 2019.
1. Breakfast at Cafe Nam Ping, Macau
This is more about the total atmosphere than the food itself. Breakfast in Macau and Hong Kong is a feat all on its own. They have this traditional diners called “cha chaan teng,” which I believe most of you who have gone to HK must already be familiar with. I wasn’t, and it was my first time to experience a specifically local breakfast place.
Breakfast meals in HK and Macau usually consist of a strong coffee milk tea paired with some form of toast with eggs and ham. Sometimes this bread comes in the form of a sandwich, other times it’s served individually, egg and ham on top. They even have noodles, chicken, or pork and beans as side dishes. But their coffee milk tea caught my heart with its no holds barred taste — very strong coffee and yet very creamy (and sweet) at the same time. I’d wake up early for this coffee.
One particular cha chaan teng that stood out was Cafe Nam Ping in Macau. Upon entering, we knew we were someplace else. The hectic energy of the dining room was decidedly foreign in that I could hear the incomprehensible chatter among the elderly locals. Most look about the same age as my father. They were seated comfortably with their legs casually crossed, sipping coffee while reading the morning paper. The waitress, also an elderly, welcomed us with flailing hand gestures as she gave me the menu. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see a section filled with freshly-baked pastries. I could smell the sugar in the air. I could also hear cups and dishes clamoring at the far end of the room.
We took a seat in one of the booth tables and ordered the famous egg tart, egg and ham sandwich, and a sugary puff pastry. For drinks we had their classic, strong coffee milk tea. Again, there’s no scrimping in traditional Hong Kong / Macanese breakfast. I love how hearty this meal was. I love how, for a split second, I felt like I belonged, in this cha chaan teng, on this cold June morning, in this bustling city.
2. Bun Cha at Số 1 Hang Manh, Hanoi
I first ate bun cha when we joined a food tour in Hanoi. I’ve seen this dish from Anthony Bourdain’s Hanoian date with Barack Obama. Maybe you’re familiar with that episode too. Both men sitting like they were normal people inside this busy Hanoi restaurant. As Obama delicately scooped the rice noodles with his chopsticks, Tony explained in great detail what bun cha was. He burst into a wide smile, obviously with a hint of relief, when Obama eagerly praised it saying, “This is killer.”
And the man was right. It is killer! I wasn’t prepared for combat when I myself tasted this dish. Bun cha is a Hanoian specialty made of grilled pork (cha) and rice noodles (bun). The broth, or shall I say the dangerously-addictive broth, is made of vinegar, sugar, and Vietnamese fermented fish sauce. You dip the pork and noodles into the broth and add chilis and herbs to taste. All the flavors meld together beautifully — salty, sweet, sour, spicy. With textures left and right, you get the charred pork meat and the soft, cold noodles and the crunchy herbs. It’s a party of unrelenting flavors as I wiped all the meat sweat on my smiling face.
3. Chicken BBQ at BBQ Street, Hanoi
After that salacious bun cha love letter, I thought it couldn’t get any better. Of course you know where I’m heading with this right? Hanoi just spoiled us with delicious street food, and one for the books was definitely the meal we had at BBQ Chicken Street. Apparently Hanoi has an entire street dedicated to serving barbecue. Yes, chicken barbecue. We didn’t expect it was one of the best chicken barbecues we’ve ever had. Let me paint a picture.
Jed and I found ourselves in this semi-dark corner of Hanoi. We simply walked through it, glancing left and right, the barbecue smell already slapping our senses. We chose the one at the far end known only to me as “Quân Việt Hà” (which literally translates to Viet Ha Army, go figure). We again sat on those low tables and chairs, quietly aware that we were tourists in what seemed like a very local eating establishment.
We ordered, of course, chicken barbecue, but now I was taken when I realized there was no rice option. NO RICE for a Filipino who’s about to eat barbecue? That’s like eating hamburger with no bun. I didn’t know we were on a low-carb diet. But as they say, when in Hanoi… I had to trust the process, and the process wanted me to have “grilled honey bread” instead. We weren’t informed this was Jesus’ bread, and we weren’t informed this was no regular, street-cred, Magnolia, turo-turo chicken bbq. Nope.
The key with Vietnamese food is balance. This chicken bbq and honey bread ensemble were a great example of that. The balance between sweet and salty sets this supposedly familiar food into unforgettable status. The bbq sauce had a hint of sweetness to it (possibly honey) that’s unlike anything I’ve ever tasted before. And so was the grilled honey bread. What a revelation to eat grilled bread. The crispy exterior of the baguette that’s slathered with honey was balanced, again, by the soft and chewy bread inside. Best eaten with our bare hands, this sticky sweet bread and savory chicken meat made for one very messy yet very tasty dinner. We washed it all off with a cold, cold beer.
4. BBQ Meal at Mama’s Grill, Siargao
And speaking of barbecue, I couldn’t leave behind this other outrageously delicious and cheap bbq dinner we had in Siargao. Mama’s Grill is an institution. The moment it opens its doors for dinner at around 6pm, people (both locals and tourists alike) swarm into the restaurant for reasonably-priced Filipino grilled specialties — chicken, pork, fish, and vegetables. This is exactly what I grew up eating. A straightforward dinner of grilled meat and rice, paired with the underrated Filipino staple — a sawsawan of soy sauce, calamansi, and chili. I can’t find a better term for “worth it” in this case. And oh don’t forget to try their mango shake too!
5. French Dinner at Bistro Manuel
I wrote about my fancy meal at Bistro Manuel in this post.
This was a case of “when everything went right.” Or maybe that’s also a testament of Bistro Manuel’s standards. For the first time I ate in a fine dining place where it was all about the food. The ambiance was simple and elegant — white linens, white tableware — refreshing mostly because it did not scream IG photography. The food was tailored to Gout de France’s celebration of French cuisine. Dish after dish — from the hors d’œuvres to the appetizers of foie gras-infused pasta and oysters, down to the herb de provence rack of lamb and rib-eye steak — we experienced a thoughtful, well-executed and, most importantly, delicious food. Forget about the fancy schmancy setup, great food shines through and through.
And when the cheese course came, followed by a pair of knockout desserts, we were flying in fine dining heaven. The stinky cheese was quite an assault to my senses, reminding me that we were celebrating French food to begin with. The coffee soufflé was forever etched in my heart. Like meeting one of my idols in person for the first time, I’ve seen and heard a lot of lore about the soufflé and now I can finally say for myself, “It’s exactly how I imagined it would be.” Bistro Manuel got me excited about fine dining that actually cared about the food and its diners. It’s delicious.
6. Full Meal at Tadeo, Tomas Morato
And finally, Tadeo. I promote Tadeo like I’m being paid to do so. I’ve been here four or five times already in the past four months. That’s a lot of love. You can read my kiss-ass novel of a review here.
Why is Tadeo my favorite restaurant in 2019? They serve delicious Fil-Mex food. All of it. And I mean ALL of it — the tacos, the quesadillas, the nachos, the burritos, the desserts. They put an unexpected twist to most of their dishes, mostly an ode to Filipino flavors, some just downright fun for the diners. Like who would have thought unbroken layers of nachos could be this exciting? And the desserts are my personal favorites too. If you do visit Tadeo, try all three — maruya, taho, and mango crepe enchiladas. I’m quite sure you’ll immediately plan your next visit after one dinner at Tadeo.
And there’s my mouthful of words dedicated to the best meals of 2019. I hope I’d find the energy for the last installment. One for my darlings — dessert.