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Mao Jia’s Spicy Hunan Cuisine is Definitely Underrated

January 25, 2015

I am a spicy food fiend, and have written about my quest for the spiciest thing in Manila, which has so far brought me to Yukino Hana and their crispy fried chicken. There are only a few Hunan and Szechuan places in the metro, but because the reputation of these cuisines when it comes to spice is pretty dangerous, I decided to seek out a restaurant that my friends always rave about. Mao Jia, a bastion of Hunan cuisine, used to have a branch in the Ronac center, but has since returned to its original hole-in-the-wall roots in the heart of San Antonio Village the outskirts of Makati.

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It is a bit hard to find, but if you’re familiar with the streets around Malugay and Guijo, the tiny signage is easy to spot. It’s a fairly bare restaurant, with just a few simple tables, and hardly anything to decorate the walls. There’s a huge chili stuffed toy on the window, most likely to ward off people who can’t take the heat. If you’re eating a meal here, you’ve got to know what you’re in for. The menu is pretty thick, and the prices are of incredibly good value. Dishes are around PHP 300-PHP 500 each, but they come in sharing portions. Scratch that, some of them are huge, and I brought leftovers to my family, and it fed us for two days. It reads as a guidebook to standard Hunan cuisine, known for its use of hot and spicy flavors, which are often due to the use of fresh chilis, garlic and onions, rather than numbing peppercorns like in Szechuan cuisine. It is more straightforward, using simple methods such as stewing, frying, braising, and smoking, to intensify the heat of fresh and dried chilis.

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Five-spiced Beef, PHP 320

At my attempt to be fearless, I ask for the spiciest things on the menu, and when asked what level I want it at, I tell them to go all out. My waitress half-laughs at me, but realizes that I am wholly serious, and points to two distinctly different dishes, one with dry heat that is wok-fried, and another braised long in oil and chilis. I also grab an order of their famous dumplings. The Stir-Fried Beef with Chilis arrive, a tall and hefty platter of thinly sliced beef that is littered with dry chilies, fresh chilis, and a smattering of chili seeds. My dubious waitress comes and reiterates that this is the hottest thing on their menu and I prepare myself for the worst (or best). First bite, the thing is seriously delicious.

Crispy, dried beef with intense flavors of cumin, salt and other herbs and spices, take each piece into next-level umami. I down a couple more, and the spice is a shock, more than a slowly-rising heat. It hits you everywhere, from the roof of your mouth to the back of the palate, but is still tolerable after a few servings, until each bite contributes to the other and goes into overdrive. You’ll probably need rice, or a good cool drink to put out the flames. It’s hard though because, in spite of the heat, the umami flavors keep you reaching for piece after piece, like that bad ex-boyfriend you just keep running back to.

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Left: Boiled Chili Fish with Vegetables, PHP 480; Right: Dumplings, PHP 220

We order the Boiled Chili Fish too, and in Hunan tradition, it’s covered in a soup that is more oil than broth. This generous bowl can feed 4-5 people, and is pretty tasty as well, with a lot of depth to it, but can get a little tiring because of the oil. Dumplings here are a treat, with a thin, translucent skin barely covering its meaty insides, with an addictive spicy, vinegar-y dipping sauce that you just want to drink. There are of course, less spicy things to choose from, from complex mapo tofus to Chinese savory pancakes.

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I understand why people’s experiences with Mao Jia can be hit or miss; as a cross between a ghetto grub and a hole-in-the-wall, quality can sometimes get a little dicey, and it’s not the most immaculate of places. But if you get your orders right, and have a penchant for chili, then Mao Jia is an underrated surprise.

Have you tried Mao Jia Hunan Cuisine? What’s the spiciest thing you’ve eaten in Manila? Let us know below!

Mao Jia Hunan Cuisine

Address: Bagtikan St., San Antonio Village, Makati
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Pamela Cortez Pamela Cortez

Pamela Cortez writes about food full-time, and has honed her craft while writing for publications such as Rogue, Town and Country, and The Philippine Star. She once rode on a mule for a mile just to eat mint tea and lamb in Morocco, and has eaten a block of Quickmelt in one sitting. Her attempt at food photography can be viewed online @meyarrr.

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