Restaurants / Bars

Naxional South American Diner: A Display of Flavors From the Latin Home

July 23, 2016

Up the escalator of BGC’s Uptown Parade is a festive new joint—Naxional South American Diner fuses diner-style hospitality with South American flair. While it may be the new kid on the block, Naxional signals a return to good ol’ comfort. Raymond Magdaluyo (of Red Crab fame) was inspired by visits to diners abroad, notably Coppelia in New York and Electric Diner in London, as well as his patronage of the famed Cafe Havana in Malate, before teaming up with Jun Sunga and his Brazilian-born partner Vanessa Matsunaga. The menu was developed in collaboration with Matsunaga’s mom Geralda, a Brazilian native, and celebrity chef Cynthia Patos, a true-blue Venezuelan—both of whom wanted to bring their own cultures into the mix. But they expanded the selections and did extensive research to ensure that other parts of the continent, such as Ecuador and Puerto Rico, would be well-represented.

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Rather than authenticity for authenticity’s sake, they aim to provide the South American experience in a cozy diner setting. The retro influence is evident as the space is occupied by plush red cushions, checkerboard tiles, and an open bar at the front. In true diner fashion, they cover everything from small bites, soups and sandwiches, all-day breakfast items, stomach-busting mains, and of course, desserts. Servings are hefty, servers are smiling, and the flavors, while different, do not stray too far from the familiar. It probably helps that we share a number of common ingredients, such as yucca (cassava) and plantain. The offerings are a labor of love, with sausages made in-house, and food only cooked upon order.

While dim and hazy with brick walls and minimal lighting, the details give it a welcome vitality: playing in the background are rhythmic Latin beats, and occupying the walls are paintings by Raymond’s aunt, Aida Magdaluyo, depicting different elements of South America. Intricate in detail and vibrant in impact, this set the scene for the feast ahead.

The starters are a party in themselves: chewy little nuggets of Pao de Queijo (P195), a Brazilian cheese bread served piping hot and a plate of Patacones (P220), small bites of your protein of choice (braised meat, chicken, or shrimp), sofrito, and guacamole atop fried plantains. This called for a few libations, and we opted for the Strawberry (P80) and Watermelon (P80) Agua Fresca, both of which capture the pure essence of fruit, and a decidedly tart Brazilian Lemonade (P80), made frothy with the addition of egg white and milk. There are alcoholic options, including signature cocktails and beers, should you need a bit more skip in your step.

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With our appetites whet, we jumped straight to the big guns: the Platos Principales, entrees that showcase the best of the region. On the lighter end of the spectrum was the Encebollado (P355), an Ecuadorian “hangover fish stew”, which I can’t help but compare to sinigang with its tangy, soothing broth, and the starchy addition of cassava. Catering to lovers of rice, on the other hand, is the Naxional Paella (P760), brimming with meat (crackly pork being a standout), seafood, and the distinctive addition of beans.

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Brazilians are known to be lovers of the grill, and for a taste of everything, get the Churassco Especial (P1350). Included are no less than grilled sirloin, chimichurri chicken, and—a personal favorite—house-made Morcilla sausage, which initially resembles chorizo in color but satisfies my need for all things mineral and bloody. But it is perhaps the Feijoada (P420) that represents Brazil’s heart and soul. “I’d compare it to adobo here in the Philippines – it’s their national dish,” shares partner Jason Malajacan. A one-pot stew of black beans, spare ribs, ham hock, Brazilian sausages and black beans, the result is a thick, hearty embodiment of home. “Feijoada is classic Sunday food, because it’s elaborate and takes three days to prepare”—and the fork-tender meat reflects that. Color and balance comes by way of sauteed greens, orange slices, and the curious addition of farofa, or toasted cassava flour.

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Heavyweights aside, the dessert— all by Patos, also known as the Lifestyle Network’s “Great Dessert Master” —are worth saving space for. “I wanted to pay homage to the food I grew up with, but in a sort of reimagined way,” she shares. They do fun spins on diner classics: As South American as Apple Pie (P195) has the pie cleverly cut into chunks under a huge dome of vanilla ice cream and dulce de leche. Their take on a funnel cake, dubbed the Nido Frito (P135), offers a dangerous interplay of hot and cold. A more unique option (and personal favorite) however is the Tarte Tentacion (P175), a tart of caramelized plantain which blurs the line between homey pudding and sultry seductress. Here, the fruit is cooked down until golden and gleaming, complex with the deepness of burnt sugar and just a hint of tang while the pastry underneath bathes in its juices.

More than a year past its boom in Manila, South American cuisine is still all the rage—and we’re definitely not complaining. While they make no claims to authenticity, Naxional stands out for doing what all good restaurants should be doing: cooking with love and doing it well, just like at home.

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Patricia Baes SEE AUTHOR Patricia Baes

Trish thinks too much about everything—truth, existence.....and what’s on her plate. Her ongoing quest for a better relationship with food has led to a passion for cooking, gastronomy, and a newfound interest in its politics. She dreams of perfecting the art of making soufflé with her crappy toaster oven.

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