Restaurants / Bars

Revisiting a Forgotten Favorite: (Nina’s) Papagayo

October 26, 2015

While there are still a few ramen or katsu joints emerging here and there, Mexican food has gradually been taking centerstage. From the Poblacion’s famed mobile Taco Chingones cart to Kapitolyo’s Fil-Mexican Silantro, cravings for honest-to-goodness, Guadalajara-style tacos and carnitas are simultaneously being inspired and satisfied all over the city. The tacqueria has also been gaining popularity as the new place to be, with many diners unwinding after a long day with a bottle of cerveza in one hand and an asado taco in the other.

What’s even more surprising, however, is that the Mexican food trend actually started decades before Pancake House came out with their well-loved take on the taco. The restaurant traditionally credited with introducing Mexican food to Manila was called Nina’s Papagayo.

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Who was Nina?

Said to be established in the early 1950’s, Nina’s Papagayo was a restaurant and bar on Mabini St. in Ermita. “Papagayo” is Spanish for “parrot,” and the lady from whom the eatery takes its name was Nina Villanueva, a Shanghai-born Peruvian native who was brought to Manila at the age of 6. Nina was a woman who was as renowned for her personality as she was for her prowess in the kitchen. She was said to be bubbly and vivacious with a love for entertaining all the customers who came in to her restaurant.

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What Was an Evening at Nina’s Papagayo Like?

Back then, Nina’s Papagayo was the only restaurant in the city with a Mexican menu, but US Air Force men and members of Manila’s elite 400 would come out in droves to sample their guacamole, tacos, tamales, nachos, chili con carne, and steak.

During the period between the 1950’s and the 1970’s, the restaurant/bar was one of the hippest watering holes in the metro. Those who still remember dining at Nina’s Papagayo during its heyday recall how the restaurant’s general ambience always made for a happy time. The food served was often described as robust, hearty, and comforting, and the music was highly conducive for a spirited evening on the dance floor. Those who like to people-watch would also have loved the place, as anyone from the glamorous socialites of the day (Rajo Laurel’s mother was said to be a frequent visitor) to the Hollywood actress Shirley Maclaine could walk through the door on any given night.

Where Is It Now?

Nina Villanueva passed away in 1991, and her Papagayo, along with a few other restaurants, were left in the care of her two daughters, Connie and Olivia. For a couple more decades, the two continued to famed Mexican eatery on the second floor of a building on Jupiter St., renaming it simply as “Papagayo” after their mother’s passing.

However, the Makati branch is no longer in operation and those who are looking to sample their old Papagayo favorites now make their way to the Playa Papagayo Beach Inn and Restaurant in Subic, Olongapo. Onsite are two restaurants: Playa Papagayo, which specializes in Thai and Filipino cuisine and Cantina, a Mexican restaurant which is staffed by a few of the same Papagayo cooks. The latter still has quite a few of the old favorites on the menu, such as the famed jumbo quesadillas, steak ala pobre, callos, and lengua.

Nina’s Papagayo is arguably the pioneering Mexican restaurant in the Philippines and though the original branch in Ermita has long since closed its doors, the local appetite for the cuisine that it introduced will undoubtedly bring about an exciting new generation of iconic cantinas and tacquerias in the years to come.

Do you still remember Nina’s Papagayo? What are your favorite memories attached to it? Tell us with a comment below!

Playa Papagayo

Address: Barrio Barretto, Olongapo City
Number: (047) 224 10 02

Serna Estrella SEE AUTHOR Serna Estrella Serna is a slim piggy who heartily believes that salads are not real food and that desserts (fruit salad not included) should have their own food group. When she's not terrorizing people with her Grammar Nazi tendencies, she likes to hunt for the perfect afternoon tea spot that lets her pretend she's still in the age of Austen (albeit with electricity and better dental care).
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One response to “Revisiting a Forgotten Favorite: (Nina’s) Papagayo”

  1. Karen Michelle says:

    Awesome article! I’ve been going to La Playa Papagayo in Subic for a few years now, but I never thought it had such a rich history. Love their food there very much!

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