After Hours With A Malate Mama-SanNovember 13, 2019
I’m not sure what got me here. It’s after hours on a Thursday night/Friday morning, and I’m on a side street in Malate. Bianca (not her real name) is sitting outside one of the many colorful clubs in the area, complete with neon signs and a bevy of scantily-clad women holding menu boards of drinks, food, and services. Cigarette in her perfectly-manicured hand, she is a strong character, talking over every girl we are sitting with, ordering them around to help us or make way for us. She is a mama-san in every sense of the word—impeccably dressed in a way that set her apart from the cheap dresses and lucite heels, chatty and slightly abrasive, and with a presence much more commanding than her counterparts. On any other night, we would be drinking anywhere along the street, downing an amaretto sour in Malate’s famed Oarhouse or watching some band butcher classics in the former Penguin. But tonight, we are here to eat.
Bianca is our tour guide for the night. Done for the day, she sells cosmetics to the girls at night, “Saan mo ba gustong pumunta? Gusto mo ba makita yung totoong Malate? O yung kinakainan namin ng cliyente? Malaki yung pagkakaiba nun.” (Where do you want to go? Do you want to see the real Malate? Or what our clients eat? There’s a huge difference.) We first make our way to Shawarma Snack Center, which Bianca says serves both purposes. The famed Malate institution which now has branches almost everywhere has a shinier, newer space across the street, but it is the shack where most residents grab a bite to eat. I still maintain that their mixed grill is the best of its value and flavor in the city. With Arabic rice, each piece of meat is charred until the flesh’s exterior is the color of soot, but with a pinkish middle, juice escaping from even within the chicken breast. We are interrupted mid-meal by a man with graying skin, his open fists clutching a scribbled prayer, and his frail voice whispering to us to stay with him. We leave as soon as he goes through to the bathroom, regretting leaving the last bits of hummus on the plate.
Bianca brings us to Adriatico, one of the liveliest streets in the neighborhood. This is where we meet a few of her friends, some still working. Right beside the club is an unassuming take-away, with only a tiny window and fading tarpaulin as signs of life. Bento boxes are all under PHP 150, and I’m thinking this will probably just be standard fare. After Bianca gets one of her girls to pose and eat, we try the yakiniku. These girls are spoiled; it is like Yoshinoya’s beef bowls on crack. The serving is huge, and the beef without grease. There is even expertly pickled ginger on top of the whole dish, providing a spark and punch.
She brings us to another, more famous local hangout, Erra’s Ramen. The bowls here hardly make a dent on their meager salaries, which make it popular with the girls. It is also a vignette of Malate nightlife, with the crowd a mix of backpackers, girls off duty and some less than appealing roadside thugs, peddling everything from knockoff watches to snakes. Yes, there were snakes.
Now, Bianca tell us that not all of Malate is gritty. She says that they eat well, and almost everything is authentic because of the many foreign nationals that roam the streets. They often eat at hotels, Pan Pacific being the best one, or order in from restaurants all along the road, which often offer direct-to-room service. We end up at Izakaya Kenta, a tiny restaurant with bamboo private rooms that looks as if it was ripped straight from a side street in Japan. For such a late (or early) hour, the rooms were almost all full, throngs of Japanese businessmen sitting tatami-style, hands enveloped around tiny mugs of sake. The prices here seem ridiculous after the places we’ve been to, but Bianca tells us she has a regular’s discount here. The tofu salad was a quiet, unassuming revelation. Our photographer, Pam, and I agree this might have been the best tofu we’ve ever had. Cold and quivering at the slightest nudge, it was soybean at its most sincere and most delicious. She recommends Tanabe too, which has become a favorite since a friend introduced their uni foilyaki to me. For Korean, there are many places within walking distance of each other in the area, but the simple Full Chicken House has exceptionally good Korean fried chicken.
We are shocked at how varied the choices are here, and not one place let us down. The one that took us most by surprise however, was SuperSix Grill, just off Malate’s famous circle, the place reminding us of Bangkok’s Khao San road. You would think that the place (known as ‘payong-payongan’ to the locals) served standard roadside fare barbeque, but the choices were varied and not at all typical. Their grilled sticks of pork were Japanese-like, and made for even better yakitori than Kikufuji’s. Bianca said that although this is where everyone went to either wind down or start the night before business, it’s not one where she and her girls would often go to. ‘Ayaw namin ng mga turo-turo. Di pwede yung public. Ay Alam mo naman kung anong iniisip ng mga tao.’ (We don’t like places like these. It can’t be public. You know what people think.)
The night ends as Bianca hardly says a goodbye. She waves from across the street while we are waiting for our orders to arrive, then leaves abruptly as if she was never there. We are left to fend for ourselves during the night. I manage to find the way to Oarhouse on Bocobo, which I have hardly been to, but with tonight’s circumstances, seems at least a little familiar. We grab an amaretto sour, then don’t speak. Once out of the quiet respite of our own thoughts, I look at Pam. “What the fuck just happened?”
Would you try any of these restaurants in Malate? What are your favorite late night spots in Manila? Tell us below!
Address: Adriatico St, Malate, Manila
Full Chicken House
Address: Remedios Circle, Malate, Manila
Address: Unit B GF, Malate Bayview Mansion, 1781 Adriatico St, Malate, Manila
Otora Take Out Bento
Address: Adriatico St, Malate, Manila
Shawarma Snack Center
Address: 484 R. Salas St, Ermita, Manila
Address: 475 Padre Paura cor Mabini St, Malate, Manila
Address: 553 Remedios St, Malate, Manila