Papa Loa: Bringing the Tiki Bar to ManilaOctober 6, 2016
Trawling through the countless new restaurants in Manila can often get boring. There are either too many large-scale but soulless attempts at tackling too many trends all at once, or little engines that could that lack one or two ingredients to actually make a lasting impact. It now seems almost impossible to find the formula to a restaurant that might actually win the discerning public of Manila over.
Maybe, the answer lies with the people behind Papa Loa, a slinky cool cat of a place that is a bright spot in the oft overlooked Burgos Circle area, known more for it’s pub-y drinking atmosphere than great food or hip spaces. The months-old restaurant is definitely an ode to that reputation, with a full-on tiki bar cocktail menu and interiors in that vein. However, it serves food that is more than solid, and this is what Papa Loa should be known for.
The genius short plates menu at Papa Loa is headed by Inigo Castillo, a guy who is the sort of young, ballsy chef that might appear on the pages of Bon Appetit; he has a clear vision, and unafraid to execute it. There is no bending over for the customer here; Castillo is introducing wild new combinations that are bound to create a cult following. The chef is just as bold and unapologetic as his food, which shares the same kind of spark. He is a seasoned chef, spending years cultivating his talent here and in his adopted home of Australia, where his attempt at bringing Filipino flavors to the masses resulted in well-received pop-ups under the guise Pilyo. He has moved back however, and truly flourished, bringing forth a style that is quintessentially his own: his food has distinct Asian roots, but with global technique reflective of how modern the thinking is down under.
Sitting down with him, it is pretty evident that his soul has poured on to the menu, absolutely unfiltered. A lot of the combinations cross countries, even continents, but never without reason; even the oddest sounding of flavors work seamlessly. An aburi dish, for example, is a far cry from the traditional Japanese sashimi and maki that have been permeating the restaurant scene of late; instead, it is only the tradition of slightly torching the salmon’s flesh that has retained. There is no creamy sauce to be found; instead it has been covered in an acidic dressing which pays homage to both our kinilaw and the sauces of Thailand, with plenty of fermented notes from fish sauce, and texture from flakes of toasted coconut. The poke on their menu is also far from its Hawaiian roots, with plump cubes of tuna finding themselves dressed in sesame and chili that is more reminiscent of Asia.
The flavors across the board are intense but infinitely approachable, appearing sometimes in the form of skewers and buns, which are all the rage these days. But as in the nature of Castillo, there is nothing average about them. One of the most exciting, clever bites in Papa Loa is a single, tempura-battered eggplant, genius in execution. The vegetable turns molten and custardy after frying, so that one bite reveals both crispness and creaminess, married together by a lovely miso dressing. A beef belly skewer also holds its own, cooked 19 hours in the marinade so that each piece of meat is infused with the deep, liquor-y soy jus. Elsewhere, Castillo creates inventive, hangover-worthy plates that would mop up the aftermath of a night drinking their cocktails, like an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink noodle reminiscent of yakisoba but with a sticky sweet and sour sauce, and a Cuban-inflected beans and rice with furikake and a fried egg that was also another crowd pleaser.
While most places see dessert as an afterthought, Castillo has not forgotten about the tail end of his menu, executing a beautiful beignet, and a dish which most embodies what he does here. There is tons of funk and wild ideas behind his coconut and miso pudding, which might be divisive, but is absolutely the right kind of watercooler fare that people will be talking about. The sweet and salty pudding is a beautiful base for crunchy saltwater streusel and caramel, creating a marriage between sweet and savory that only few can attempt without faltering. Add a sour granita, and a punch of freshness from dots of mint leaves, and this cross-cultural, insanely kooky plate defines what Castillo is all about.
With cocktails by Kath Eckstein that complement the singularity of the menu (imagine gigantic tropical fish bowls of drinks that could betray you, or cocktails that are fresh at first sip, then with a surprising finish of sesame oil) Papa Loa embraces its varied roots with gusto and shows that authenticity isn’t necessary for a winning formula. This modern tiki bar is wild and unabashedly camp, but does it with such refined focus. It is an absolute joy to see their genius unrestrained.
A modern tiki bar in Burgos Circle serving Asian flavors executed with global techniques.