Dessert Comes First

An obsession with dessert and other unabashed opinions of a food writer

Magnum White King
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Another One For Manila’s Mexican Food Lovers

posted by in Others, Restaurants

This is where I go to get my Mexican food fix.

When it comes to Mexican food in Manila, the choices are surprisingly numerous. Tia Maria’s (or is it called Cantina now?) is my sentimental favorite. There’s also Agave (forgettable), Ristras (extra-large and turbo-charged but demands equal-sized stomach space), Jalapeño, Baja, and its sister, Tijuana (or TJ’s).

TJ’s (as I will call it here) or its proper name, Tijuana Mexican Grill & Margarita Bar, is located in Ortigas’ City Golf Plaza. The strip gives off a this-is-our-secret-place vibe since it’s easy to miss the U-turn that takes one into the complex that also houses Razon’s, Barcino Tapas and Wine Bar, Angel’s Pizza, etc. But once you’re in, parking’s easy.

TJ’s sister restaurant, Baja, is located in Greenbelt 3 and related though they may be, their impression on me is starkly different. While Baja is all sunshine yellows and adobe browns, TJ’s is what I describe as darkly sleek. Chocolate and hues of clay tempered with mustard yellow and surprise, sailor blue (it works, trust me) make up an interior that’s tasteful and at turns, whimsical. The artfully done mosaic of a cowboy (I’ve dubbed it TJ’s Cactus Man) leaning on a cactus is genius and provides amusing debate: is he leaning? or sleeping from satiety? or fatigue?

As for the menu, it doesn’t try to please everyone, it’s compact and a large party could easily order one of everything. The servers, outfitted in black tops and jeans topped with a wide sombrero, will quickly recommend the kebabs. Admittedly, it’s not the first thing that automatically comes to mind when I think Mexican, but it’s a winner choice. Kebab meats include chicken, beef, and shrimp, and are offered in combinations under the aptly described, Combination Plates. I like the Beef and Shrimp Kebab (P290). The cook always seems to ensure that the meats are cooked just ‘til juicy: the beef cut used is tenderloin (yes, really) and the shrimp is semi-butterflied so at certain angles, it looks like it’s flying.

Dip the kebabs in the two house sauces, the rather simply-named white sauce (sour cream, dried herbs, maybe a spritz of lime) and the red salsa which is thin and watery but not unpleasantly so kicked up with fresh cilantro. This pair of sauces don’t “spice things up” so to speak, so ask for the house hot sauce, a fiery wild saffron-yellow concoction that’s heavy with cayenne pepper and paprika: hoo-wah, there’s the heat! Another salsa I must tell you about is the roasted tomato salsa. A shamefully small smear that also comes with the Combination Plates, it’s a chunky paste that’s many good things at once: smoky, sweet, sour. I assume that it’s made with tomatoes that have been mixed with sugar, pepper, and vinegar and then slow-roasted to coax out the tomatoes’ inherent sweetness. The soft paste that results is then mixed with cumin and cayenne and other spices; the longer it sits, the chunkier, thicker it gets; I love it. I ask for a larger portion and smear it liberally over everything I eat here. I realize now that I don’t see any guacamole on the menu – funny, considering avocados are at their peak now.

Just like at Baja, Tijuana’s also serves a mean fish taco (P85/P185). The name conjures all sorts of strange combinations in the mind – and not all pleasant – but it’s nothing more than a deep-fried fish fillet ensconced in a soft tortilla wrapper with shredded lettuce, grated cheese, sautéed onions, and tomatoes. The cook at Baja seems to have a heavier hand with the cumin and likes to fry the fish ‘til it’s crispy while the cook at TJ’s likes to keeps things light, both in the frying and the addition of spice. Your choice. Of course there’s nothing like a contrast in textures to keep the mouth interested but what I like about the fish taco is its relative subtlety compared to its big-flavored brethren.

BBQ Wings: a perfect example of a dish that doesn’t look anywhere near as good as it tastes.

When it comes to big flavors, the BBQ Wings (P165) are right up there. A riff on buffalo wings as opposed to the Buffalo Tenders (P165) that are boneless thighs, these come to table fearsomely brown in color with hearts of orange that seem to glow from within. At first bite, it tricks the tongue into thinking that it’s sweet and sour chicken and then the cumin and chilies set in; first, tease then tantalize. The BBQ Wings are my Bin’s favorite dish at TJ’s and he insists that it must be eaten with a side of the yellow rice that comes with every Combination Plate order. I agree. The cumin-speckled rice provides that lull that prepares the palate for yet one more bracing finish.

Bin so likes the BBQ Wings that he’s beseeched the owners of TJ’s to come up with a BBQ Wings burrito. I definitely think it would be an improvement over the somewhat benign Chicken Burrito (P185). Moist though bland meat just can’t compete with equally bland lettuce and tomatoes. There has to be a dominant flavor here somewhere to provide some cohesion. Other burritos that generate more excitement are the Chimichanga (P215), Wet Burrito (P225; ’tis baked), and the California Burrito (P190; fries instead of the rice).

I can’t forget the margaritas. Wanting to veer away from the strawberry margarita that’s my usual at Baja, I try the blackberry margarita at TJ’s. No, unlike the fruit, it doesn’t come to table black as night or even petrified purple – more of a moody champagne, I say. It tastes like blackberries, somewhat understated and salty too, with the requisite tang that comes from the berry’s tartness. There are all kinds of beers here too, mostly local. I’m not a beer drinker but I understand that the people who come here are quite the discriminating ones. One time I’m here, the man at the next table is quietly but firmly arguing with the female server that his beer isn’t ‘below zero.’ “Have the boys do it,” he says. “They know how to do it right. “ Ouch. (For those of you who care to, please explain to me in the Comments section this whole “beer below zero” concept).

I’ve been talking about Baja and TJ’s in this post – comparing, contrasting, eating at both. They’re sisters yes, and I’m told that it’s relatively the same food, just different interiors. Whatever it is, I prefer TJ’s for its more welcoming, creative ambience – it’s just got that feel-good vibe – and the food appears to be prepared with more thought and care. Naturally, all that makes for better tasting food too which is what matters most.

~~
Tijuana Mexican Grill & Margarita Bar
City Golf Plaza
Julia Vargas St., Ortigas, Pasig
470.6179
11am-11pm (Sunday-Tuesday)
11am-2am (Wednesday-Saturday)

Baja Mexican Cantina
3rd Floor Greenbelt 3, Ayala Center, Makati
756.0127

15 Responses to “Another One For Manila’s Mexican Food Lovers”

  • I remember a time when I used to extract beer from huge blocks of ice twice the size and thickness of an old chessboard whenever my dad’s poker buddies come over for drinks. A couple of years later, three young lads find a market niche for selling freezers that frosts the beer so that it is served ice cold consistently without freezing it – beer below zero (BBZ) is born (www.beerbelowzero.com). TJ belongs to a growing number of BBZ restaurants (aka Ground Zero sites), which explains why that guy wasn’t hopping about his hops. (Sorry, can’t resist.)

    I know non-drinkers would probably roll their eyes on this one, but hey, I’m sure a lot of you would also scoff if the steamed milk in your lattes didn’t reach 150-155 degrees F before being poured. If coffee is a sensory experience, so is beer, I daresay.:)

    [Reply]

    Lori Reply:

    Zeph-
    I found your comment most interesting. Thanks for explaining it so fully. I especially like that last sentence where you say “…I’m sure a lot of you would also scoff if the steamed milk in your lattes didn’t reach 150-155 degrees F before being poured. If coffee is a sensory experience, so is beer…” Being a coffee lover, I can so relate now.

    –lori

    [Reply]

  • Lori! I heart Mexican food!!! As much as your writing wants me to rush over and grab myself a taco, I still feel our Mexican chow choices in the metro wanting. Have you had mole at any of these places?

    [Reply]

    Lori Reply:

    Zee –
    Sadly, I don’t think I’ve come across moles in Manila.

    –lori

    [Reply]

  • Hi Lori, I just wrote you to say that Kitchen’s Best will be my first stop when I’m in Manila next. Well, I changed my mind. I’ll try this place first – mainly for the BBQ wings and fish tacos. I bet my hubby will want to tip a few of those BBZ. KB’s banana cream pie will seal the deal. Muchas gracias!

    [Reply]

  • Hi Lori,

    If you’re in Pampanga, you may want to try Zapata’s in Angeles..Good Mexican food ^_^

    Cheers,
    Kath

    [Reply]

    Lori Reply:

    Hi Kath -
    I’ve written about Zapata before. Love it!

    –lori

    [Reply]

  • Do you know where I can order turkey mole in the Philippines?

    Thanks!

    Peach

    Peach -
    I don’t think I can even find regular mole here in Manila.

    –lori

    [Reply]

  • Lori!

    It’s my son’s birthday tomorrow! This post is timely! We will try this Mexican place tomorrow lunch! :)

    Thanks!!

    [Reply]

  • Have you been to Tia Maria lately? I LOVED their food decades ago, but when I went to the Megamall branch about a year or so ago, the menu was totally different and the food was BLAH.

    I’ve been to both Baja and TJ’s once each, and my experience with the latter was very different from yours. At Baja, I only had the Happy Hour margaritas and fish tacos, and they were pretty good, so I have no problem returning to try other dishes. But at TJ’s, from start to end, it was disappointing. First, the sign on the door said it was closed, when it wasn’t. They’d forgotten to turn it. No wonder it was empty (apart from it being a slow Sunday night). Then the waiter didn’t seem to know the difference between a frozen margarita and a regular one; for a place dubbed a “Margarita Bar,” that wasn’t a good sign. I tried two kinds of margaritas — one was hardly drinkable, the other just okay. And the food, although not bad, wasn’t memorable. The worst part was, we were sitting outside, and I could smell the garbage from nearby. Unsurprisingly then, we encountered not one, but two big cockroaches! I actually don’t blame most restaurants if they have pests; I think that it’s inescapable in Manila. But that just topped off an already sad dinner.

    I will say, though, that I almost always give places at least two chances. After your review, and learning it’s Baja’s sister, I’m not opposed to giving TJ’s another try. But I’d really rather pay another visit to Ristras! :-D

    [Reply]

    Lori Reply:

    Hi Katrina -
    I’m glad you shared your experience. There’s always a risk of putting up a restaurant feature simply because people’s experiences vary so wildly. In spite of the experience you describe above, I applaud your open-mindedness. If only other people could be like you.
    –lori

    [Reply]

  • Oh my god the Baja Fish Taco… But I have my tortilla shell fried ü As you said, the fish is light and subtle in flavor, so the added salty-crisp shell provides a simple albeit nice contrast (I also love that they use tortilla shells instead of those run-of-the-mill corn hard shells). Then I kinda just chop everything and toss it ala taco salad.
    I’ve only tried two kinds of fromargs here, the Strawberry (which I REALLY liked but which, unfortunately, they’ve been out of in my last three visits) and the Peach (meh). For more alco choices, they allow you to order cocktails from Bugsy’s two doors down (siyempre I just use my inner anti-garapal radar, as in my bill at TJ’s should still rule over Bugsy’s). I shall try the Blackberry next time!

    [Reply]

  • About BBZ. I totally love Zeph’s justification! As an avid beer drinker, more than I hate semi-cold beer, I hate “fake-frozen” beer. This is when bars “cram” by putting beer in an ordinary freezer at the last minute just so it comes out looking “inaalikabok,” that lovely delicate film of frost that covers a really cold bottle. But then fake frozen beer thaws – and WARMS – quickly. By the time you’ve reached only a third of the bottle, a puddle of water has formed at the base of the bottle and you’re fighting back the blasphemous thought of asking for “mug with ice.” BBZ beer allows you to nurse a COLD beer to the very end.
    To ZEPH: Have you tried Erdinger beer? It’s a German wheat beer that tastes like a fuller, stronger version of honey beer. It retails at P128 (but 500ml na) in Rustan’s Supermarket. Chill in freezer until it’s as cold as you want it, pour in a dry tall glass, then cross your legs as you have a beergasm at the very first swig ü

    [Reply]

  • These mexican foods is good but i never try before so i dont know how it tastes like and how to make it… But then i will try on the next couple week..

    [Reply]

  • that’s not really authentic mexican food though.

    [Reply]

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