A Piece on Pino

This is a long post, but like the meal it narrates, good food can’t be rushed.

Pino has always been on my restaurant radar. I hadn’t eaten there until recently but I’ve known its chef-owner, Edward (Ed) Bugia since 2007. I’ve judged several of his dishes on TV cooking show contests, and we’ve also shared many good meals together. This exposure to Ed’s brand of cooking has made me very familiar with how he thinks about food and how that thought process translates in the kitchen. I admire his imagination and verve.

Pino, which Ed owns along with his partners PJ Lanot and Star Jose, is a contraction of “Filipino.” It sits along Malingap Street in Quezon City, a perfect position for it to imbibe the vibe of the restaurant row on nearby Maginhawa Street, incidentally its former location until a year ago.

Part of the mural that takes center stage in Pino.

Tonight, I’m finally here after more than a year of urging from Ed. “I’d really like to cook for you already. Come to Pino,” he tells me through text and then on Twitter when he finds me there. It’s noisy this evening, but not unpleasantly so; the crowd is buzzed, their energies interspersed with scattered utterances of pleasure from eating and swilling the flavored beers that are so popular here (more on that later).

A cursory perusal through Pino’s menu shows quite rightly that Ed has fun with food. With tongue firmly in cheek, he takes Filipino dishes and turns them on their heads, offering up satisfactions that are simultaneously new and familiar.

The Salted Egg Crispy Shrimps (P225) reminds me of the popular pica-pica, Drunken Shrimps (Nilasing na Hipon). Dubbed as “drunken” due to their dousing in beer prior to dredging and frying, these shrimps are indeed crispy. Digging in with my fork unearths specks of salted egg, their orange color reflecting that of the shrimps, and echoing once again in the glimmering same-hued sauce of vinegared sweet chili. The shrimps (eat them with the heads on) can stand on their own because of the raffish, salty allure that the red egg lends to them. The sauce, I feel, could use a bit more kick.

Orange seems to be the color of the night, the hue showing up yet again in the tantalizingly named Tempura Oysters and Pearls (P185). Oysters, plump and perched on their shells, are fried up in a tempura batter, daubed with wasabi-mayo, then topped with tobiko (roe). It’s a visual and voluptuous imagining made real once tasted. The wasabi here is expressed and then elucidated, its pungency points up the brininess of the oysters, the crunch of their coating.

“Here’s my bread course!” Ed announces. We’re obviously not following a strict meal order tonight. These are Pastel in the Camiguin-style (not yet on the menu), the famous bread rolls from that island province. His version stays true to tradition with a yema-type custard middle made with sugar, condensed milk, and egg yolks. But then again, this is Ed we’re talking about here and I trust him to never leave a good thing untouched. Each pastel is topped with a shag of pork floss – “Wala lang!” he chuckles, in response to the questioning look of one of our dinner friends. Biting into a pastel – ooh, how my lips sink into this buttery pillow! – invites a gush of custard, its sweetness swells in the mouth and is then overtaken by shots of saltiness that flit and flicker on the tongue.

Kamote (sweet potato) fries aren’t served in Pino (but in Ed’s other restaurant, Burger Project) and tonight they’re here because of my special request. I adore fries, but most especially those made from the native orange kamote. Skin still on, brown-speckled and pock-marked against a deep honey-orange interior, my four dinner friends and I plow through these starchy scepters. They’re irresistible dipped in either the aioli, wasabi-mayonnaise, or dunked straight into our gaping maws.

I giggle when I see the Sisig Tacos (P215). The tufts of shredded cheese and lettuce strips remind me of an Afro, a carefree cover for sisig and tomatoes. Popping in one whole taco activates a flurry of flavor amidst a cacophony of crunch. First, pork – very meaty, definitely fatty – then the almost crystal-clear and clean tang of tomatoes tinctured with salsa, maybe even a touch of aioli. There’s a lot going on here but by dint of balance, it works as an irresistible whole.

“This is bar food,” G, one of our friends states. As previously mentioned, Pino is popular for their drinks – check out their giant martini but for tonight, we have a trio of flavored beers (P75 each): honey-mansi (the hands-down favorite), lychee, and peach. For a non-beer drinker like myself, the message of this beverage is: “Beer goes down better when flavored.”

Piggybaking on the sisig tacos is another sisig incarnation this time as carbonara (P165). Sisig and bacon and eggplant slices are tangled in skeins of noodles laced in cream and egg yolks. This could be a good dish but it’s slightly salty tonight.

Ed is famous for his riffs on bagnet, creations that he takes to the limit in his new food venture, Barangay Bagnet, the topic of a future DCF post. Tonight it’s Kare-Kareng Bagnet (P245), three slices of pork belly rimmed with fat and its reason for being: its crispy skin. As I’m taking photos, I can hear thunderous bites from my four male dinner companions and exclamations of “Ang lutong!” The bagnet is napped in peanut sauce, which I find a bit bland but I understand that the bagnet is the star here; and instead of bagoong, there’s a serving of bagoong rice. Kare-Kareng Bagnet is an example of Ed’s mindfulness in fusing flavors and every ingredient has a function. As long as you don’t mind a modern approach to a traditional dish, you’ll love this.

Crispy Tenderloin Tapsilog (P215) practically jumps off the plate with its playful pastiche of colors. Adjoining the crunchy-tender cubes of beef tenderloin is what I’d call morning sinangag, something manang would make for you in the morning before you hie off to school — rice fried with liquid seasoning, bits of last night’s meat dish, and don’t forget the hotdogs, or are they ham? So cute and satisfying too, a considerably more sophisticated tapsi than the one from GoodAh!

Chicken Binakol is also done well here at Pino, restorative and gratifying. And no, those aren’t egg yolks but scoops of papaya!

It’s been a long meal and this is one long post. But I can’t end this without talking about Ed’s Chunky Choco Tempura (P125). Essentially a deep-fried Kit Kat, and he called it that until Nestlé told him to quit it, Ed introduces it as “Our forever bestseller dessert.” And how. A riotously crunchy outer layer follows up with another crunch, this time from the familiar flavor of this popular candy bar. The heat it’s been submerged in has melted its chocolate exterior, staining the plate and imbuing the vanilla ice cream with abstract chocolate doodles. Cold, crunchy, hot, then soft, this dessert is a vehicle for sensory contrasts. I love it. And Pino.

Pino Restobar
39 Malingap St., Teachers Village, QC
02 441 1773
Open daily for lunch & dinner.

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