Discovering Greenhills Town Center

A stroll through this hidden enclosure yields Manila’s best peanut butter cupcake and buffalo wings.

On the same street as Mien San and JT’s Manukan though not as far up as Hermanos is a tiny eskinita. Though it’s not blink-and-you’ll-miss-it-small, you have to be watching out for it lest you miss it altogether.

This is Greenhills Town Center, a courtyard – I find that word fits it most aptly – of shops and restaurants. Dominated on almost all sides by high-rises and the compressors of monster air-conditioning units, it yields pleasure upon unexpected pleasure. Opened just earlier this year, there are the personal service shops with giggle-inducing names such as Mamaway (fashion for expectant moms), Soulstice Spa that exhorts one to “indulge in the solace of touch,” and the requisite nail designs. There’s this gem of an Asian grocery, Eastern Flavors, that’s tucked far away in an unassuming corner. Don’t miss it because tiny though it is, it’s very well-stocked and most importantly, it carries Prima Taste, the ONLY brand of instant mix that I’ve found makes exceptional laksa. Darn, now I’ve let my secret out of the bag.

Pork Belly Pleasure
It’s late afternoon and once we do the initial go-round, we have a meal at Ha Yuan. Owned by Suzy Lee’s family, she of the memorably modern mooncakes, I’m happy to finally make it here after hearing so many good things about it. The most important thing I learn is that I’ve been pronouncing it wrong all these months: it’s spelled Ha Yuan but is pronounced ‘Ha Wan.’ According to the menu it’s “… a name snatched from Amah’s childhood memories of a lush Spring Garden in her hometown of Xiamen.”

The food served here are traditional Chinese favorites, classic dishes that I imagine would bring a tear to those whose childhoods were fueled by these foods. Maki Mi (P140) is something I’ve never had before, but I take to it quite well. A very viscous broth – it’s so thick that air bubbles are suspended in the liquid – is laced with soy sauce and calamansi. From its sticky depths it proffers skeins of egg noodles and strips of pork loin, both tender but varying enough in texture from one another to provide continuous interest. The server pushes a bottle of black vinegar towards me, and some of it swirled in adds another layer of flavor.

Of course Ha Yuan is famous for their Fresh Lumpia (P60/P40), a wrap of vegetables, tofu, crispy seaweed, and caramelized peanuts. I like the herbaceous note contributed by sprigs of wansoy, and squirts of hot sauce liven things up more.

I’m thankful to my Chinese friends who have fed me kiampong through the years, a fried rice dish made complete with meat, mushrooms, and spring onions. It reminds me of machang and appears deceptively easy to make but I know that it can’t be; there’s such a complicated confluence of flavors. The deepest essence of mushroom permeates the rice grain, totally toothsome they both are with the crunch of peanuts, an ingredient I’m told is indispensable to kiampong . Only someone skilled in this dish’s intricacies could serve up something this satisfying.

One of my favorite things and something impossible to say no to is pork belly. It’s the star ingredient in Ha Yuan’s Classic Cua Pao. Slow-braised it is – ooh, I taste the perfumed wonders of star anise – and garnished with pickled Chinese mustard. A smattering of sugared peanuts litters the plastic wrapper, its neutral color is upstaged with shots of green from the wansoy. Together, they make for an explosive, perfect pairing to that soft, soft belly, and the homemade mantao (bun) is superb.

Ha Yuan is famous for their taho but I don’t get to try it this time. My Bin likes the Black Gulaman and I enjoy the Soy Milk (unsweetened by request), so clean and tasting of pure soybeans, that I wonder if maybe I should chuck the boxed stuff I’ve been buying.

Ha Yuan Signatures
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Best wings in Manila
My Bin has an abiding, insatiable love for buffalo wings, a love shared with equal ardor by my brother in law, who hails from Chicago, a city where they know their wings. Me, I’m not wild for them but I’ll take a bite – count ‘em – or two.

Red Buffalo is the latest wings place that my Bin tries. It emulates New York to its core, from its industrial feel to the NYC photos in modish black and white. There’s an outstanding selection of liquors and ales in the chillers, imported all, since they go well with wings and pizza. But what’s most striking are the boxes of food-grade disposable gloves. I’ve not seen this extra, thoughtful touch in any similar restaurant in Manila.

I’m content to watch my Bin conquer his basket of wings (Hot Original, P165/5 pcs). First, he tries the blue cheese sauce: his eyes widen on first taste. “Wow, there’s real blue cheese in here, none of that bottled stuff,” he remarks. His attention diverts to the wings and he picks one up. They’re a lurid orange, as vivid in hue as the number sign we’re given. They sit there in their self-contained nuclear wasteland of incendiary heat translating their power into the beads of sweat that appear on my Bin’s forehead. His eating becomes even more frenzied; soon, his eyes seem even bigger through his glasses, his brow is a shining surface, and he is bathed in the ecstasy of one whose tongue has been set ablaze.

“Lor! Lor! You must try this!” He holds out a wing for me, his hands look robotic inside the disposable gloves. I bend my head forward to take a bite. The inferno coming off of the wings hits me like a needle slicing through my nostrils. I jerk my head back instinctively and if I open my mouth now, I’m almost sure I’d exhale a fan of flames. These wings are potent, with a real whip kick of chili (Tabasco, I’m sure) and vinegar caressed ever so briefly with butter.

“Best. B-E-S-T wings in Manila, Lor,” my Bin says smacking his lips, sweat now dripping in trails off his forehead. “Can you help me get my gloves off, please?”

Red Buffalo Wings & Pizza
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My peanut butter cupcakes of choice

To be honest, I almost pass this place by. I find the name, Pastry Princess, a bit twee, and the interiors equally so. Looking back now, I’m glad I don’t dismiss this place, I would’ve missed out on their wondrous peanut butter cupcakes.

Called Peanut Butter Cream (P65), this is a good chocolate cupcake: crusty exterior imploding to reveal vulnerable insides and enthralling chocolate smells I want to imprint in memory. There’s not too much peanut butter in the frosting, just a suggestion really, and thankfully, it isn’t overall too sweet. Bite, chew, bliss … ooh, what’s this? Tucked deep in the cupcake’s heart is a reward for those who are persistent with pleasure: it’s a middling middle of strawberry, one of those whole berry preserves. Peanut butter and jelly! Clever.

The Nutella cupcake (P60; above) is so-so, and the Red Velvet has flown off the shelves before I’m able to nab a piece. But I want to come back for those as well as the Rocky Road Cupcakes and the Flourless Chocolate.

Pastry Princess
(02) 399.4986.

Greenhills Town Center

#2 Granada Street, corner Valencia, New Manila, Quezon City

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