In Manila, a little-known Japanese place called Arafu Café has the Hamburg Steak as its star offering. When I say “little-known,” I’m only referring to Filipinos because this place is well-known and heavily frequented by the local Japanese. So popular is it that within a year and a half, Arafu already has two locations.
Let’s talk about the original restaurant that’s located at the Fort. The first floor, a hallway really, is completely dedicated to the simple kitchen set-up. The efficiency achieved by the three cooks in such enclosed quarters and with such rudimentary equipment is nothing short of amazing. A cashier and basic coffee maker take up residence at the base of the stairs and now, be prepared to climb.
Yes, I said climb.
The actual restaurant is located on the second floor and to get there entails climbing a steep, steel spiral staircase. There are at least 20 steps and guests must traverse in single file. Now, I’ve actually met people who physically – or shall I say, psychologically – cannot climb spiral staircases. If this is you, or you’ve got bad knees, or detest any sort of physical activity, then go to Arafu’s other location at SM City North. Obviously, taking my parents here or any other senior citizens is out of the question. No meal is worth a heart attack. Or aching joints.
Anyway, once you’ve reached the top, congratulate yourself (yay for you!) and then settle at a table. I’m always surprised at just how many Japanese eat here. It’s partly because Arafu is owned by a Japanese woman, Manami Maejima, who describes her restaurant as, “… serving home-style Japanese comfort food.” When I catch a TV feature on Arafu, I’m struck by Manami’s statement that the food served at other Japanese restaurants [in Manila] are usually reserved (by the Japanese) for special occasions. Hmm, (Japanese) food for thought.
The dining room resembles that of the kitchen, utilitarian but of good quality. As soon as I’m seated, a server hands me a slip of paper with the Wi-Fi password but I politely decline it. I won’t use any gadgets while I’m eating because mealtimes are for companionship and conversation and not for communing with a smartphone.
Anyway, you must get the house specialty called “TAWARA” Hamburg Steak [caps and quote marks, theirs]. Order just the Hamburg (P260) and it comes with rice, green beans and corn kernels lightly sautéed in butter, two tomato wedges, and a squirt of Japanese mayonnaise. This is satisfying but I suggest adding on any or all of the following: a fried egg (+P25), cheese (+P38), or a vegetable salad (+P68), leafy greens laced with that bottled Japanese sesame dressing we all know and love.
For the “saucy” ones: the condiments at Arafu include Uster Sauce, a thin and salty sauce for fried foods, and soy sauce. Not pictured is shichimi togarashi (bottled Japanese seven-spice mixture good for adding heat).
Arafu’s menu only seems large but that’s just because there are various add-ons you can order. I especially like the Hamburg Steak Combos (P360-P420), my favorites being the Hamburg Steak & Tonkatsu (pork filet; photo below), and the Hamburg Steak & Ebifurai (shrimp tempura). Once you order a Hamburg Steak, the server will ask if you want a Japanese or demi-glace sauce. The Japanese sauce is very fluid and brown, a simultaneous surging of savory and salty cut only by the tang of grated daikon (Asian radish) floating at the bottom of the dishware it’s served in. In all the times I’ve been to Arafu, I’ve never tried the demi-glace, a concentrated brown sauce. Let me know if you do. But if you aspire to authenticity, then eat the Hamburg Steak sans sauce as the Japanese do.
It’s safe to say that Arafu’s Hamburg Steak is the Japanese version of Salisbury steak, or an iteration thereof. Ground meat (I taste a mix of beef and pork) is bound by minced onions and seasonings and moistened with eggs. I think I may have just described something more akin to a meatloaf but whatever it is, the Hamburg Steak is soft while retaining a toothsome bite. Its flavor rides on a prominent note of nutmeg, a judicious amount exuding a mouth-filling warmth. In the photos, the Japanese sauce is in those mini ceramic jugs. I’ve seen people dip pinches of patty into the jugs but such constricted spaces constrain so I just pour away on the patty. From there, I conjure endless combinations of patty and rice dipped into mayo, doused with sauce, chased with vegetables, etc.
The Ebifurai (above) is a real crowd-pleaser, especially with the kids I’ve taken to Arafu. Because the shrimp is dredged in something thicker than panko, I’d say this is thickly battered shrimp and not tempura. Again, technicalities aside, I like the coating and the shrimp is nice and thick. It’s equally wonderful dipped into the Japanese sauce or eaten in tandem with the Hamburg Steak. Like I said, conjuring combinations!
This is the Katsu-don set menu and not the Katsu-don bowl. Donburis (rice bowls) are also available.
The tonkatsu at Arafu will not compare to those served at Manila’s tonkatsu-yas (tonkatsu restaurants) so it’s unfair to compare. But this little (yes, it’s small) filet of pork fulfills. I prefer it over the Katsu-don (above; spelling theirs), which is overly sweet and wet.
For some variety, and you can never have enough food anyway, I also recommend Arafu’s two noodle dishes. I favor the Yaki Udon (above; P290), where chopped squid and slices of pork tangle in thick noodles. The generous garnish of katsuoboshi (bonito flakes) lends itself as the dominant flavor, a smoky saltiness in between slurps and swallows. I only wish there was less cabbage and more of the udon to enjoy.
Similar in flavor but with thinner noodles and no katsuoboshi is the Yaki Soba (in foreground; P290). This dish is as easy to love as a plate of pancit canton. For both noodle dishes, don’t dismiss the beni shoga (pickled red ginger strips). They’ll cut the cloy and cleanse the palate so you can eat more, which is never a bad thing.
I’m told that every order of Hamburg Steak comes with refillable servings of Japanese rice and soup. I have never tried this for myself because I always end up ordering way too much food when I’m here. I also notice that the cooks tend to overcook the fried eggs that come with the meals, so if you like runny eggs as I do, tell the server.
Because the place is small, it can get cramped during mealtimes so I recommend coming here at an off-hour. I once make the mistake of coming over at the height of Sunday lunch, and die a slow death as I am tortured by the audible contemplations of the woman sitting nearby discussing potential honeymoon destinations. Either way, the service is efficient and friendly. A server will remain on the second floor but never long enough to hover as the frequent and distinct ding! of a bell from the first floor indicates another order is ready. As you can imagine, all the servers in Arafu are quite slim from all that stair climbing.
Of course I have dessert duty in every restaurant I go to. At Arafu’s, it pains me to say, don’t bother. The Green Tea ice cream is store bought and icy (I know which brand this is but I won’t say) and the oft-ordered Green Tea Latte (P128) is more caramel in flavor than green tea; surprising, considering this is a Japanese restaurant. The vanilla and chocolate icebox cookie that comes with the latte however, is something I want more of.
G/F South of Market Condominium
11th Avenue corner 25th St., Bonifacio Global City, Taguig
(02) 403 3794 / 0908 3091 983
Open daily 11:30 am-9pm. Last order at 8:30pm.
Delivery available in selected areas.
3/F SM City North EDSA, North Ave., Quezon City
(02) 441 0268; (0908) 3091-983