This restaurant is one of those hidden in plain sight, obvious to all but seen only by a few.
Profound beginning to this article yes, but I can’t believe that I’ve been within spitting distance of this restaurant, yet have never been here. I owe it all to my two intrepid foodie friends, N and J, masters at seeking out culinary gems that fly below the radar. The place is officially called TopSpice Restaurant ”“ I say “officially” because that’s what it says on their business card; “unofficially” but also more popularly known as Hunan Lutong Bahay, the place has a bogus website (www.topspice.com), no signboard, and limited parking ”“ unless you’re a pro at parallel.
The interiors are in stark contrast to the outside ”“ homey, peaceful, with sanded-down tables and chairs that remind me of a similar set that I bought in SM when I was first married. The menu is a collation of developed photos – ‘Kodak Royal Printing’ it states on the back. (My god, when was the last time I had photos developed?) But thank goodness for this album of illustrated choices; menus are posted on the wall written in Chinese characters (!)
Because none of us are in a binging mood, we order lightly: mapo tofu, scallion pancake, pork dumplings, braised pork and steamed buns for dipping, as well as eggplant hotpot. (Yes, this is a light meal). As its name denotes, what’s served here is Hunan cuisine, the more peppery, pungent partner of the more famous Sichuan/Szechuan cuisine from which kung pao chicken, deep-fried green beans in pepper, tea-smoked duck, and mapo dofu originate.
Hunan Province is in southeastern China, an area that experiences cold winters and high humidity. Thus, its food is incendiary, Chinese belief being that, “… when you eat pepper you sweat and cleanse yourself.” Philippine tastes dictate that spice levels be radically revised ”“ my pork dumplings, in itself tasty, was made better when dipped into the accompanying dark soy sauce to which I add a saucer-ful of chili paste. If you prefer heat like I do, then don’t be shy asking for heaps of the stuff; the servers are accommodating. If you’ve ever been to Mien San in San Juan, the dumplings there are reminiscent of those here in Hunan Lutong Bahay.
Another characteristic of Hunan cuisine is its reliance on stewing and braising, slow-cooking methods that achieve a particular softness. Best exemplified in the various hotpots which you must try if you come to this restaurant, the eggplant hot pot is my favorite dish. Other hotpots here include beef, tofu, intestines, chicken, and duck. A mere P200 proffers a dark, oily (again, characteristic of Hunan food) broth in which braised eggplants are bathed in chili — peppers, paste, and oil. I dig deep into the pot to scoop out the sauce underneath, excellent for sloshing onto rice and dipping the steamed buns into.
While the mapo tofu is grossly underwhelming, so is the scallion pancake, an overly eggy, slap-flat disc desperately in need of leavening. The braised pork is thankfully, quite the opposite. Sitting atop a mound of cured mustard greens, each slice is evocatively arranged ”“ depending on the angle, it reminds me of gently lapping waves or the curls of my 7th grade perm.
Since Hunan Lutong Bahay is a house, it makes sense that at times, I feel like I’m in a house. Rice is unlimited but you must get up and go to the kitchen to scoop it yourself. Drinking water comes in these recycled 2-liter softdrink plastic bottles, and when those are empty, head to the kitchen to ask for a refill. Because the place seats only 20 at best – beyond that and you’re asking to be seated on someone’s lap – the acoustics are truly overwhelming. I listen to several conversations simultaneously while carrying my own with N and J. This place is a true find ”“ it’s not often I’ll waddle out the door for a mere P800 bill split amongst four people. I highly recommend that you don’t come here at night, or at least avoid the dinner rush hour because there’s not a seat to be found then.
Hunan Lutong Bahay
6404 Camia St., Makati (near Rockwell and Metroclub)
0915 4252972 / 0927 7876999
Open Monday-Sunday, 10am-10pm.