Panda Peeks – Abe (Where Good Friends Dine)
Filipino cooking reflects the history of the islands. On a Malayan base, Chinese, Hindu, Spanish and American ingredients have been added through centuries of foreign influence and surprisingly, a blend with an identity of its own has emerged. In Manila, this mixture is the most evident. Far from the capital city, however, you can still sample the simple dishes that native Filipinos love up to this very day. Many of these dishes are remarkably close to the native fares still found in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and other Asian countries.
The Philippines is a group of 7,107 islands. Regions and areas are divided. Each has its own culture and traditions that reflect mainly on the population’s dialects and native food. In our quest to find the finest and most authentic Filipino flavours and to discover the country’s rich history and diversity – originating from different parts of the Philippines, we came across this Capampangan restaurant in Alabang Town Center. It is when sampling native Filipino dishes that we can truly appreciate the regional variations found all over the country.
Abe was conceptualised in 2012 when the Ayala Group invited the LJC Restaurant Group to establish a Filipino restaurant in Serendra. But instead of just coming up with a restaurant that served Filipino staples, Larry J. Cruz, founder of LJC, thought it would be fitting to create a concept in honour of his father, Emilio Aguilar Cruz or Abe – a Capampangan word for “friend”, as he was fondly called by his peers. After discovering their history, their popular tag line – “Where Good Friends Dine” started making more sense than ever.
The Abe brand offers Abe’s taste for food, music and the arts in a setting where he and his friends would feel comfortable to chat about almost anything and share the pleasure of each other’s company.
The restaurant serves the dishes of Abe’s gourmet province, Pampanga and some of the dishes he loved and picked up from his travels.
I was welcomed by Mikel Balanon, their Marketing Officer. We had a quick tour around the restaurant which is conveniently located on the Lifestyle Strip of ATC along Commerce Avenue. Continuing the tour with my team, we were stunned by the high ceiling that sported a chandelier with a modern design. The place is known for its murals showing the life of Emilio Aguilar Cruz that goes all the way back to the 1920s. The restaurant displays the paintings and sketches of Abe, as well as the Mount Arayat painting of his friend, Subang. The restaurant menu carries Abe’s Labanderas of Mount Arayat painting and his quotes on food and dining.
The interior has a touch of modern Filipino concept – somewhat minimalist, mostly using neutral colours accented with red, purple, yellow and blue found on the traditional window panels placed near the glass walls.
We sat near the bar at a table where all the artworks were easily visible. You may enjoy this view while listening to their sweet, traditional Capampangan songs that play all day. Mikel decided to choose the dishes for us, and one by one, delicious Pinoy food started coming to our table.
We had our hands on a very interesting plate of Sinantol na Hipon. I had never seen nor heard of this dish before – sautéed ground sandor meat with shrimp, onion, bagoong, coconut milk and spices. It came steamy and I could smell the freshness of the coconut milk as we started digging in. I was a little bit skeptical about this since this was the first time I heard of a sandor fruit being cooked. I found myself wanting more after every bite. Surprisingly, the sandor fruit’s sour flavour blended well with the saltiness of bagoong. The coconut milk added a beautiful balance and texture to the fruit that brought out the fine sea flavours and aroma of the shrimp.
A bamboo shell was served to us and I was very curious about what kind of surprise was about to pop right before our eyes. Our kind server, slowly cracked it open. Just like little kids opening their birthday gifts, we were so amazed to find perfectly cooked mountain rice with shrimps and wood ear mushrooms. Up to now, it’s still a mystery on how this was prepared. My team and I loved it. This Bamboo Rice is the best alternative to fried rice. It’s steamed, flavoured and definitely not oily. I found a hint of soy sauce and some spices from the salty finish. The serving size was good enough for four people to enjoy.
I had been saving room for the next dish when it finally came to our table – Abe’s famous Knockout Knuckles or what is more commonly known as crispy pata. Abe’s take on this traditional dish won our hearts. By unanimous decision, we declared this as the team’s favourite. Every bite exposed rich flavours with mild to medium spiciness. You can balance it off with your Bamboo Rice if you don’t like the spicy surprise. But the best part, yet most sinful of it all – the skin. It was perfectly crisp and the meat underneath was very juicy and tender. Relish the meat with some garlic bits and their specially made sauce to fully appreciate these tasty pork knuckles.
Luckily, we had a big serving of the Bamboo Rice because the next dishes are best enjoyed with rice. Our next dish is a known rock star on Abe’s menu – Klassik Kare Kare. This is a Filipino stew usually cooked with pork or beef. Abe’s take came with oxtail, tripe and vegetables in a rich peanut-base sauce, presented in what seemed like a deconstructed version of the traditional Pinoy dish. Neatly placed on the side were the evenly-sized legumes and aubergine. The meat was cooked right, drenched in rich, smooth and thick sauce – a trademark of an authentic Kare Kare dish. I took the first go without missing the anchovies that was served on the side. A blast of delicious flavours. This was the kind of dish I absolutely love. I suddenly remembered why I keep on coming back to this place. This dish just made it clear, I was in the right place.
Sinigang is a Filipino stew characterized by its sour and savoury taste most often associated with tamarind. I’ve always been a big fan of Pork Sinigang. And I have always loved ube (purple yam) as a dessert. But I never thought Sinigang sa Ube was ever a thing. From afar, it looked very interesting. Again, I got very curious. Abe has lots of surprises. Thankful for my Bamboo Rice, I was able to savour this the right way – pieces of meat, vegetables and soup on top of my rice. Unlike the usual tamarind sinigang, this ube version had a thick soup base and the purple colour added more character to the dish. I found myself digging in for more. I couldn’t hide how impressed I was. In fact, we even had to ask the chef how he made this yam and pork turn into this sour stew. The secret? You might want to ask him yourself.
There’s no need to visit Pampanga to enjoy good quality Capampangan food. With Abe’s five restaurants located in Serendra, Trinoma, Mall of Asia, Mega Mall and Alabang Town Center, these delicious dishes are within your reach. The service crew at Abe were attentive. Prices are a bit steep but I’d say it’s reasonable with the excellent service, prime location and tasty dishes. If you are looking for a satisfying, authentic Filipino fix, Abe will most certainly not disappoint.
Address: Lifestyle Strip, Alabang Town Center, Commerce Avenue, Muntinlupa City
Phone: (+632) 804 2148
Opening hours: Mon-Thur 11am–10pm, Fri-Sun 11am-11pm
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Born and raised in a multi-cultural environment and a firm believer that the best way to learn is to travel the world. He enjoys hiking and outdoor bootcamp. His passion for arts, writing, food and business administration lead him to be foodpanda’s Senior Marketing Manager in Hong Kong and in the Philippines.