Tasty treasures from the south

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PALM Grill is solidifying its position with its niche market. After almost two years of operation, there are plans of opening a new branch in the Bonifacio Global City area.

It is not often for Metro Manila foodies to be treated to the flavors of Mindanao. Most likely, they enjoy such dishes only during the food festival season or at hotel events. Or when relatives and friends from the South visit and delight everyone with their cooking. But since Jose Miguel “Miggy” Moreno opened his restaurant, Palm Grill, on Tomas Morato Avenue, Quezon City, almost two years ago, the delectable experience of Mindanao cuisine has not been as few and far between.

Locon ala Zamboanga.

Paying homage to the abundance of coconuts and spices in the food of Mindanao, the restaurant was named Palm Grill, with the coconut being a type of palm tree and the grill being the usual mode of cooking

Miggy Moreno shares Mindanao cuisine through his restaurant, Palm Grill.

“I put this restaurant up about a year and seven months ago, because I want to paint the South in a different light,” Miggy says, adding that sadly, Mindanao has almost always been associated with violence, tourism and other negative connotations.

Born in Jolo, Sulu, Miggy spent most of his school life there, as well as in Zamboanga, Basilan, and Tawi-Tawi; he finished his studies in Zamboanga City.

“I feel that growing up in these islands and these areas has been a blessing to me, even up to now. And I would like to be able to share the food and specialties of the Tausug, Sama, Badjao, Yakan, Zamboangueño, and Chabacano — flavors that I grew up with — as well as their culture and heritage, which unfortunately not a lot of people know about.”

In fact, Miggy reveals the local Mindanao cuisine dates back to as far as the 13th century, long before the Spanish colonizers reached the country’s shores. There was no Republic of the Philippines then, but there was the Sultanate of Sulu and other sultanates around the area. The spice trade flourished, which explains why many of the dishes cooked and consumed in these islands had similar flavor profiles with the cuisines of Malaysia, Sabah, Indonesia and Singapore.

The Knicker iced treat which is Palm Grill’s version of the famous Zamboanga fruit halo-halo.
Chicken pyanggang (Green chicken) with turmeric rice and cucumber salad.

This also accounts for the spicy palate of people from down South. Be that as it may, at Palm Grill, diners are given an option regarding level of spiciness, as the restaurant’s feasibility study revealed that people in Manila are not overly fond of spicy food.

Another distinction of Mindanao cuisine is its being savory, as opposed to the sweeter preference of the country’s other regions. Southern cooking uses a lot of natural ingredients that are medicinal at the same time, like coconut milk, fresh coconut meat, ginger and turmeric, which have known health benefits.

Paying homage to the abundance of coconuts and spices in the food of Mindanao, the restaurant was named Palm Grill, with the coconut being a type of palm tree and the grill being the usual mode of cooking.

This is most exemplified by the restaurant’s signature dish, the chicken piyanggang (green chicken). Chicken portions are “slow cooked in coconut milk and seven Asian spices, then grilled to perfection.” It was inspired by the traditional Tausug dish. It is made green by the seven spices that are mixed to it with coconut milk and toasted coconut bits. It is cooked for an hour and 30 minutes with the spices and the coconut milk, then grilled to produce the smoky charred taste. The sauce is reduced and that becomes the chicken’s topping. The dish is served with turmeric rice and cucumber salad.

Miggy explains: “Majority of our side dishes are vinegar-based because most of our food here are really strong in taste. So, to cleanse your palate, we have the side dishes that we created ourselves.”

While it is a common staple in Jolo households, chicken piyanggang is also tedious to prepare; that is why it is served only on special occasions. At Palm Grill, it is a hands-down bestseller.

Next to try was the tiyula itum, a beef stew also of the Tausug. Considered to be the black bulalo of the South, its color comes from the infusion of toasted coconut. Giving it a modern twist is the addition of a large torched bone marrow.

Not to forget the seafood which are plentiful around the Southern islands, a hefty serving of locon ala Zamboanga followed. The stars of this dish are fresh large shrimps cooked in garlic, aligue (crab roe) and coconut milk.

While it is a common staple in Jolo households, chicken piyanggang is also tedious to prepare; that is why it is served only on special occasions. At Palm Grill, it is a hands-down bestseller.

And finally, the Knicker iced treat, which is Palm Grill’s version of the famous Zamboanga fruit halo-halo. Not as cloying as the usual halo-halo filled with sweetened beans and other ingredients, this dessert is delightful and refreshing.

The rest of the menu is a colorful mix of favorites like curacha, beef kolma and chicken satti, as well as tributes to Miggy’s grandmother, local historian Oswalda Cabel (Oswalda’s Fried, fried chicken the way grandma used to make), and sister Chabby (Doc Chabby’s Slaw that uses fruits, turnips and cucumber instead of cabbage, with apple cider vinegar dressing). But because its diners also look for the more familiar, the restaurant also serves pasta and other beef and chicken dishes. There is no pork on the menu, though, in keeping with Muslim tradition and halal practices.

The steady road to success
Miggy looks back at Palm Grill’s early days and confesses, “At first, I was afraid that people from Manila may have a negative impression because the images one associates with Mindanao are not really favorable. But thank God, the reception is really good. I am very, very happy.”

The restaurant is solidifying its position with its niche market, which is composed mostly of families on Saturdays and Sundays. The Friday crowd is mixed, while weekdays draw in the office crowd working the Morato area. With a total seating capacity of 110, Palm Grill has room enough to host a number of events like birthdays, debuts, gender reveals and weddings. There are also blog-cons and presscons from nearby TV networks.

Of course, there are plenty of other restaurants on that popular foodie street, but Miggy says: “I would like to believe that we are the only ones that specialize in Southern cuisine at the moment. There are a lot of Filipino restaurants out there but I am not sure if there are any that actually serve what we serve.”

“We are now working on our BGC (Bonifacio Global City) branch,” he continues. “We chose BGC because the biggest population of Muslims in Manila is in Maharlika Village (in Taguig City) and situating our branch in BGC will be very good for them. They are our target clients, like the Chinese families from New Manila.”

As Palm Grill continues to carve a name for itself in the restaurant industry, Miggy attributes its ongoing steady climb to success to three important factors.

Tiyula itum, the black bulalo of the South.

He says, “First, I think anybody can open a restaurant but the number one secret to the success of your restaurant is having that strong concept that is new and fresh. So, I’m taking advantage of the fact that I am the only one at the moment offering this kind of cuisine.

“Second, I think, are passion and dedication to your craft. More than anything, I have really worked hard for this.

“And third, I will not be this successful, of course, without the grace of God and the support of my family…And the people I work with here are my partners, so without them I will not really succeed. I think that’s what keeps things at a go. In the near future, all we can do is really plan; but at the end of the day, it’s all up to Him.”

Giving tiyula itum a modern twist is the addition of a large torched bone marrow.

Palm Grill is located at 179 Tomas Morato Ave. corner Scout Castor, Diliman, Quezon City, Metro Manila. For inquiries, call (02) 373-1668, or visit https://www.facebook.com/palmgrillph/.

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