Richmond's first Filipino restaurant is a total knock-out. 

A Thrilla From Manila

Manila! Manila! Cafe and Grill
9047-1 W. Broad St.
Lunch Tuesday-Sunday 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; no Saturday lunch
Dinner Tuesday-Thursday 5:30-9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 5:30-10 p.m.
346-9928

It's here. Finally. Richmond's first Filipino restaurant. Open only since the beginning of summer, Manila! Manila! Cafe & Grille already has found its feet. On our visit, half the tables were filled with native Filipinos or their offspring. And that's an excellent barometer when evaluating ethnic cuisine.

Owners Lennie Mejia and Imelda Raguindin have brought the rustic elegance of the islands to Richmond's West End. Peach-tinted stucco walls, wicker chairs and a flowing fountain provide enough of the essence of an old Spanish villa to make one forget the strip mall just beyond the restaurant's doors. And the ladies' charm is eclipsed only by their interest in ensuring a flawless dining experience.

To fully appreciate the flavors that make up the Philippines, a little history helps. Situated east of the Asian mainland, the cuisine of the 7,000-island archipelago is anchored by the flavors and ingredients of the Orient. But 400 years of Spanish assimilation has morphed the island culture into what we today know as "Filipino." Steamed dumplings, for instance, are not unlike those made in Chinese kitchens. But the soy sauce is tangy with fresh lemon and the name — molo — is Spanish. Likewise, lumpia, the Philippines' own version of the spring roll, has potato mixed in with the carrot and pork.

The menu is extensive and varies little from lunch to dinner. Lunch prices are a bit lower. And there are always choices for the educated palate or the adventuresome spirit. On our visit, for example, fried pork belly ($9.95) was one of those specials. When it comes to Filipino food, I fall more into the adventuresome category. The descriptions "fried" and "crispy" were enough to persuade this Southerner to give it a try.

Indeed, the skin was crispy, and the morsels of meat clinging to it were moist and tasty. The vinegary dipping sauce, according to the owners, is the key. There is some belief among Filipinos that vinegar melts fat in the metabolization process. A good thing, because the portion was so large that I had to cart most of it home.

We already had more than whetted our appetites with the molo ($3.75), the savory ground pork and shrimp-filled dumplings, and a sampler platter of appetizers ($5.95 for one; $9.95 for two). The appetizer platter provided a well-rounded sampling of starters, which included more molo, as well as lumpia and empanadas.

Grilled meats figure prominently in the Philippines, so it was with great anticipation that my guest ordered the super-duper Ihaw-Ihaw (pronounced ee-haw) platter which combined almost all the dishes in the Ihaw (grilled), category except for stuffed squid and mussels. This dish topped out the menu in pricing at $18.95. With appetizers, it would've have been enough for two who didn't want to bulge at the waist. Tender strips of chicken, beef and pork barbecue came on skewers with a variety of sauces, most of which had vinegar in common. A pork chop, expertly grilled and seasoned, rounded out the plate, along with lightly crunchy grilled vegetables.

The dessert list was as exotic as the rest of the menu, making choices difficult. My guest ordered bibingka ($2.75). a sweet rice cake baked with coconut cream. While the cake was a little tough, the flavor was uniquely delicious.

Even more remarkable was my leche flan ($3.75). Flan is perhaps the most overworked dessert on the planet. We've had it at Cuban restaurants, Italian restaurants, French and even Vietnamese restaurants. The Filipino version served at Manila! Manila! puts every other version to shame. The texture is creamier, the flavor more intense. We know the secret, a super-fattening additive common to most Southern kitchens: condensed milk.

Manila! Manila! is off to a stellar start. It's a wonderful addition to all the varied cuisines Richmond

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