I am going to take you back, way back. Put on your way too tight pants and your blue suede shoes, pull out your 1956 Pinecrest Green Chevrolet Bel Air, grab your gal and head on over to the neighborhood diner. Perhaps you could share a milkshake (or halo-halo) or a glass bottle of coke with two straws, and listen to some tunes on the good ol’ jukebox. The only thing that is missing is taking your arm candy for a little bit of necking at the drive-in, but as Clark now has a drive-in open for business, even that could be an option. So without further ado, let me introduce you to the Downtown Café, a virtual time machine back to the 1950’s, and the source of some delicious food.
As an expat in a country as diverse as the Philippines, picking and reviewing a restaurant that serves primarily Filipino food can be daunting. Obviously, in no way, shape or form, am I a Filipino food expert. I know good food, what tastes good to me, how flavors can be complementary to one another and how lovely something can be presented. Each culture has its own food and traditions that surround its cuisine. If you were in Chicago and you told me you put ketchup on your hotdog, I’d say “Oh heck no!” If you were in New York and tried eating your slice of pizza with a fork, I’d put a stop to it, and if you were in Thailand and a chef did not include Kaffir lime leaves in his Tom Yum, I’d definitely sound the alarm! That being said, growing up somewhere you know what and what not to do with food. You know how something is to be prepared, what ingredients to add, temperature, accompaniments, sides and such. I may not be as well versed in the traditions of Filipino food as those who were born and raised here, but since I base my reviews on taste, class, service, quality and presentation, I will apply those same standards this month. And by any criteria, this month’s restaurant is the bee’s knees.
The focus of my current adoration is the Downtown Café located in the Nepo Quad on Plaridel St. in Santo Rosario, Angeles City (directly across the street from Starbucks). When you enter the restaurant, you are greeted by a wooden island that holds Chef Claude’s jarred goods, “Claude’9.” Items include fermented shrimp rice, crab fat and pickled cherry tomatoes. For those who do not know who Chef Claude Tayag is, he and his wife Maryann are behind the famous Bale Dutung restaurant. Bale Dutung was featured on Anthony Bourdain’s show “No Reservations” and is often a stop for serious foodies. Now if that does not get you excited, I don’t know what will. Having a world-renowned chef influencing your lunch is absolutely peachy keen.
When you walk into the Downtown Café for the first time you can’t help but give it the ol’ eyeball. The interior looks like you stepped into an old-school diner, ya dig? The floors are black and white checkerboard, which complements the seafoam green retro wall color. Placed on the left side of the restaurant is a vintage, still functioning jukebox full of 45’s. While I was there I was surprised to see the staff putting coins in to keep the music playing. The back wall is lined with Coca-Cola memorabilia, dishes and porcelain plates. The whole vibe made me wish that the jukebox would skip a beat so The Fonze would appear and give it the business. If you are a newbie to Philippine cuisine, the staff is helpful and the photos really help when deciding.
For appetizers, they are separated by cold and hot. Cold Appetizers consist of Tuna Kinilaw, Chinilaw, and Ensaladang Pako. Your hot appetizers include Lumpiang Hubad (Green Papaya), KBL Salad, Bringhe na may Tutong (Pampango Fiesta Rice), Begucan Pititian, Trianggulos (Samosas), Lumpiang Ubod, and Ginataang Kuhol (Snails in coconut milk). Prices range from P150 to P225.
House specialties include, Steamed Hito Taosi (Catfish), Sarsiadong Bihod (Tilapia), Burong Hipon, Pork Sisig, Binagoongan Tenga ng Baboy (Pig Ears), Paksiw na Lechon, Pork Belly Humba, Pork Belly Adobo Confit, Bagnetta, Beef Kare-Kare, Bulalo and Beef Shank Caldereta. Prices are from P220 to P650.
Other items that are listed on their menu are Duck Lemongrass Confit, Crispy Aromatic Duckling, Squid ink Rice with Calamares, Talangka Rice with Crablets, and Ilocano Surf and Turf. Prices for this dishes are P250 to P680.
Desserts. When I was in there every table was having Halo-Halo served in a soda-shop style milkshake glass, I had to ask the staff “What are they having?!” It looked amazing. For desserts, they also have Tibok Tibok (milk pudding), Claude’s Buco Pandan, Ice Lollies. P90 to P120.
I started the meal with a Lechon Taco, which had pulled, crisp lechon with Thai basil, coriander sauce and kimchi. It made quite the tasty treat to get things off and running to a good start. I then moved on to the Pork Sisig, made with pork ears and liver grilled and served in a sizzling skillet. Despite my disclaimer in the beginning, I’ve eaten enough sisig at this point to have a good sense of when it’s done right. This had that perfect mixture of crispy pork bits, caramelized drippings, spicy peppers and tangy kalamansi, all rounded out with the smooth texture of liver. It was truly a wonderful execution of the Angeles City staple.
My starters were then followed up by another Kapampangan staple, Beef Kare-Kare. This one was made with Australian Oxtail and beef tripe in a real peanut sauce, rounded out with beans, eggplant, and sliced banana flower. Of course, this boss dish is paired with a generous serving of rice, but in my typical low-carb manner I gave it a go without the rice. Delicious all the same!
Despite being stuffed to the gills at this point, I took one for the team (that’s you, reader) and persevered through yet another entrée. Thank you for that, because the grand finale of this meal was the Crispy Aromatic Duckling. Half of a spring duck is flavored in their house, 9-spice dry rub, steamed, and then fried to a crisp finish. The duck is then served with mango salsa, plum sauce, and delicate, Chinese-style pancakes. I’m quite particular about duck. It needs to be moist, with the fat melting and the skin crisp to really shine. The chef nailed it. The duck was among the best I have ever had, anywhere, at any price. Truly a remarkable dish that I honestly wasn’t expecting. After that performance, I will definitely be back to try their Duck Lemongrass Confit sometime soon, Daddy-O!
I must admit that it took a nudge from some friends to get me to drive over to Nepo and give Downtown Café it’s due. But after I did, I was sitting in fat city. The food was superb, the décor fun, and the service unbelievably attentive. So throw on some crazy threads, crank up your fastest machine, and punch it on over to Downtown Café. As Petula Clark sang, “So maybe I'll see you there. We can forget all our troubles, forget all our cares. So go downtown, things'll be great when you're Downtown, don't wait a minute for, Downtown, everything's waiting for you.” Righto.