What exactly is Filipino food? That was question numero uno when I saw an old classmate post photos on her Facebook of Filipino food. It was her birthday, and if memory serves me well, her sister’s boyfriend’s family restaurant happened to be Manila Grill Express of north Edmonton. This also happens to be my co-worker’s fiance’s cousin’s sister’s boyfriend. Edmonton is way too small. So I asked my co-worker… what should I be ordering? She just shrugged and said she really didn’t know. Despite our knowledge of all things Asian food, from the Vietnam’s pho to Thailand’s pad thai to Japan’s sushi and ramen, Filipino food is clearly under the radar here. So I invited Jody (new north Edmonton foodie friend) to join me in my culinary exploration of Filipino food.
Located in the same parking lot as Lucky Supermarket and directly across from Golden Bee BBQ HK Cafe, it’s a little hidden from the streets. I didn’t even know it was there and I live relatively close by!
It’s a pretty small restaurant, seating maybe 40 or so seats, and a long counter suggests that take-out is common for Manila Grill Express.
Here’s the menu, and to be honest, everything sounded delicious! Hints of other Asian cultures in their menu, such as the lemongrass chicken and spring rolls, but all their dishes were pretty new to both Jody and I. Took us awhile to figure out what to order, and with the help of our lovely server, we narrowed it down to four dishes… and dessert… for the two of us. Need I mention this was one of my first dinners out with Jody? I like her. She over orders! I’m an enabler to the over-order-er. More food to try and a lunch for the next day!
First dish to come out was the Bicol Express, a dish highly recommended by our server. Bicol is one of seventeen regions in the Phillipines, and unlike the other regions, they enjoy a little spice in their dishes! Named after a passenger train from Manila, capital of the Phillipines, to Bicol, the idea is that you’ll run like a train to find some water! Obviously there are variants, and this might have been one of them as I didn’t find it too spicy at all! The sauce was coconut milk based, which was really reminiscent of Thai food. Eggplants and green beans served as the mainstay of the dish, but pieces of lechon kawali (deep fried pork belly) made the dish hearty and dangerously addictive. Yum!
Two more dishes rolled out as we munched away on the Bicol Express and side orders of rice. The chicken adobo is what I would call the Phillipine’s signature dish as it’s the only dish that I could distinguish as Filipino. Spaniards gave this Filipino sauce the name, and coincidentally, it also uses vinegar as its European predecessor even though it was independent of its influence. In combination with soy sauce and garlic, it’s a marinade used with a pork or chicken. I was a little underwhelmed by the dish and wasn’t quite sure if that’s Manila Grill Express’ fault or just the overall cuisine. It tasted quite simple to me, even with the vinegar as a prominent flavor. The meat platter was a better success, a combination of grilled chicken, pork and beef. Our favorite was the pork, nice and tender, and very similar to Vietnamese grilled meats found in vermicelli bowls. The side of spinach that came along with the meats were I think more for decor, as the salsa was overly seasoned, even for my salty palate.
The pièce de résistance arrived last, a whole deep-fried pork leg, “crispy pata”. Oh boy. We were so perplexed on how to tackle it that our server took it to the back to cut it for us. We must have been really obvious! Delicious! Not one bit of this was healthy at all, but mmm, you can’t go wrong with a deep-fried pork leg! Similar seasoning as the deep-fried pork belly of the Bicol Express, but clearly less fat.
While Jody and I were humming and hawing away through dinner, the restaurant filled up just as quickly as it emptied thereafter. Most were Filipinos, which is always a good sign. I’ve read that as a culture they don’t dine out as much, preferring to have homecooked meals and hosting big family dinners instead. Lots of take-out orders as well. Seemed like almost every table ordered the crispy pata, a family favorite!
I’d like to think we ate at least half of what we ordered but that’s an exaggeration. There was a lot of leftovers for the both of us! That didn’t stop Jody from wanting to try the Halo-Halo though, a dessert of shaved ice, evaporated milk, green beans, sweet potato, and taro ice cream. There’s a good reason why the direct translation means “mix-mix”. Not entirely new to me, as Vietnamese desserts are quite similar with a mix of ice, evaporated mix, a jello or tapioca of sorts, and green bean, but the sweet potato really threw me for a loop. It looked beautiful though, served in a to go cup, probably a hint to us that we ordered too much! The dessert was not overly sweet, creamy, and bits of perfectly cooked sweet potato actually turned out really well! The taro ice cream was a great top off and this was a great way to end our meal. Good call Jody.
We were so engrossed with the dessert and chatting that by the time we were done, we realized we were the last table there. They close at 8pm, and we were there well pass the time and nobody had told us! Our server was so kind and super helpful. Service was excellent as she regular checked up on our table. An open kitchen showed us their clean up for the night. Thank you for the great hospitality Manila Grill Express!
Overall impression? Filipino cuisine is quite simple, they like meat, it’s not spicy like Thai food, and they do not use chopsticks. You learn so much from eating new things! Would I return? Most definitely. That Bicol Express was delicious and the grilled pork easily rivals their Vietnamese counterparts. And you can’t forget the deep-fried pork, although the leg should probably be saved for tables more than 2. I will definitely be back, with either Joe or my family in tow. From what I know, there’s only a handful of Filipino eats in Edmonton: Filistix fusion at the UofA (sadly past my time on campus and I haven’t tried yet), Rolymie Bakery (Millwoods), Summerside Grill (Ellerslie), Fat Jakks (near Chinatown), Pinoy Grill (near Callingwood), and Palabok House (near Southgate). I’ve got a long way to go before I can say I know what Filipino food is, but at least I got a good start at Manila Grill Express! What do you think Edmonton? Am I missing out big time here?Manila Grill Express
13905 127 St NW