Here's What We Think of the First Olive Garden in the Philippines
Remember that scene in the Sonic movie where the U.S. government turns up at James Marsden’s door to offer him a reward for “keeping quiet for recent incidents that never occurred?” He’s handed a document that you think might be a million dollars or a ticket to Mars, or both. But before the big reveal, Marsden’s chiseled face sinks and his voice drops to the floor: It’s an Olive Garden gift card.
His reaction would have baffled my 10-year-old self, sitting on the floor of my tita’s fixer-upper in San Francisco surrounded by countless cousins, manays, manoys, their spouses, their in-laws, and sometimes even the parents of their in-laws. At any given time during those summers in the States, Filipinos related by blood or affinity would gather to eat and watch Full House on TV in my tita’s place. And then the Olive Garden commercial would drift up from the rolling fog and cable cars to our crackling screen. And that, I thought then, was the American dream. It dripped with butter, and came with a never-ending supply of bread.
Despite the summers my family spent in the States, we never ate at an Olive Garden. Denny’s, yes, an Applebee’s at least once. Perhaps to my titos and titas, the Olive Garden slogan, “When you’re here, you’re family,” wasn’t so much an exotic draw as it was a homegrown Filipino M.O. Don’t Filipinos treat everyone like family everywhere? Wasn’t the promise of never-ending food realized in every Filipino kitchen in the Bay Area and beyond? In short, I spent my childhood Olive Garden-less and was resigned to the fact that my entire adult life would be one big Olive Garden lack—until last Friday when I stepped inside my very first Olive Garden (incidentally, the first one in the Philippines).
The interiors were more nuanced and cozier than I remembered them to be in that childhood commercial. The warm, cushioned lime green seats coordinated pleasantly with wooden pendant lights that swayed now and then with the breeze from Manila Bay. And when I was handed the menu, and I read the text between entrée in bold, and Chicken Alfredo in not bold, I almost wept at the all-caps fine print: ALL ENTREES COME WITH OUR NEVER-ENDING FIRST COURSE OF HOUSE SALAD OR CHOICE OF SOUP AND BREADSTICKS (bold mine).
When the breadsticks I had waited decades for came in a folded paper napkin, I suddenly knew what to expect. It was as if the breadsticks in the commercials of old had crossed the Pacific to get a tan in Manila Bay. Each crunchy bite had garlicky goodness, to be sure, but where was the gush of butter, the pillowy softness, the American dream? It was like meeting my college crush after all these years and noticing that what he had gained in muscle, he had lost in substance.
The dishes were homogenous with the fried lasagna resembling the chicken parmigiana the same way my second cousins and I were thick and thin versions of each other all those summers ago in my tita’s kitchen. If my tita had a rotating menu with the same fowl or pork, basted or marinated with soy sauce, peppercorn, and vinegar, it seemed to me that the Olive Garden tasting menu also has its own building blocks: marinara, chicken, and parmigiana. You can’t go wrong with any version of this and the dishes we tried made for good comfort food.
I was prepared to go home burdened by the expectations of the ages when the cocktails came in—the Hibiscus-Oh! in a bed of dry ice was a spectacle in and of itself, smoking from each side like a '50s movie theater. I nursed my Bellini over a long dessert—the fact that the drink was more prosecco than peach puree was alright with me. Those cocktails would have gone well some hours later with a scenic view of Manila Bay at sunset.
In conclusion, come to Olive Garden MOA for cocktail hour. Cocktails will be served with or without dry ice, but always with breadsticks.