Food

Modern Southeast Asian flair goes full-on tiki in Papa Loa

The concept feels slightly hokey, but the food and drinks are stellar and, because we can't help ourselves, so is the poke.
IMAGE Jericho San Miguel
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The theme was a mix-and-match right from the get-go, taking its cue from Japan's dance-hall craze where DJs marry hip hop and reggae to amp up the local bar scene. This particular crossover is consistent throughout Papa Loa—from the Japanese imagery to the Caribbean undertones—and it sets the stage for a unique kind of dining experience, at least on this side of Bonifacio Global City. Here, an understated but powerful philosophy reigns: anything goes.


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The tiki bar-inspired hangout is brought to us by Chef Iñigo Castillo, Andrew Garcia, Borgy Manotoc, and Raj Sadhwani (Black Olive, The Distillery). "'Papa Loa' is a voodoo term," explains the chef. "'Papa' means "priest" while "loa" means "spirit." This place is all about the connecting the spirit world with our own. You can come here and, well, get possessed."

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We can imagine your brows furrowing at the thought, but the menu does put you on some sort of trance. "It follows the izakaya style of dining, so small plates are key," Chef Iñigo says. "It’s designed to carry the lightest to the heaviest meals." Chef-driven, as is the usual practice nowadays. Hints of his personality show up in his unconventional presentations. "I’ve taken what I know as a Filipino. All my dishes have a bit of that influence."


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The Coconut & Miso Pudding is a glaring example. A classic celebration of Southeast Asian flavors, it's Filipino, Thai, and Japanese in one go; and eating it all at once is the only way to understand the wild collision of saltwater streusel, caramel sauce, and icy, sour citrus granita, with just a tinge of miso and umami. It's hard to pick out just one component that stands out. Chef Iñigo recommend to enjoy things with a cocktail to really even out the tastes of the dishes. 

Mixologist Kath Eckstein Cornista came up with Papa Loa's line of inventive, beach-inspired cocktails. A Hawaiian playlist on Spotify served as the inspiration in her quest to craft the bar's exclusive mixes. What followed thereafter is an impressive bevy of drinks with refreshing touches and unexpected twists that you won't find elsewhere.

Start off with the Little Grass Skirt, a low-calorie cocktail made from gluten-free vodka, orange zest, cucumber, apple cider, and an unconventional addition: sesame oil. The drink pairs well with a cold item on the menu, and the Poke, a hodgepodge of tuna, avocado, chili, and crispy wantons, makes for a good icebreaker to the meal.

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Beef, fish, eggplant


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Kimchi Pineapple Rice


Poke


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Coconut and Miso Pudding

After the poke, you can either graduate to a Katsu Bun, a tight bundle of chicken cutlet and cabbage slaw, or ease your way to a skewer. The eggplant, in particular, is a crowd favorite, but it also comes in fish and beef options.

"I took a lot of inspiration from Southeast Asian flavors because I spent 10 years in Australia where these influences are especially strong,” Chef Iñigo says. “The trend in Australia now is all these small plates that serve fresh, vibrant food that’s light but not cloying. I decided to bring those in here.”

If you are in the mood for something more filling, however, the Kimchi Pineapple Rice, an all-in-one masterpiece, is a fail-safe. The dish—best paired with the salmon aburi—hits the mark thanks to the homemade kimchi mix that perfectly matches the sweet pineapple bits and salty crispy dilis. Wash down each bite with a sip of Woosah Your Noggin, an ingenious cocktail made from brewed jasmine tea, vodka, fresh calamansi juice, and Angostura bitters, or the Avalanche, a quirky fishbowl cocktail that strikes a distinct balance between sweet (calamansi mangosteen syrup and guava juice), and strong (Kraken black-spiced rum, Havana rum, and Ungava gin) end notes.

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Green Island Moon


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Avalanche


Little Grsas Skirt

In the buzzing local dining scene where experimentation has become a common theme, Chef Iñigo remains grounded on the importance of finding familiarity in each bite. “Each dish has to make sense, to have a reason,” he says. “Nowadays, the world is so much smaller and all our cultures are coming together. We appreciate this and we’re excited to play a part in it. The outlook remains rosy.”

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