We slip into the recently opened Barkada in Central Hong Kong to see what the modern face of Filipino food is all about.
Ok, so it’s fair to say that Filipino food hasn’t exactly been the poster child of Asian cuisine in the past, and that’s more to do with a lack of international exposure we suspect. The islands of the Philippines have, like so many other corners of Southeast Asia, developed their own culinary style and heritage based on what’s available, the seasons, the cultural shifts and the innovation at hand but being able to delve into the authentic Filipino foolscap has, until now, been a little tricky. When was the last time you suggested a date night of Netflix and takeaway adobo? Exactly.
Fortunately, Barkada has opened in Central Hong Kong as a contemporary shot of Filipino colour and innovation. Translating to ‘a group of close friends’ in Tagalog, the new hot spot, located beneath the Mid-Levels escalator, is the creation of hospitality-group-to-watch Singular Concepts (the force behind Tell Camellia, The Daily Tot and our new fav Yurakucho), who have teamed up with the talented (and rather charming) Jen Balisi, a walking encyclopedia of Filipino cuisine and the founder of Indulgent Eats.
While Singular Concepts comes to the new project with plenty of gastronomic experience and innovation, it’s Jen’s input, gleaned from her Filipino-American upbringing, that not only gives the new eatery an authenticity but also that modern jab-right-cross that is needed to get Filipino cuisine into the Hong Kong foodie limelight.
We arrive on a weekday evening and this pint-sized Pinoy hangout is heaving harder than The Bridge mid-Sunday; a backdrop of tropical-esque hip hop sets an unabashedly contemporary tone, one that’s accentuated by plenty of neon, teal and honey-hued wood. A sign bearing the restaurant’s mantra – “Come as strangers, leave as friends” – pretty much sums up the warm welcome. The dining room is snug but that only helps build on that neighbourhood, all’s welcome vibe, while art by Filipino artists grace three walls, the fourth open to the street through floor-to-ceiling French doors.
We start off with a round of cocktails by Singular Concepts’ co-founder and beverage manager (and a guy you know we love), Gagan Gurung and bar manager Rolf Flaminiano, who have put together a libation menu influenced by Filipino flavours with the likes of pandan, ube, calamansi and more.
I opt for the Balikbayan, a refreshing blend of whiskey, apple juice, apple pie moonshine, Fernet Hunter, citrus and mint that truly hits the end-of-a-workday spot. My dining companion, on the other hand, orders an XO Coffee Martini made with coffee candy-infused vodka, Mr Black coffee liqueur, Cream O biscuits, and espresso, a fun take on the caffeine-packed staple.
As our drinks arrive, Jen arrives with Lumpiang Shanghai, crispy spring rolls with chicken, carrot, onion and pineapple chili sauce served in a half Red Horse beer bottle; and Salmon Kinilaw (below), sashimi-grade salmon paired with calamansi, cane vinegar, coconut milk, chili, onion, and fried garlic, and served with crispy rice crackers.
The headliner dish is sisig, a Kapampangan delicacy of pork, soy sauce, calamansi, vinegar, chili, onion, scallions, kewpie mayo, and egg served in a sizzling skillet. Jen has replaced the pig’s face usually used for this iconic Filipino dish with pork belly to make it a little more accessible and pairs it with Garlic Rice, made with white rice or cauliflower for the carb-conscious, and which goes nicely with the garlic silk crispy table oil by A Spark of Madness which adds a Manny Pacquiao-sized uppercut of garlicky goodness to each dish while all but guaranteeing the continuation of your bedroom action drought.
We match our mains with another round of cocktails, this time going with the Banana Cue Old Fashioned, made with caramelised Saba banana-infused bourbon, fino sherry, bitters and chocolate; and the heady La Presas, a curious blend of mezcal, strawberry shrub, Aperol, yellow chartreuse, and citrus that’s a tangy sweet jab in the taste buds.
The sisig is pure comfort food (cue raining Sunday morning and slight hangover), hot, gooey, unami and a little spicy, as are the Spicy Funky Coconut Noodles that come next; the wheat noodles are paired with prawns the size of baby fists, kabocha squash, vegan bagoong coconut-chili sauce, fried garlic, and cilantro, with options for our vegetarian and vegan brothers as well.
In a city packed with tired, plain vanilla hospitality concepts, bold and beautiful Barkada is a breath of spicy garlic-infused air and the much-needed shot of vitality that Cochrane Street sorely needed. We can’t wait to return for their weekend brunch.
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