I asked my long time Japanese foodie friend Atsushi to guest post and write about his favorite Japanese restaurant in Manila. Enjoy this educational post about Japanese food in Manila!
Being a Japanese living in the Philippines, the most frequently asked question is "Where's the best Japanese restaurant".
As it sounds like an easy question, it's a very difficult one. Because Japanese cuisine is very diverse.
We have the authentic Japanese dishes like Sushi, Sashimi, Tempura, Udon and Soba noodles as well as dishes originated from other countries that we made it our own such as Tonkatsu, Curry, Ramen, Spaghetti and the likes.
In Japan, most restaurants carry a specialty. Meaning, you don't find Sushi in a Ramen house, just like you don't find Tempura in a Curry house. They're considered a totally different genre that doesn't mix. The preparation is different and the equipment required in the kitchen are different. Thus, the chef is trained differently.
There are, in fact, restaurants that offer most of what you call Japanese dishes. But in Japan, they are mostly canteens, diner or eateries that do not specialize in any particular genre. Most of these restaurants are either run by a family or a company that prepares everything in the central kitchen, pre-cooked and instantly prepared.
And in many restaurants that call themselves a "Japanese restaurant" outside Japan, offers mostly everything. This is to cater all customers who look for Japanese dishes.
I am in no way against them. But, as a consumer who are new to Japanese cuisine, I must suggest that it is important to understand the true essence of Japanese dishes and how it is really prepared to enjoy them.
For example, preparation of Ramen starts by making the soup broth that takes more than half a day. The noodles alone are prepared from a different mixture of fine ingredients. Not to mention the thickness and hardness of the noodles, which are made different for specific soup base.
People get attracted to the word "authentic". But what is an authentic Japanese restaurant? If I'd mention my opinion, a real authentic Japanese restaurant (or any other cuisine in that matter) wouldn't call themselves "authentic". When I call the restaurant "authentic", that means the menu and its recipe are created by a Japanese chef, properly trained by a master. In most of these restaurants, you will see a Japanese staff in the kitchen and/or in the service area. They are there to keep control of the food they prepare for you and to maintain the Japanese standard of service.
Here are my suggestions according to category. Because Japanese food is so diverse, it's not easy to pick a few and say they're the "best". So I hope you read through just as I suggest.
FINE DINING CATEGORY
INAGIKU, Shangri-la Makati
MAGOSABURO, Fort Global City
My definition of "fine dining" is a total package. These restaurants may or may not specialize in a specific dish, but they offer the atmosphere and the taste of true Japan.
A notable restaurant among my recommendations is Magosaburo. Established in 2009 and made famous in Singapore, the local branch opened in 2013. It's probably one of the most expensive Japanese restaurants in the Philippines that is located outside a 5 star hotel. But there are many reasons for you to visit. If you are after genuine Japanese beef, Magosaburo is the place to be.
AFFORDABLE DINING CATEGORY
Nihonbashi Tei, Makati City
If there is a fine dining category, there should be an affordable dining category. At NihonbashiTei, you'll find most dishes at a very affordable price. It's a good place to learn the many varieties that the Japanese cuisine offer. They've got many private rooms, so I recommend this place for a big group with a huge appetite.
SUSHI SASHIMI CATEGORY
Tsukiji, Pasay Road, Makati City
Tsumura, Salcedo Village, Makati City
For Japanese food enthusiasts in Manila, Tsukiji is a name that can't be ignored. Since it opened in 1989, It's non-compromise concept to provide the best of Japanese cuisine is reflected in its price. It first became popular among businessmen to accommodate guests.
Tsumura in Salcedo Village is not easy to find for first time visitors as it's located on the 2nd floor of an office building. But once you try their selection of fresh Sushi and Sashimi, without doubt you will want to return for more.
Other notable restaurants for Sushi/Sashimi are Mangetsu for its excellent selection and presentation. Nihonbashi Tei also offers a budget selection.
Where ever you'd be dining, make sure the master sushi chef is visible and present to serve you.
Gyumon, Makati City
Kanyoen, Cebu City
While Gyukaku, probably the only Japanese franchised yakiniku restaurant opened in 2013 in Fort Global City, my choice for Yakiniku in Metro Manila is still Gyumon. Although locally established, they offer everything what you find in a Yakiniku restaurant in Japan. You'll see many tables occupied by Japanese businessmen and families, which is a good sign for a Japanese restaurant.
And when visiting Cebu, one can't leave without trying Kanyoen. A Japanese couple run Yakiniku restaurant in the Visayas is probably the best Yakiniku restaurant in the Philippines.
After a locally established "Yabu" opened its doors in SM MegaMall on 2011 to offer the Japanese style deep fried pork loin experience to the foodies in the metro, Japanese franchises such as Saboten, Bairin, Katsusora and the rest followed. With its location, advertising hype, and the franchiser's backup, they are all meant to be successful.
But yet, my best recommendation is Tonkatsuya for it's very affordable, but no compromised taste for its basic Tonkatsu set, which only costs PhP200. They don't offer the eat-all-you-can rice and salad, but even you do order extra servings, it's still much more affordable than the other Tonkatsu restaurants you find.
Sometimes, we Japanese crave for Japanese fusion pastas. Thanks to Yomenya Goemon for opening in Manila. The wide selection of what we call a Japanese inspired pasta and pizza could only be found here.
Although they've got the traditional Italian selection, why not try some Japanese inspired dishes from its menu. My recommendation is the Mentaiko (seasoned cod roe) Pasta, which you will not find in any other Italian restaurant.
Tamagoya's Shoyu Ramen, Antipolo, Rizal
Urameshiya's Emma Ramen, Little Tokyo, Makati City
Ramen Daisho's Miso Ramen, Shaw Blvd., Mandaluyong City
When I was told by Anton to check out this ramen house in Antipolo, I was a bit skeptic. But seeing the photos of the interior which looked similar to that of a Japanese Ramen house setup, I thought of taking the long ride to visit Tamagoya. After all the Ramen houses, whether authentic or not, franchised or not popping up in the metro, I still have my craving for the very basic taste of the Shoyu Ramen.
Surprisingly, you'll have to fall in line during lunchtime on weekends, so get there early to secure your table/seats.
I always thought Filipinos don't prefer spicy food. But to my surprise, I hear requests for Tan Tan Men to be added in our menu at Ramen Daisho (disclosure: author is one of the owners of Ramen Daisho). Tan Tan Men as the name implies is probably the closest Ramen variety to the original from China. Considering that, my preference for Tan Tan Men is this small Chinese restaurant near A-Venue. But when I want spicy ramen, the only place I go to is Urameshiya, located in Little Tokyo, Makati City. They're not a Ramen house, but offers this spicy ramen called "Emma Ramen" which stands for devil's ramen. They offer a chili level from 1 to 20. After trying it all the way up to 20, I can say that the amount of chili doesn't really mean the spiciness. It's just got lots of chili on it.
My choice of Ramen has always been Shoyu or Tonkotsu. But when I had the chance to try Ukokkei Ron's Miso Ramen, it blew my mind! And I say that because I never liked Miso Ramen. But the Miso Ramen in Ukokkei Ron was a totally different experience, which didn't taste like noodles in miso soup. The soup base is a mix of 3 different soybean paste, selected from all over Japan.
Ramen Daisho imports the same sauce base made by the same Master Chef Funatsu, who created the recipe. And it even made it better by placing all the toppings on it, which includes the seasoned egg.
FAST FOOD CATEGORY
Yoshinoya's Beef Bowl
Unfortunately, the Philippines has not seen much of the Japanese fast food chains yet. Unlike in neighboring countries like in HongKong, Taiwan, Singapore and Thailand, you'll find Mos Burger (hamburger), Gindaco (Takoyaki), etc.
Yoshinoya with more than 1,600 branches in over 10 countries world wide landed in Manila on 2001. Their motto in Japan is "Quick, Affordable and Delicious". Their speciality, the simple beef bowl, is probably one of the most popular fast food in Japan.
Take note that they specialize in beef bowl. And I'd say to stick to that. In Japan, you don't find Sushi, Ramen, colored teas in their menu. Oh and to those fanatics, take home a "beef only" dish and top it on a Japanese rice with a fresh raw egg yolk. That's how many of us fill up our hungry tummies in Japan, quick.
CURRY RICE CATEGORY
Curry is known to be originated in India. The Japanese style "curry with rice" is said to be arranged from what was found in England. It was first introduced in Japan in 1872, and since then has become one of the most popular comfort food in Japan.
Izumi Curry franchised its way to Manila in 2013. So far, as far as I know, it's the only authentic Japanese style curry house in the Philippines today.
While we wait for the invasion of CoCo Ichibanya into the country, you may also want to try the curry rice in restaurants such as Toki in Fort Global City and Sekitori in Little Tokyo Makati.
UDON AND SOBA CATEGORY
Mangetsu, Jupiter St., Makati City
Sekitori, Little Tokyo, Makati City
Unfortunately, there are no Udon and Soba specialty restaurant in the Philippines as of yet. These restaurants in Japan make their noodles fresh from selected flour and buckwheat.
Mangetsu in Jupiter St. and Sekitori in Little Tokyo, both in Makati are the very few restaurants that make the noodles from scratch (and that means not instant).
While Mangetsu prepares the noodles using a machine, in Sekitori, you can see the staff visible, making the noodles and cutting them in one corner.
OKONOMIYAKI & TAKOYAKI CATEGORY
Kagura, Little Tokyo
From its shape, Okonomiyaki is often described as the Japanese pancake. But it is not a dessert. Rather, it's considered one of Japan's popular staple food.
Most Okonomiyaki restaurants in Japan offers the fun to make your own dish using the hot plate placed at the center of the table. In Kagura, probably the only authentic Okonomiyaki restaurant in the Philippines, have cooks prepare them for you in the open kitchen.
You'll see many tiger objects inside the restaurant like stuffed toys, images, etc. It's because the owner is a big fan of the Osaka Hanshin Tigers baseball team.
On the other hand, Takoyaki is a ball shaped snack, usually made from flour, dried shrimps, bonito flakes, pickled ginger and octopus (which means "tako"), etc.
In the Philippines, Samurai foods made it popular back in the 70's by arranging its ingredients to match the palette of the Filipino's. Today, there are a few franchise kiosks found in shopping malls. But my recommendation is what you find in Hatching Japanese grocery located in Makati City, which is truly genuine. The only downside is that they only offer it during Saturdays and Sundays, while supplies last.
LUNCH SPECIALS CATEGORY
In Japan, most eateries and restaurants offer lunch specials to attract customers. Most of these specials are priced lower than the regular menu. So I'd say, the best way to try the restaurant is to check their lunch specials.
I don't mean to be biased and I don't believe that I am. Ramen Daisho's lunch special is a must for ramen connoisseurs. The P380 (tax inclusive) set comes with a choice of full ramen bowl, a choice of plain rice, curry rice or chahan fried rice, 3 pcs. Gyoza and a salad.
Many restaurants in the Metro offer lunch specials. One of my favorite is Riozen in Fort Global City.
Inagiku, Shangri-la Makati
Umu, Dusithani Hotel, Makati
Teppanyaki lovers will agree that you won't go wrong in any of the Japanese restaurants located in 5 star hotels.
If you're on a budget, I would recommend Kimpura in Greenhills, San Juan or Ogetsu Hime in SM Aura, Fort Global City.
BREAD AND PASTRIES
Jipan, Glorietta, Makati City and MegaMall, Mandaluyong
Happy Cream Puff
Western influences in Japan changed many habits of the Japanese, specially during the rapid economic growth in the 60s and the 70s. As Japanese is known to adapt mostly everything from abroad and to make it its own, we did that too with bread and pastries.
In the Philippines, Jipan was the very first Japanese bakery that went commercial in shopping centers. They also offer dishes to eat in, but I would strongly suggest to try their Monroe bread and other funky pastries that you will not see in other shops. There are other similar bakeries, but Jipan is truly genuine. Perhaps, you'd like to greet and ask for suggestions when you see the Japanese lady behind the counter, who is at times in the Glorietta branch.
Happy Cream Puff specializes in cream puffs or "choux ‡ la crËme" as how the French call them. In Japan, we call it "shu-cream" similar to how it's called in France. The not-so-very-sweet pastries are gaining grounds in the metro as it already expanded to 3 branches including the latest in Shangri-la Mall. I like buying the mini choux's which could also be a great gift.
How many of these restaurants have you tried so far?
I believe that "food is a personal preference". Once my friend said that a person's palette is made from what you ate growing up. But before you come to a conclusion that a specific restaurant is best, I'd recommend you to try the others to compare.
I hope you'll enjoy the Japanese dishes in restaurants available here in Metro Manila and in other places throughout the country.
ABOUT ATSUSHI MATSUURA
A self described foodie first came to the Philippines in 1971 with his father who worked as a diplomat. In the Philippines, he studied in the Manila Japanese School and the International School Manila. Also a semi-retired musician, his career includes playing with "The Dawn" which made him perform all over the country and in the U.S. in 2001. He was in Manhattan when the 9/11 tragedy happened. He is currently an IT consultant and also a director of Daisho.Global, Inc., franchiser of Ramen Daisho. Although living in the Philippines for most of his life, he can't survive without having Japanese food at least 3 days a week.
Live an Awesome Life,
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P.S. I'm looking for a foreign foodie national based in Manila who can write a guest post about the best restaurants of their particular cuisine in Manila. Please email me firstname.lastname@example.org or text me 0917- 5683627 if you are interested or if you can recommend someone.