REVIEW: My Roots Grew Deeper at Cafe de Manila

Ginataang Gulay
This dish, ginataang gulay, reminded me why I love this job. Image: Kyle Young

Cafe de Manila, on Reno’s Vassar Street between Harvard Way and Kietzke Lane, serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner. They specialize in Filipino cuisine, but also dabble in some American and international fare.

Upon entering Cafe de Manila with my grandma Rosie, I immediately felt that the experience ahead would not be typical. The décor and general ambience in the restaurant were somehow romantic, elegant, casual, foreign, familiar, and chock-full of character. The staff greeted us with smiles and showed us to a booth. My eyes darted about the restaurant, taking in its wonderfully distinct aesthetic while Rosie regaled me with stories of life in Tacloban.

From Where Do I Come?

Philippines Map
This map of the Philippines dawns every menu. Can you spot Tacloban? Image: Kyle Young.

The maternal side of my family hails from the city Tacloban on the island of Leyte in the Philippines. Growing up, my maternal grandmother, Rose Marie, Rosie for short, told me stories of how our family was wealthy in the Philippines to the degree that we had a personal chef before WWII. I only mention this detail, because imagining that I come from opulent roots is so entirely foreign to me. I always had a safe home with food to eat growing up, but I wouldn’t call it a life of excess. Due to the Japanese occupation of the Philippines during WWII, I’ve long associated the Southeast Asian island nation with danger and intrigue.

Rosie, who turns 80 years old this year, used to tell me stories of how she had to flee the Japanese Empire, running through the jungle for her life. I distinctly remember a story about our family chef who was captured by Japanese forces. Japanese soldiers sought the whereabouts of my family who resisted the occupation as guerilla fighters. The soldiers buried our chef to his neck in the jungle, and tortured him with jungle ants hoping to ascertain the whereabouts of my family. Our chef not only withheld the location of our family, he also later escaped and grew to live a full life.

Stories like this, stories of horror, caused Rosie unfathomable hardship and pain. I’m filled with rage and heartbreak when I think about the sacrifices my family made. The stories weren’t all horrific, though.

Rosie also told me of the fun she had swimming in the ocean at night with family and friends. She spoke of incredible foods flavored with lemons and vinegar. She recalled the first time she saw an American soldier.

The first truly pale face Rosie saw was that of a red-headed American soldier. Rosie, having never seen a person with the soldier’s appearance, thought that he was an angel there to liberate her and her people. She was right.

Though allied forces defeated the Japanese by 1945, it’s estimated that more than one million Filipinos died defending their homes, families, and culture.

Growing Up Mixed-Race

My knowledge of my Filipino heritage is limited, but something I hold in high regard. My mom is 75 percent Filipina and 25 percent Caucasian and my dad is 100 percent Caucasian. If I’m not mistaken, that makes me approximately 37.5 percent Filipino and approximately 62.5 percent Caucasian (mostly British and Irish).

I bring up the recipe for my ethnic origins because as a mixed-race person, it’s been a lifelong topic of discussion. For many years, I thought I was half Filipino. Many will ask, but how can you not know your exact origins? Rosie ethnically identifies as Filipina, despite the fact that she is only half. She grew up in the Philippines, and her ethnic identify was born there. Consequently, when people ask her, ‘what is she’, she says Filipina. This led to me believing that my mom is full Filipina, making me half. It wasn’t until I wanted to know my origins with more specificity that I discovered my more precise genetic makeup.

Why bring up my ethnicity at all? There is an unusual racism, or at least bias, that haunts mixed-race individuals. People get really concerned about whether you are ‘one of us’ or ‘one of them.’ Because my skin is light and I grew up in the United States, I’ve often felt like I’m unwelcome to celebrate my Filipino ancestry. I don’t speak Tagalog, Visaya, or one of the many other languages spoken in the Philippines.

Over the years, I heard about other mixed-race friends getting called white-washed, Oreos, Twinkies, and other puerile slurs. I was somewhat darkly tickled to learn that there’s a racial slur for someone of my heritage: “You’ve got a touch of the tar brush.” According to Wikipedia, this slur denotes: “Real or suspected African or Asian distant ancestry in a person of predominantly Caucasian ancestry.” Aren’t racists creative?

Driving this ethno-cultural train back towards the food, I get my chops busted by Filipinos when I say that I enjoy cooking Filipino mainstays like lumpia and chicken adobo. I always get that side eye like, “Maybe you can cook it, but you cook it the white way.” I’ve often heard from Filipinos that I am ‘mestizo’, mixed-race, not Filipino.

Is my ethno-cultural identity something I get to decide? Is it my outward appearance upon which I must rely? Maybe my genome as described by 23andMe is the better route. Ultimately, I call myself an American with Filipino, British, and Irish roots who eats whatever tastes good. Independent of my appearance and ancestry, I can unequivocally say, the food at Cafe de Manila tastes very, very good.

Eating My Way into a Culture

Tapsilog
This dish, tapsilog, gets brought together with white vinegar. Image: Kyle Young

I’m not an expert on Filipino culture, Filipino food, or even my own Filipinosity. I do know, though, that I enjoy trying new foods and trying to better understand myself and the world. Cafe de Manila is a wonderful restaurant that offered me insights into all three.

The menu is robust with tempting dishes on each page. Before entering the restaurant, I knew that culinary Green Berets from Yelp, the RNR, and the RGJ had already written about many of the dishes served at Cafe de Manila. If I’m honest, I approached reviewing a Filipino restaurant with trepidation, because I feel extra pressure to say something meaningful about the culture that runs through my veins.

Rosie explained that many of the dishes on the menu seemed foreign to her because the dishes come from Manila, whereas she comes from Tacloban. Before that moment, I didn’t realize that 360 miles, the distance between the two cities, could create such distinct types of food and language. Rosie did find something familiar, though, and it just happened to be her favorite dish: ginataang gulay.

Rosie often laments that she misses the Philippines. She hasn’t been back in many years. It made me really happy to see her face light up when she saw that she could order the ginataang gulay ($8.95). The dish is composed of mixed vegetables with pork simmered in coconut milk and shrimp paste.

I ordered the tapsilog ($7.95) and sinigang pork ($8.95). The tapsilog, a traditional Filipino breakfast, called out to me. The dish is composed of beef strips, garlic fried rice, fried eggs, and fresh tomatoes and cucumber. The rice has tons of fried garlic bits in it. Some people might find the strong garlic flavor off-putting, but I adored it. One of my qualms about the restaurants in Reno is that restauranteurs are afraid of strongly flavored foods. The beef was a bit tough and had flavors of soy sauce and black pepper. The dish gets magnificently brought together with the addition of a side of white vinegar. Biting into yolk, hyper-garlicky rice, and chewy beef with the vigorous acidity of white vinegar was unforgettable. Vinegar, not just in Tobasco, will surely now be an integral part of my breakfasts in the future.

The sinigang pork was another easy choice. According to the menu, the tamarind soup includes pork, eggplant, green beans, daikon radish, and bok choy. The dish served was slightly different, but equally as good. In my particular meal, I saw heatless, whole green chilies of an unknown variety, pork ribs, tomatoes, whole okra spears, green beans, daikon slices, bok choy, and no eggplant. The soup was salty, sour, and savory with fish sauce and tamarind as prominent flavors. I had never seen so many whole veggies in a soup, and I loved it. The pork was fall-apart tender. The variety of vegetables offered fun textures, especially the large pieces of okra.

The crown jewel of the meal was Rosie’s selection, the ginataang gulay. A description of mixed vegetables, pork, coconut milk, and shrimp paste does not fully describe the wonder contained therein. The vegetables included bitter melon, eggplant, green beans, Serrano chilies, and what appeared to be large chunks of acorn squash. Also included was what appeared to be Chinese-esque sausage, braised pork, coconut milk, and shrimp paste. No doubt that many Americans will shy away from the strong flavor of shrimp paste, but executed well, as it is at Cafe de Manila, it adds a robust amount of complex flavor without becoming ‘fishy.’ The thick, creamy sauce, reminded me a bit of a Thai curry. Rosie insisted that steamed rice is a critical side for the meal.

Many chefs laud the best dishes as having a multitude of dynamic flavors and textures. In my many culinary travels around Reno, I’ve never tasted anything so dynamically flavored and textured as the ginataang gulay. It was remarkable.

Loida Parker, restaurant manager, very graciously shared a bit of her time with us before our food arrived. The staff at Cafe de Manila was tending to a back-room party as well as the guests in the main dining area where we were. Every employee seemed to take care of every table by answering questions, running food out, and chatting with guests as time permitted.

My experience at Cafe de Manila would have been enjoyable had I gone by myself, but joining my grandma Rosie there made it an experience I’ll never forget. No one is born without a context, a heritage. Your roots need not define you exclusively, but exploring them may open your eyes to the sacrifices your family made to allow you to live.

Cafe de Manila is located at 1575 Vassar Street in Reno. Visit them online at cafedemanilareno.com. They are available for private parties and catering in addition to their daily restaurant offerings. The restaurant is open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. and open on Sundays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Call them at 775-329-9900.

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Kyle Young
About Kyle Young 44 Articles
Kyle Young is a local freelance writer. He offers content writing, blog posts, copywriting, and editing services. His current writing foci are food, cooking, and the oddities native to Reno, Sparks, and Tahoe. He graduated from the University of Nevada, Reno with a bachelor’s degree in English writing. He gained some food chops while working as a dishwasher, line-cook, and food-truck operator. He learned quality control, imports/exports, and logistics at a local spice and seasoning manufacturer. When not hustling as a writer, he plays Scrabble, cooks, wrangles three pups, and attends live music/comedy with his fiancé.