Two things come into my mind when you say Japan. One is the strong tradition that brought the world the bushido code, the samurai, the art of ikebana and zen buddhism, among others. The other is the young and high-tech culture that gave us the anime, the manga and on the other end, the San Rio gang. Japan does have a slightly noticeable influence here in the Philippines, and you can see places that try to show hints of the former, but not so much of the latter (unless maybe if you’re a regular at one of those comicons.)
Manila is no stranger to Japanese-themed restaurants and there’s a whole bunch of them, with varying levels of authenticity. All of them however, have a certain “uniformity” in their feel, but there’s one that seems to be a distant outlier. Sango Burger, in Makati, may break whatever stereotypes you have for what a Japanese restaurant should be.
I’ve only been to Sango thrice, but that’s because their locations are just out of the way from where we usually go on weekends. Their original store was along Amorsolo street at the boundaries of the Makati CBD, within walking distance from Little Tokyo, a cluster of small Japanse restaurants famous for their authentic Japanese menus. The location feels a bit deserted on weekends, and there’s a bit of “sleaziness” in the area due to the presence of some clubs nearby…it’s not your typical weekend family destination, for short.
Their second, and much newer location is at the Powerplant Mall in Makati’s Rockwell Center. It’s much more accesible and “family friendly”, but I wouldn’t be surprised if you go there and don’t find it. It’s hidden in a corner that could be accessed only from the outside, on a side that does not get a lot of foot or vehicular traffic. Not the most ideal place, but I guess it highlights even more the word “niche” in this niche market restaurant.
You won’t find any maki or agedashi tofu in either location, instead what you’ll get is fusion, mixing Japanese elements with Western concepts, like tonkatsu on a burger. What I like even more is the selection of drinks, which include some that you’d be pressed hard to find anywhere else in this country, like Honey Dew Soda. Combine that with a modern look, a lot of contemporary Japanese material (e.g. Magazines, Comics and a few other stuff you’d normally associate with the youthful side of Japan), and even a robotic toilet, then you can start fantasizing about being somewhere in modern day Nippon. It’s not really the place for you if you have indrestuctible loyalty to true Japanese cuisine, but for all the “quirkiness” and “uniqueness” (and their is good too, otherwise there’s no reason whatsoever for us to go out of the way for it thrice), Sango sits high on my “must-try” list.
*all photos taken with a Samsung smartphone, last January 2012.