Should you fall asleep while going around Metro Manila, and wake up in the middle of Escriva Street in the sideskirts of the Ortigas business district, you might be inclined to check if you’re still in the Philippines. I haven’t been to this side street for quite a while, but I don’t remember it to be a place that comes to life during weekends back in the mid-200o’s, the last time I could recall passing by the place during evening.
I had very recently returned to Escriva one weekend evening, and the place was no longer as sleepy as I seemed to remember it. Brightly lit signages now illuminate the street at night…however…it’s not in English. Signs in Hangul now line the length of the street (and some don’t even have English translations), you might think you’re in some back street in Seoul, if you were to pass out somewhere and suddenly regain consciousness there.
We were looking for good a Korean restaurant that evening, and research on the net led us to a place along the street called Jang Ga Nae. As we turned the corner at Escriva, I was worried we wouldn’t find it since many of the restaurants there had names written only in the Hangul alphabet, but thankfully this one was also written in English letters. It was a bit farther away from the the main street (Shaw Boulevard) than the others though.
Jang Ga Nae was a simple place. It is large yes – it can seat a lot of people, but it definitely is not fancy. It gives the feel of a large “mom and pop” store , and it does look like the family owning it is running it directly – manning the counters and supervising the dining floor. Food is served in melaware, unless it requires a pot or a hot plate, and the silverware and glasses are as basic as they get…definitely not Gangnam-style (Gangnam is a posh and expensive district in Seoul).
The food though, is surprisingly good. The place itself was almost full when we went in, with a good mix of Koreans and Filipinos, and no wonder. Like any Korean meal, they served us the “banchan” (side dishes) first, but here it seems like they serve banchan with a vengeance. I haven’t seen any place in the country more generous with their servings of the little dishes. Just treat banchan as what it is though – side dishes that accompany the main meal – and not as hors d’oeuvres, otherwise no banchan in the world will ever be enough.
It didn’t take a lot of time though before our main orders arrived. Service in the restaurant is actually pretty quick, given the number of diners they were serving that evening (there were barely any empty seats). Their staff are also fast, attentive and “nice” to the customers, and don’t make you feel like you owe them for their service.
We ordered the our usual selection of “safe” Korean dishes – Galbi Tang (beef stew), Japchae (glass noodles), and Sam Kyup Sal (grilled pork). But since I wanted something a bit spicy that evening, we added Ojingoh Bokkum (spicy squid).
The Japchae was as good as any (it’s hard to find Japchae that we won’t like), but what I consider the highlights are the Galbi Tang and the Sam Kyup Sal. The Galbi Tang (or Kalbi Tang in some places) was very tender, and the soup and meat were very flavorful. It was almost like eating a perfectly cooked Filipino “bulalo”, but without the bone marrow and with some more flavorings in the soup. The Sam Kyup Sal was also really really good. Each strip of meat was cooked just about right, not raw yet not dry, and each bite seemed to coat the tongue with a subtle but delightful flavor. What made it even better was that apart from the lettuce (which you wrap around the meat ), they also have mint leaves, giving a refreshing aftertaste to each mouthful. They are also the only Korean resto I know that “refills” your plate of lettuce once you run out. The spicy squid was also good, though not particularly something to die for. It is however a good choice if you crave for some heat in the mouth.
Overall, I would say this would definitely NOT be that last time we’d visit this place. In terms of quality of service, the place could run rings around some large mall based restaurants which charge almost double the price. The place is also pretty approachable for a “real” Korean restaurant. A lot of Filipinos still find the “real” ones intimidating, especially where there’s no English signage, but Jang Ga Nae hits the right balance between giving the “authentic” feel while still being approachable for the average “pinoy”, and their local staff will make you feel right at home the moment you open their door. And the food, yes the food, is just so good – it turned our family into instant fans. And, best of all, all of that came at a price that would make dining at a mall look ridiculously extravagant. This is dining, Escriva-style.
*Photos taken October 2012, with Olympus E420 and Zuiko 14-54mm f2.8-3.5.