Hungry Lawyer: Cinta-J dishes up Philippine comfort food on Hong Kong Island

News about the Philippines in Hong Kong is not always the most uplifting. Rescue missions gone awry, domestic helpers mistreated, controversial politicians elected and numerous typhoons dominate headlines. Underappreciated are the Philippines’ natural beauty, growing economy and delicious, homey cuisine.

This is too bad as with more than 150,000 Filipino domestic helpers in the city there is no lack of talent when it comes to preparation of authentic Philippine cuisine. Despite the lack of “buzz” surrounding Filipino food, I have been drawn to the rich aromas, diverse ingredients and savoury flavours of dishes like kare kare, for example, with its delicious mix of oxtail, tendon and tripe and amazingly tasty peanut sauce.

In Hong Kong – as elsewhere outside of the Philippine archipelago – there is, however, a distinct lack of dining venues for Philippine cuisine. One option here is the multitude of small vendors inside the World-Wide House in Central, which itself is like a little slice of Manila. There you can see the same home-cooked style food-stalls like the ones dotted along roads throughout the Philippines.

If you want to sit down in relative comfort and enjoy authentic Philippine cuisine, however, you should try Cinta-J on Jaffe Road in Wan Chai.

Cinta-J draws a mix of Filipino families, tourists and other curious folks and feels more like a place you might find on the beach in Boracay than a typical restaurant in Hong Kong. Lasers flash, singers sing and there is a generally festive atmosphere on hand. On my recent visit, I went with a large group and, in my excitement, still managed to order too many dishes.

Lumpia Shanghai

The Lumpia Shanghai (HKD98), crispy fried spring rolls filled with a mix of vegetables and finely chopped pork, were served in an ample quantity for an approachable and familiar way to start the meal. The lumpia were hot and tasty from the fryer but the skin was permeated with perhaps too much residual oil, leaving a slightly greasier taste than desirable.

Moving on, we ordered a classic Sinigang Bangus (HKD136). Sinigang is something of the national soup of the Philippines and noted for its sour tamarind broth accompanied by various meats and vegetables. Bangus, or milkfish, is popular throughout the Philippines and has a bone density, texture and taste that are somewhat reminiscent of trout. I find it to be an excellent ingredient for sinigang as compared to pork or other meats as it creates a lighter, healthier tasting dish that can complement the richer flavours of other Philippine foods. The preparation of the milkfish in the soup softens its white flesh so that eventually it almost slides off the bone.  At Cinta-J, the broth was nicely sour and well stocked with tender vegetables including eggplant, long beans and other greens. I felt that the fish, which was fully cooked through and tasty, could have been cooked in the soup longer for a softer finish.

Sinigang Bangus

For mains, we shared a Pork Curry (HKD93), Mixed Adobo (HKD96), Kare Kare (HKD106) and my favourite, Sizzling Sisig (HKD176). The pork curry was really quite tasty but was actually a Thai style curry and not what I would recommend to order at Cinta-J, if only because there are so many other dishes to choose from.

The adobo contained roughly equal portions of roughly chopped chicken and pork, having been marinated in a robust dark sauce of vinegar, soy sauce and garlic, browned in oil then simmered in the marinade. The adobo here did justice to what is often considered the Philippines’ national dish and was, along with the kare kare and sisig, the heart of the meal.

Cinta-J’s delicious version of kare kare primarily contains a mix of oxtail and beef tripe, the latter of which is a perfect vehicle to deliver the rich peanut sauce, as the fragrant sauce seeps into its crevices and infuses the soft organ meat. 

Sizzling Sisig

As I said, my personal favourite was the sizzling sisig. This dish is another classic containing grilled, finely diced pig ears marinated with vinegar, spices and onion and served sizzling on an iron skillet. We elected to have it topped with an egg, which quickly cooks into the sizzling dish for added richness.  There is something about the chewy texture of the pig ears that is wonderfully accentuated by the close contact the dice has with the iron skillet on all sides.

To balance these meaty mains, we ordered a large portion of Garlic Rice (HKD70), a plate of Pancit Canton (HKD98), essentially Chinese style noodles with chicken and vegetables, and a vegetable dish called Pinakbet (HKD98), which consists of a mix of bitter melon, eggplant and pork, all sautéed in shrimp paste. I found both the noodles and the garlic rice to be acceptable though slightly less flavourful than I would like. The pinakbet was good, but heavy as a vegetable dish. The bitter melon was cooked through and nicely soft in texture, retaining only a slight hint of bitterness, but the abundance of pork in the dish – which would have been great in a main – felt like too much at that point in the meal.

In sum, the highlights were the delicious kare kare, the chewy sisig and the well-marinated adobo. The snack foods were a little greasy and the carbs a bit plain. Cinta-J is not the best Filipino food in the world but it’s hearty, authentic, reasonably priced and supremely convenient.

Cinta-J Restaurant & Lounge, Shop G-4, 69 Jaffe Road, Wan Chai (Google Maps)

About the Hungry Lawyer: Marc Rubinstein, born in Baltimore, USA, has been in Asia for nearly 20 years with 13 of those in Hong Kong. He has split his career between banks and law firms, and is currently the general counsel of an Asia-based real estate and alternative energy investor. Marc is a co-founder and co-chair of the Hong Kong Gay & Lesbian Attorneys Network, and previously chaired the Nomura Gay & Lesbian Network, Asia. In addition to being a hungry lawyer, he has run three marathons, eight half-marathons and completed the Hong Kong Oxfam Trailwalker.

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