Meatless sisig and ethical isaw: A carnivore’s guide to vegan and vegetarian joints in Metro Manila

<I>Photo: Greenery Kitchen / FB, Greenbar Cafe / FB, Cosmic Philippines / FB</I>
Photo: Greenery Kitchen / FB, Greenbar Cafe / FB, Cosmic Philippines / FB

To many, vegetarian and vegan cuisine is synonymous with that most insipid of jiggly foodstuffs, tofu. But plain tofu vastly undersells the variety of flavors and textures that vegetarian (no meat) and vegan (no egg or dairy either) cookery has to offer, and in the case of Filipino cuisine, this is doubly true.

Our fair archipelago’s regular diet (typically seafood-, pork-, and poultry-heavy) is the opposite of bland, and thankfully its plant-based iterations do the local flavors justice by being just as intensely flavored. In fact, in addition to traditionally vegetable-laden dishes, more modern vegan and vegetarian riffs on meaty Filipino classics have no trouble keeping up with their carnivorous counterparts. Case in point, even the meatiest of dishes, like sisig (chopped pig’s ears), isaw (skewered chicken intestines), tocino (cured, sweet pork), and even betamax (skewered coagulated pork’s blood), all have pretty legit, super-flavorful animal-free versions.

To get you on your way, here are 10 restaurants where you can feast to your heart’s content, minus the possible health, environmental, and ethical consequences of consuming animals.

 

Cosmic Philippines

Photo: Cosmic Philippines

Possibly Poblacion district in Makati’s worst-kept secret, this tiny plant-based bistro is all but hidden on the second level of an ordinary-looking building with a convenience store on the ground floor, but still sees a long line of patrons on queue almost every weekend.

The hype surrounding the year-old joint isn’t unfounded. Cosmic sources its ingredients from the local palengke (wet market) to give its diners a surprisingly cheap, full-on Filipino-meal experience that’ll make you forget you’re in a vegan restaurant. Everything, from its all-veggie takes on –silogs (garlic rice sets usually accompanied by a meat dish and egg), to its kare-kare (a local curry with vegetables and peanut sauce), to its miso mushroom sinigang (a clear, sour soup traditionally made with beef and veg), hits the nostalgic-Filipino-food-memory spot.

Treats like fudgy brownies and vegan leche flan (caramel custard) satisfy sweet tooths, too, and a decent (albeit non-alcoholic) bar that serves fruit-blend mocktails and coffee drinks is another plus.

 

Corner Tree Cafe

Photo: Corner Tree Cafe

Corner Tree is one of Manila’s oldest and earliest vegetarian restaurants, with vegan options also on their menu. The cafe, which turned exactly a decade old this May, owes its name to its Makati corner street location marked by a prominent Narra tree right smack in the middle of its six parking spots. 

Its vegetarian owner, Chiqui Mabanta, was inspired by a 1996 trip to London during which saw how easy it was to eat meat-free. She went home to Manila, test-drove her recipes at the local weekend markets, and finally opened the café in 2009. Over the years, the cafe has attracted a variety of diners that includes hip millennials, aging boomers, in-the-know expats, and crunchy-looking backpackers, along with neighborhood locals. There’s even a framed tweet on the wall from “Game of Thrones” star Nathalie Emmanuel saying how much she liked eating here.

The veg laing (taro leaves in coconut milk served with rice) is tasty, and so is their meatless meatloaf, served with gravy and mash, and don’t leave without a slice (or two) of salted caramel chocolate torte. Small bonus detail: the café cooks with and serves alkaline water, believed by some to help regulate the acidity of the blood and even settle your stomach. 

 

The Good Seed

Photo: The Good Seed 

Formerly known as Edgy Veggy, this Mandaluyong bistro has expanded its whole-food menu offerings to include a deli grocery, party packs, full meal catering, and health and wellness programs, which include vegan and ketogenic-friendly (high-fat, low-carb) daily meal deliveries.

Owner Denise Celdran has tweaked the almost decade-old menu in the last few years to include keto- and paleo-friendly recipes that are also vegan and gluten-free, but she promises that they’re “not taste-free.” Mushroom sisig (chopped pig’s ears), tapa (traditionally cured beef) and longganisa (the local chorizo) made from a blend of mushrooms and tofu, and the cauliflower turmeric “rice” are all testaments to that. 

Non-Filipino plant-based dishes like pho, veg maki, shakshuka, risotto balls, wraps, and burritos are also on offer. On the dessert front, the panna cotta with berry compote is given a Filipino twist with gulaman (agar jelly), and coco sugar.

 

Pipino Vegetarian

Photo: Pipino Vegetarian

So you say you don’t like vegetables? Then you haven’t tried Pipino’s Cauli Buffalo Wings. Pipino is one-third of the Pino Group of Restaurants, headquartered in Quezon City, which also owns Pino, a fine-dining joint, and Pi, which serves, well, pie.

Pipino, headed by artist Alyssa Lanot, has interesting takes on plant-based dishes, including veggie sinigang (tamarind broth with string beans, taro, eggplant, and tofu), cream of kalabasa (squash) soup, mushroom salpicao (traditionally beef stir-fried in garlic and Worcestershire), tofu lemongrass skewers, and even a potato pancake and tofu scramble.

Smoothies and salads take up a good portion menu, with ripe mango shakes and lemongrass-ginger-cucumber coolers already making us feel thirsty. The salad options are also anything but boring, with their dalandan (local lime) balsamic dressing, toasted pili nuts, crispy rice noodles, and an assortment of nut cheeses to choose from as toppings. It’s almost as if the cafe is telling its non-vegan counterparts, “Pay attention, kids, this is how it’s done.”

 

Live Life Vegetarian

Photo: Live Life Vegetarian

Possibly the least Instagram-worthy of the restaurants on this list, and the least conspicuous, Live Life nonetheless demands to be noticed. The restaurant sits along Chino Roces Ave., beside a bike shop and La Fuerza Compound’s string of art galleries across the street. But what this bare, clean, simple Makati restaurant lacks in ambiance, its food makes up for in flavor.

For instance, not many restaurants in Manila serve vegan halo-halo (a shaved ice dessert with milk, sweet beans, fruits, and ice cream), and yet Live Life offers one tweaked with almond milk and chia seeds. Okra tofu teriyaki, grilled shrimp skewers, pineapple quinoa, and even turon (a banana and jackfruit spring roll dessert) are all good. Also worth mentioning is its mongo (mung bean) soup spiked with balsamic vinegar, which should change your mind about this underrated Filipino dish.

 

Greenery Kitchen

Photo: Greenery Kitchen

Probably more famous for its daily meal deliveries than its quaint dine-in restaurant, Greenery Kitchen, despite touting a completely vegan menu, isn’t one to shy away mock meats and non-whole food ingredients. This explains why Filipino street food favorites such as mock isaw and “pork” barbecue are among the favorites on their menu.

Like Cosmic Philippines, Greenery believes vegan food should be affordable, but its menu bends heavily towards veganized versions of meat-eater friendly dishes, including bopis (minced pigs lungs), menudo (pork and liver stew), nilaga (pork belly broth), and vegan pork adobo. Local noodles like lomi, palabok, and pancit, meanwhile, tick all the nostalgic Filipino food memory boxes. The best part? Up until this writing, each dish is PHP150 (US$3) or less.

 

Lucy in the Sky Cafe

Photo: Lucy in the Sky Cafe

Meanwhile, in San Juan City’s busy Wilson St., Lucy in the Sky is a converted gallery-garage-turned-25-seat-cafe that opened five years ago in August. Yogurt fruit drinks, hot turmeric tea, and house coffee comprise the menu’s beverages, but make no mistake: just because it calls itself a cafe, doesn’t mean it’s holding back on Filipino meals.

Lucy in the Sky’s vegan, vegetarian, and gluten-free menu options cover everything from mock chicken drumsticks paired with pandan-infused rice, pancit palabok (annatto-sauced smoked fish and minced pork noodles), and a bean-based version of dinuguan (pig’s blood stew) called Beanuguan.

 

Greenbar Cafe

Photo: Greenbar Cafe / FB

Perched on the second floor of a residential Makati condominium building along Buendia, Greenbar Café is one of this list’s pricier entries, with each meal and drink setting you back around PHP500 (US$10) give or take, but based on multiple visits, each flavorful plate is worth every peso.

Daily vegan specials like the Philly “cheesesteak” (made with seitan), Buddha Bowls that pack a belly punch, all-day breakfasts, wraps, and pockets, as well as house coffees and a respectable line of made-from-scratch vegan donuts worth trooping out to this admittedly less locally flavored, but nonetheless comforting, food stop.

Lifelong vegetarian sisters Jade and Sarada Santos — who were raised by Buddhist parents in Palm Springs, California — may not know what longganisa tastes like, but they relied on meat-eating friends and boyfriends to create their garlicky, unorthodox longganisa taco. This and other hefty and indulgent dishes (with the recent addition of an Impossible Burger) make Greenbar a place diners can visit over and over.

 

Wabi-Sabi Noodle House & Vegetarian Grocery 

Photo: Wabi-Sabi

A noodle house and vegetarian grocery in one, Wabi-Sabi’s Makati branch recently relocated to the kitschy mall throwback that is Makati Cinema Square, but it still serves Japanese- and Vietnamese-inspired noodle soup dishes with a Filipino twist. An earlier pun-ridden incarnation of the menu featured a Pho called “Fernando Pho, Jr.” after the late Filipino action star Fernando Poe.

These days, Wabi-Sabi’s menu has been streamlined, with favorites like miso and soy-sauce-based ramen, phos and tom yums figuring heavily into the menu. Banh mi, as well as veggie cracklings, potstickers, steamed buns, and tempuras, are good to pair with noodles or scarf down by themselves, especially the mushroom siomai, which you can daintily gobble down steam or fried. 

Another plus: various chili sauce condiments on the table spike the already hot and filing noodle dishes, and service is good and fast the last few times we’ve been.

 

Satinka Naturals Bistro & Cafe

Photo: Satinka Naturals

A quiet neighborhood bistro along Makati’s Kamagong Street, this two-level eatery houses an all-natural body products apothecary on the bottom floor, in keeping with Satinka’s advocacy as a one-stop-shop for the healthy and organic.

Its name, from the Filipino sa atin ka (“our own”), speaks to the goal of representing local dishes, with the menu serving up organic food with ingredients sourced from the mountain regions of Cordillera. Afritada (meat braised in tomato sauce) and adobo cover the intensely flavored local front. Its own spin on adobo, made by slow-cooking veggie meat in bignay (Cordillera rice wine) amino sauce, and vegan barbecue sauce tossed with roasted potatoes and a side of mountain-region-sourced red rice.

Organic mountain coffees from the provinces of Sagada, Kalinga, and Benguet top the list of beverage must-haves, as do lemongrass and lavender teas sweetened with muscovado sugar.

 

Correction: a previous version of this article incorrectly observed that Cosmic Bistro doesn’t have its own toilets. They do, in fact, have one inside the bistro. This version has been updated to rectify that mistake.

 

Still in the mood for food? Click on these tasty guides around Asia:

Booze, caffeinate, and pig out in Hanoi  with this extensive F&B guide to Vietnam’s capital.

Get the best slice of pizza possible in Hong Kong with HK’s 11 great pizza places list.

Eat like a local in Singapore with  this A to Z guide SG’s iconic local, hawker and specialty foods.

Or head right back to the Philippines with this cheat sheet to understanding Filipino cuisine.

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