3/31/2017
Hipster by committee

Milkbox
1F Garden Wing, Alabang Town Center

This used to be a Mochiko. Shalla and I went there when we were still just dating for a few months. It's a Japanese dessert - of course she'd be there. The ATC branch had this wall filled with those lucky Chinese cats, all with one arm raised, knocking, out of sync.

Mochiko no longer exists. The Facebook page has no mention of goodbye, but the website is no longer active.

Its old space is now this milkshake place called Milkbox. It's been there for a couple of years, or so it feels, but only lately did we go there. A part of me did want to try their milkshakes out, but the idea of an overpriced dessert place that sells sizzling matcha things, I think, inevitably raised a red flag. That definitely stopped us from going there. She just knows I would scoff at it. But went there we nonetheless did, a few weeks back, because we failed to reserve movie tickets and the lines were annoyingly long. And she wanted something sweet.

Yes, the red flag was up. It's really the sort of place that you go to so you could post something on Instagram, preferably with a smattering of hashtags. Perhaps I scoff because I am not on Instagram, and I don't have the urge, the need, to post beautiful things constantly. Well, there was this time when Shalla gave me access to her Instagram account. "Post things that look pretty," she said, and I was taken aback, because... why is this person entrusting me with her social media account? We have just met!

But then, I am a pessimist, a cynic.

Milkbox is a place designed for Instagram. It's a place designed for overly-filtered images that suggest a good life. It is, essentially, hipster by committee. Brown faux-brick walls (they're ceramic tiles), wooden tables, the visual language of a so-called artisan. To boot, they have magazines - back issues of Monocle. Okay, that was impressive, or perhaps it's because I'm a reader of the magazine, and a recent subscriber, even. That means a tote bag, which I decided to use for the first time that day, which meant she was chiding me for bringing a bag that girls usually bring, never mind that it's in canvas and it's navy blue. I was hoping they'd recognize that the logo on the bag matches the magazines they have, but what did I expect?

I took the oldest copy they have - one from 2008; were they selling the magazine here at the time? - and flicked through it while waiting for our shakes.

A year ago or so I read about this food trend. Crazy shakes, they're called. It's a milkshake, but with a lot of things on top of it. The messier, the better. It's a drink designed for Instagram.

Shalla got the pumpkin spice one. I got the cereal milk one. It was all right, but when I bit into the waffle and realized it's days-old, I knew the game was up. A days-old waffle and lots of whipped cream on a mason jar for P245?

"Let's just try the ice cream next time," she said.

Ramen Yushoken
Molito Lifestyle Center

Anybody who lives in Alabang knows of the reputation of this ramen place. It never accepts renovations, and the lines are always long.

I've always wanted to eat there. It's the last one in the immediate vicinity I had to conquer. Shalla and I have eaten at all four ramen places at ATC, and we have rankings.

Kenji Tei is at the bottom. It does the job, but it feels like eating a Filipinized ramen.

I like Hanamaruken. I actually like their Happiness Ramen - worth the steep price. But she doesn't like fatty things, and its fatty broth turned her off on the first try,

Santouka is fine. I don't think we have an opinion of that place, although I've enjoyed both instances I've been there.

Ikkoryu is the one on top of our list, at least for now. We've been there twice. The bowls aren't too big (which is important for her, more or less) and the varieties are pretty good. We quite like it there to the point that we've already had the "kinda Japanese" experience there: a bowl of edamame to begin with, and since I felt like it at the time, a bottle of Japanese beer, too.

Yushoken was the one place I had to conquer. It seemed every friend of mine who lives in the so-called south has been there. I wasn't itching to go there, but the one time I decided I should - on my birthday - the restaurant closed early for their Christmas party. I guess that's the downside to being born early in January.

A couple of weeks back my sister and I ate there. (She's already been there before, by the way.) We were claiming a package at the post office - I got myself a physical copy of Mamamoo's Memory, and I got her Bigbang's MADE, a Christmas and birthday gift. We got in just as the restaurant opened - eleven in the morning, a Tuesday morning, which definitely meant a seat - and later saw the place swell, including a gaggle of Japanese businessmen seated beside us. You know what we say about a Japanese place being really good if Japanese frequent it? I don't know about this case. They seemed bewildered. About ramen.

Let me say this: the ramen is good.

No. The ramen is sublime.

I got myself the tantanmen tonkotsu. It was really good. Or perhaps it's because the first time I tried that variety - pork mince, chili oil and sesame seeds, mostly - at Kenji Tei, which is cheap, steady, but manages to cheapen the taste of even the simplest ramen. But it says something that even my sister's basic shio tonkotsu - okay, crash course: tonkotsu means the broth is based on pork bones, creamy and nearly white; shio is salt, the simplest seasoning you can put on the whole thing - is nutty and lip-smacking, something I haven't encountered before. I may have had a bit of a spiritual experience, but I wouldn't say that because that's something you say on Instagram.

I'm not sure, however, if that experience could justify, even forgive, the extremely snotty placemats.

It was a menu. Sure. It was an instruction manual for those who aren't familiar with authentic ramen. Sure. I get what they meant when it said you should take photographs of your food quickly, if you really have to, as ramen is best when it's freshly served. It was being a little self-important when it talked about how you shouldn't share a bowl, because the ramen gods will be disappointed.

But the red flag was raised at the very last bit, when it talked about taking ramen home.

"We do not allow takeaway," it said, I assume; I'm definitely paraphrasing that first bit. This next bit, I'm not. "If you want to eat ramen at home, we recommend instant noodles."

We recommend instant noodles.

You fucking shits. How dare you be so self-important that you become dismissive of the people around you. How dare you be very worthy.

But the ramen was good. It was really good. But that last line destroyed my experience - not entirely, but not slightly.

Later that night I told Camille about the meal. We've talked about Yushoken a few times before, and she's told me about a craving for their bowls a few times. So I told her what I told you. I liked the tantanmen (her brother's choice) and I liked my sister's shio (her choice, or was it her sister's?) but I hated, hated, that instant noodles remark.

"God, you're so sensitive!" she scoffed at me.

I forgot she was on a hypoallergenic diet at the time. No gluten. She's allergic to her painkillers. But that stung, her dismissal. That stung so hard, I considered not taking to her for the rest of the night.

McDonald's
Alabang Town Center

When I last went to Hong Kong, last November, my first breakfast was at the McDonald's branch at the airport. Inevitably it was very crowded, but my colleague and I decided to brave it anyway, because we both wanted to try something different. It's why we can say we've been to Din Tai Fung before it opened in Manila.

Well, to me it wasn't really all that different. I have been to Hong Kong thrice in the past three years. I don't always eat at McDonald's, preferring the Fairwood near the hotel I usually stay at, because it's, um, a local brand. Also, it's a McDonald's. You know what to expect. Instead of strawberry jam, however, you get grape preserves. And since Hong Kong apparently loves its macaroni soup for breakfast, it offers macaroni soup. McAroni soup? They don't call it that, I'm afraid. It's a terrible pun. All I know is, when I was there, they were offering twelve versions of the soup - twelve permutations, actually; choose your broth, choose the cheese, choose the meat, that sort of thing.

Hong Kong is the first foreign city I've been too. This was in 2007, I think. The first airplane I rode on was a Cathay Pacific flight, back when they had proper meals on board, rather than a frankly pathetic "adobo roll". (It was extremely salty and not at all appropriate for dinner.) Our tour package, however, did not offer breakfast at the hotel. Instead, we were given all these gift certificates for McDonald's, enough for four days. That's why my earliest memories of a foreign country is walking just before sunrise, all wrapped up (it was December), going to a McDonald's branch.

It was the first time I had a Big Breakfast that had a muffin instead of rice. It would take the Philippines seven, eight years to bring that option here.

It was also the first time I saw a fastfood restaurant offer liquid creamer - half-and-half, actually - instead of powdered one. Considering all I know now, is that because of a supply chain issue? Liquid creamer is certainly easier to stir into your scalding coffee.

What struck me in 2016, at that crowded airport branch, is how much of a big deal McCafé is. Some locals would actually queue for their frappuccinos. There are actually television ads for them. Yes, it's McDonald's attempting to enter the Starbucks market, but at least people are biting.

Here, in Manila, frankly, I don't really know. Does anybody buy anything there other than the usual iced coffees? I remember this online campaign by disgruntled Lasallians, feeling inferior because the McDonald's near South Gate still sports the old design - bathroom-like tiles, most memorably - while the one at the Ateneo has a McCafé. Why do they get a McCafé? Why can't we? Now there is one, but apart from the iced coffees, is anybody buying? How must the quiches and the cakes feel?

Last night, I bit the bait. I had to wait at McDonald's but I did not want to order fries, so I stood at the McCafé counter. Took me three minutes to get someone to take my order.

"Isang Midnight Chocolate, saka isang iced tea. Medium."

I was looking at the menu; there is a McCafé iced tea for P65. I did not want the coffee. It's almost ten in the evening and I want to sleep. Caffeine hits me hard. I'll drink coffee at two in the afternoon and I'll have a hard time sleeping eight hours later. It sucks, but that led to the discovery that my preferred Starbucks drink is better decaffeinated.

The server crossed over to the fast food side and got me iced tea from the dispenser. It's cheaper, but it's puzzling.

He then got me a slice of the cake. It's good enough cake. You know it's relatively old, but you tend to forgive it because it's McDonald's, not Milkbox. Also, the chocolate ganache is really thick, and thus gives the thing a somewhat redeeming feature.

He laid the slice on a ceramic plate. Remember when McDonald's big innovation was not having to use plates and cutlery?

I tried to take the tray, thinking the order was fulfilled, but the server stopped me.

"Meron pa, ser," he said, and I remembered that, yes, this is McCafé, where things look a little fancier, because it's a coffee shop and not a burger store. He took some chocolate syrup and drizzled it all over the place.

The first thing I did after taking my seat was take a photo of the cake. I did not post it on Instagram. I just posted it on the family Viber group.

The chocolate syrup was bitter.

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