“Fresh Asian Street Food” tucked away in a unexpected residential part of Cebu. Little Saigon, Big Bangkok is definitely one of my top picks for places to eat when I am in Cebu and don’t want anything lechon related. If you are visiting Cebu for Sinulog this weekend, try and get yourself a table here if you love spicy, flavorful Thai, Vietnamese and even some Indian dishes.
Go for the food. And ignore the slightly out of the way location, the sometimes eyebrow-raising setting and little details that are consistent with their street food vibe, and prepare to pay more than you would for a typical dinner in Cebu (plan on PHP500-600 per person, without wine). But this is far from typical food and I find it is totally worth the price and the effort to get there.
Located on the ground floor of a residential home where the restaurant’s proprietors also live, it is a 1960′s-70′s home in need of care. The front lawn has been covered with a tarp and gravel has been laid out beneath the wooden tables. Let’s just say it has character… During the day, it is almost impossibly warm outdoors, but recently, they have obtained an aircon for an indoor room so if you can’t handle the streetside feel. But if you’re young and have a spray bottle of OFF! with you, sit outside for the best experience overall… An evening reservation is far more desirable than lunch.
The menu changes from day to day, though some favorite dishes seem to be there most of the time. I have literally tasted 90-95% of the dishes on offer on the several evenings and one lunch that we dined there.
A young couple own the place, Carmel, the chef, who trained in Bangkok and perhaps other classes in Southeast Asia, and she has an AMAZING palate. She’s Cebuana by birth and her partner is Filipino-American. Mark does front of the house duties at night, while Carmel is at the stoves. If she is in the kitchen, you are in for a serious spice and flavor treat. Regular readers know I can’t resist mentioning little details, sometimes that get me in trouble, but I just had to point out these utensils on a torn piece of napkin that we had one evening a few months ago. Sorry, Mark, but the crew can use whole napkins, no? I jest of course, because I have been back to this place 5 times… :)
On several visits we had mhiang kham, betel leaf wraps with a bit of peanuts, coconut, shrimp, herbs, spices, etc. Most surprising is their use of sliced kalamansi rind (as a substitute of limes), and it tasted fantastic! This was so good one evening, we ordered another plateful. And we do that often at Little Saigon, Big Bangkok, ending up with far more food than we can eat! I am always amazed by their ability to deal with ingredient supply issues, and despite a lack of some ingredients they need, they manage to substitute well or just ramp up the flavor so it isn’t an issue. I do wish they had abundant access to good asian limes, however…
I think Carmel smokes her own pork, and this flavorful ingredient appears in several dishes. One evening it was added to a salad, that was beautifully dressed, a real pleasure to eat. Sometimes the smoked pork is in a fried rice dish, also delicious.
The recent acquisition of a genuine mini-tandoori oven means they have been experimenting with Indian breads like this Roti Canai, brushed with ghee (clarified butter), to great results…
…served with three dips, one of roasted peppers, another of peanuts and a third was curry based, if I recall correctly. I don’t take notes at these types of dinners, so Mark and Carmel please correct me if I am not accurate on the dishes…
A plateful of cha gio, or vietnamese spring rolls, three pieces (PHP50 each) cut into six. Served with the roasted chili sauce that had great depth of flavor, and a slow burn spice wise. If you order more than half the menu, you will see some 6-8 key sauces or condiments emerge, and they were mostly delicious and well-balanced.
This stunning platter of banh xeo, a rice batter crepe filled with tofu, bean sprouts, sometimes pork, chopped herbs, etc. was amazing. I have to say, on our last visit, Carmel really brought her food to the next level, and some cheffy skills were on display. We ordered this another time and it came looking a bit more pedestrian, but still tasted amazing. On this last visit, everything hit the table carefully plated, with a beautiful balance of flavors all around. You cut up the crepe, pick it up and wrap it with lettuce and herbs and dip it into the sauce for a mouthfull of texture and flavor.
A thai squid salad, made unconventionally with young wild arugula and with the addition of bacon? seemed dischordant, but it tasted wonderful. Pork and seafood often pair well, and while this wasn’t the most authentic set of ingredients perhaps, I loved it. Nice spice incorporated into the dish as well.
Tod Mun with Som tom or fish cakes served over a shredded papaya salad was okay, though the papaya salad could have been grated or sliced finer and it wasn’t bruised enough so they were less than flavorful. We had this on another visit and it was a slam dunk then.
The pad thai came out enveloped in a thin egg wrapper, just beautiful! It was quite sweet, almost too pinoy sweet, but with some fish sauce and kalamansi (ideally limes!) added at the table it was still very good. It looks a bit pale in this photo, but as you’ll see further down, on another occasion it looked slightly different. When your table is filled with spicy dishes, this sweet noodle helps to soothe your overworked palate.
The tandoori chicken was flavorful, but they’re still working on their accompanying yoghurt sauce…
The red chicken curry was incendiary, and bits of the dried chilies were present in nearly every spoon full. I was nearly fed up by the time this dish arrived, but I got another two scoops of rice to enjoy with this curry. Delicious. On another occasion, we had their other curries, and even a beef rendang, all of which were quite good. What comes across in this cooking is authenticity, fine ingredients, and most importantly, soul. It’s what’s missing from many a chain or mall restaurant these days. Give me heart and soul in my food any day over fancy restaurant interior design.
We had this fish dish over noodles twice, once at lunch and once at a dinner. It was delicious as well. Don’t forget to add the sauce that comes with it or you’ll wonder why the dish seems undressed — it is.
A platter of grilled pork and veggies seemed like a good idea, but it fell flat on the flavor scale. I guess we should have just steered clear of pork or maybe this was a one off situation. I will say, however, that we visited and dined once where Carmel wasn’t in the kitchen, and the difference was noticeable. In fact, I had just finished telling my dining companions that the food was different when we saw the chef arrive from a well-deserved mini-vacation… so try and make sure Carmel is in town when you dine there. Having said that, I think the cooks have learned how to season more appropriately after some 6 months in training… But it’s interesting how you can tell if someone is missing from the kitchen by tasting the food alone.
The pad thai on another day, sans the fancy egg wrapper/blanket. :)
Tom khai gai, a chicken and coconut soup that was SUPERB! I would have licked the bowl if it weren’t inappropriate.
A bowl of pho, the first dish we ever tasted at the restaurant, and oddly, we didn’t quite like it. The bowl had unusually tough pieces of beef, with large yellowed fatty pieces as well. Perhaps some smoked pork found its way into the broth? The broth which lacked verve, flavor and depth — perhaps it hadn’t had enough time to concentrate the flavors? But this was a surprisingly weak offering, and I haven’t had it since. I should try it again, because I really do love a good bowl of pho.
Finally, Carmel sent out this fancy dessert one day. It was good, but really, overkill after all the great savory dishes. I applaud Mark and Carmel for opening this place in the middle of nowhere (not true, it’s just five minutes from the provincial capitol building), for offering a menu filled with Asian spices and chilies and other good things, for infusing so much soul into their food and for creating an unusual experience for diners. Now, my only hope is, I will still be able to get a table after posting this review!
For contact details and location, visit their website, here.