The Coronavirus pandemic has been a tough time for every industry and business in the country, from independently owned shops to large corporations. The food industry has been hit especially hard, having to adjust to a populace that can no longer dine outside of their homes. News of fast food chains closing down or local businesses packing up shop left and right have been disheartening to say the least and paint a picture of a Metro Manila rapidly changing amidst a chaotic world. But that doesn’t mean that dining out is a thing of the past.
Almusal Cafe, which opened in the middle of the pandemic at open-air food hub The Pop Up along Katipunan Avenue in Quezon City, is proof that the food scene in Manila still has room to thrive despite the conditions brought about by the pandemic. Restraurant partners James Thomas and Matthew Lay have faith that good old-fashioned brick-and-mortar restaurants are far from being a thing of the past.
As its name suggests, Almusal Cafe is primarily a brunch spot; the kind of place your family would normally drive to on a sleepy Sunday morning. From the outside, it boasts white walls, large glass windows, and wooden tables and chairs for a mix of modern and rustic that’s as inviting as it is posh. Inside, you’ll find sunlight seeping through the glass, lighting a spacious set up in shades of cream and mahogany.
“Of course the conditions aren’t ideal,” says Thomas about the restaurant’s untimely opening. “But we wouldn’t call it crazy to be opening right now. More than ever, people want comfort food. And Filipino breakfast food is about as hearty and comforting as it gets.” And certainly, despite the changing conditions of the industry, food remains both an essential part of life and one of its most rewarding and enjoyable facets. “When people come in and tell us they’re excited to eat our food, that it’s a little something they can look forward to in these uncertain times; for us, that makes it all worth it,” he says.
Thomas, a New Yorker, moved to Manila in 2017 after a three-year stint as the general manager at Jewel Bako, a Michelin-starred restaurant in the East Village. He originally came to the Philippines for a short visit alongside Lay who, aside from earning his credentials in Melbourne’s food and hospitality industry, is also an Italian-trained gelato chef. The two quickly fell in love with the local culture and months later, packed their bags and moved to Manila.
When choosing spots to put up their cafe, the partners were drawn to Katipunan Avenue, a district primarily populated by undergraduates and young professionals and one that already has a distinct food culture all on its own. As with other popular dining locales like Kapitolyo or Poblacion, Katipunan is the kind of place that always has room for a new food concept. “The idea,” says Lay, “was to marry New York and Australian cafe culture with Filipino breakfast, which we feel hasn’t quite gotten as much attention as it should have.”
With that in mind, Lay says he wanted Almusal to tick off three boxes that “all good Melbourne cafes have: tasty, creative food, [and] great coffee.” And really, what more could you ask for? He also notes that the cafes he had known Down Under were “all connected to their communities in a deep way,” a quality they tried to replicate with Almusal Cafe. They “source a lot of produce from neighborhood markets and really prioritize sustainability, and in turn the community has come out to support [them] in a big way.”
Of course, the main area of interest here is still the food. The restaurant’s menu is a treasure trove of Pinoy breakfast favorites, each with a fine-dining twist worthy of a special occasion or just a no-occasion weekend treat. Classics like Beef Tapa (P360) or Pork Tocino (P330), for example, are cooked using a sous vide method (the process of vacuum-sealing food in a bag, then cooking it to a very precise temperature in a water bath) for at least 24 hours before being finished off in the pan and garnished with chimichurri sauce.
Another tried-and-true Pinoy favorite in their selection is the Adobo (P580) made with slow-cooked lamb and sautéed French beans. And of course, what’s a breakfast joint without bacon? The Honey Butter Bacon Slab (P320) served with egg, red and white rice, and tomato jam would be a priority pick for many first-time diners.
Almusal certainly wouldn’t qualify as a certified Filipino restaurant without fried chicken on their menu and on that front, they deliver with their Ultimate Fried Chicken (P420), which features two large boneless chicken fillets breaded and deep fried in a tasty mix of spices and served with thick country gravy, hot honey, and chili-lime corn.
For those who like chomping down sandwiches for brunch, Almusal has got some unique options on their menu including the Shrimp and Arugula Croissant (P580) and the Roast Pork and Apple on Sourdough (P420). Each sammy comes with a generous helping of potato crisps.
As to be expected from any brunch spot, the coffee (prices range from P110 to P180) is freshly roasted in-house. The allure of many homegrown coffee shops is that their fresh brews are best enjoyed at the large dining tables inside, inviting families and friends to enjoy their coffee with a warm side of chatter. And with its bright, relaxing atmosphere, Almusal is the kind of place you’ll want to linger in for hours on end. At least when it’s finally safe to do so.
“I actually think it’s a time for local food to shine,” says Lay. And with the landscape of food shifting towards small business and home cooks over big-named restaurant chains and imported franchises, Almusal seems to be on the right track.
For now, we’ll have to wait till the world is a little safer to enjoy the combination of hearty dishes and a soul-soothing atmosphere of dining spots like Almusal Cafe, but don’t worry because you can still try their Pinoy-inspired brunch meals by ordering on FoodPanda or GrabFood.
Thinking about what to cook next? Join our Facebook group, Yummy Pinoy Cooking Club, to get more recipe ideas, share your own dishes, and find out what the rest of the community are making and eating!
Got your own version of the classic dishes? Pa-share naman! Get your recipe published on Yummy.ph by submitting your recipe here!