Sunday, July 28, 2013

Egg Coffee Anyone?

There are some things we do in style whenever we travel and other things we do the Lonely Planet way.  What is life without adventure anyway?

On one trip to Hanoi, we chose to go on a treasure hunt, searching for ca phe trung or egg coffee.  Intriguing, isn't it?  We thought so, perplexed as well, by the directions we had on hand.  Armed with a map, a vague set of directions and a paralyzing fear of being run over by a Vietnamese moped, we were off.  The destination was Cafe Pho Co, 11 Hang Gai Road.

First we had to find Hang Gai Road.  That was easy.  Then we had to look for this, a shop that shared the same address as the coffee shop.

If you look hard enough, you will find this in a collage of shop signs.

Below the sign was an alley.  We walked in with butterflies in our tummies, wondering if we were doing the right thing.

And walked some more...

...and ended up here.  So, now what?

We ordered our coffee here from a lady who refused to be in the photo. See the menu on the table? She ran away when I pointed the camera. After she left to prepare our order, we climbed the first flight of steps...

...then climbed another set of steps...

...and more...

...and finally this! find this!

I didn't know what to make of it.  Half naked men, reading thankfully.  Quiet, so never mind that it looked like a dive.  We had a great view of the lake.

While sipping our egg coffee.  Where's the coffee, you ask?  All that froth was as thick as custard.  Those teaspoons could stand just like Dairy Queen's Blizzard although I must say I don't think we could have held the cups upside down.

 We found another landing on our way down.  Charming isn't it?

I was curious to find out what it looked like from the street below and there it was, above the trees.  Looked better from down there.  What an adventure.  Exciting way to spend an afternoon in sweltering Hanoi.

The Verdict: Yabu vs. Saboten

The ramen battle of Manila is still ongoing with Japanese noodle houses sprouting faster than you can say banzai!  Next on the ring is katsu.

Yabu, our go-to place for katsu, remained unrivalled for over a year.  Its first branch at SM Megamall doubled in size after only a few months but the lines are still there and growing.  The 2nd branch at the Robinson's Magnolia mall has a queueing system with an electronic pager, allowing you to walk around the mall while you wait.  It is a wait that can take an hour or more on a busy day, a wait that most people are willing to take.  Yabu has now grown to 4 branches around the city, a sure sign that things are going very well.

Yabu now has a worthy rival.  Saboten, which first opened its doors in 1966 in Shinjuku, Tokyo, claims to be the largest tonkatsu chain with over 500 shops in Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, Singapore, Hong Kong, Canada, China and now, the Philippines.  Part of that claim is having the original tonkatsu flavor, whatever that means.  They opened at the Atrium of Serendra and after several attempts, we finally got to try it.

Just like Yabu, seating is on a first-come-first serve basis only.  No reservations are accepted.  Definitely a wise policy for a busy restaurant.  We went early this time but not early enough.  We ended up sitting outside, an area which definitely felt like the second best seats of the house.  Thank goodness it was a cool day and there were no flying pests.

The menu was easy to navigate, with lots of photos to spare you from guessing.  There were a lot of rolled cutlets - stuffed with asparagus, stuffed with crab cream, stuffed with plum.  They did look tempting but in the end, we decided to have what we came for - tonkatsu.  
I ordered the Grated Radish Katsu Loin Set, crisp katsu topped with a generous portion of grated radish.  It came with a slice of grapefruit that I had to squeeze over the katsu and citrusy ponzu sauce.  The katsu was tender and crisp to the bite.  The radish and the ponzu helped cut the fat resulting in a lighter and fresher flavor.  Together with bites of radish and cucumber pickles, I thoroughly enjoyed it.  Next time though, I think I will order the tenderloin version.

Enky had the Clay Pot Tenderloin Set, tonkatsu simmered in onions, sauce and egg with the rice served separately.  I thought it was a modern version of katsudon but writer-friend Rene Guatlo corrected me and said that it was katsuni.  The tenderloin meat was much better than the loin that I had and certainly worth the small premium you pay for.  Enky and I agreed though that we like the katsudon version of Yabu better.
Yabu's Katsudon meal

To compare:

What I like about Yabu:
  1. Quick, efficient, fuss free service
  2. Kurubota pork option
  3. Hiroshima oysters available
  4. A softer crunch to the bite
What I like about Saboten:
  1. Unlimited Japanese pickles and miso soup
  2. Grated Radish Katsu
As you can infer, the winner is YABU!  I must qualify though, that even if I think Yabu is better overall,  I would go back to Saboten for the Grated Radish Tenderloin Set.