“Authentic” Versus “Gutom”: We Taste-Test Mesa Iloilo’s Best Dishes

It was a cold and rainy Monday afternoon as we went inside Mesa Filipino Moderne, a restaurant that, as its name suggests, serves classic Filipino food with a modern flair. As opposed to the harsh weather we just came from, the place was warm and cozy, which seemed appropriate since the interior pays homage to elements of traditional Filipino design.

As you might have expected, we were invited to taste some of the resto’s more famous dishes because…. Well, we write for an online magazine, and we also happen to talk a lot about food when we’re with friends. And we’re also familiar with the internet.

Rather than telling you how the food tasted, each writer would be giving out his or her initial impression of the dish. And because we’re too hipster to assign ratings or scores to each, we’re going with our own categories of how one would best approach the mentioned dishes.

So, let’s get on with the eating and the writing:

Most ‘Uga’ Dish that Doesn’t Look Anything Like Uga: Tinapa Rolls with Lettuce

Martin (M): For the uninitiated, “tinapa” is the process of cooking fish by smoking. However, even though it can be technically called uga, tinapa just hasn’t been as common in Iloilo as it was in its Luzon counterparts.

The tinapa’s smoky flavor was perfectly counterbalanced by the salted egg that was cleanly rolled in it. The lettuce, on the other hand, adds a bit of healthiness to the dish. For that, I daresay this is the most well-balanced dish among the bunch we have eaten.

Ina Isis (II): It was amazing. It wasn’t too salty, and the different flavors—rather than clash with each element as I thought—were complimenting each other nicely. It’s a perfect picnic food on a spring day, and it’s a modern take on a traditional Filipino food.

The “I Didn’t Know You Can Do THAT” Dish: Swahe on the rocks

M: The service crew presented us with a casserole and fresh shrimps on a small plate. Since we didn’t know what to expect, our host explained to us that inside the casserole were volcanic rocks that were pre-heated over coal, while “swahe” refers to a variety of shrimp. And basically, the shrimps would be placed over those hot, volcanic rocks for cooking.

In went the shrimps, and the lid closed. After fifteen minutes or so, the shrimps surprisingly came out well-cooked. I’m sold. This has got to be the most ingenious dish I’ve seen anywhere yet.

I: At first, I had doubts about shrimps being cooked over stones. I thought to myself. “It’s just another gimmick.” But holy mother of food, was I wrong. It tasted so good! It didn’t have any seasoning (at least it seemed to me that way), and it was juicy like a ripe peach ready to be picked on a hot summer day in Georgia. It tasted fresh and incredible, like a summer feeling in the mouth.

The Dish That Forced us to Not to Sing ‘Baby Shark’ In Our Heads: Baby Squid in Olive Oil

M: From experience, the squid is one of the most challenging ingredients to cook. Undercooking it will result in a gummy-to-chewy texture, while overcooking makes the squid hard and causes it to lose all flavor. Trust me when I say you don’t want to fall to either extreme.

In this case, Mesa upped the ante by choosing baby squids for this dish. They’re small and cute and, when cooked in olive oil and sautéed with garlic, made all the flavors come out with just the right chewiness to it.

I: It tasted okay, but I hope they could have done a better presentation of the food because it looked like the squid was just drowning (or, should I say, “swimming”) [EDITOR: I’m allowing the joke. Apologies to all.] in olive oil.

The Chicken Broth That Tastes Like Fruit Juice: Chicken Binakol

M: Binakol is a light, coconut-based soup made up of chicken, potatoes, papaya, green chili, and some greens. The most obvious counterpart to other Philippine regions would be the Cordilleran “pinikpikan”. While it’s expected that each region would produce their own spins on different variety binakol, what set Mesa’s apart, as one of their senior waiting staff explained, was its “freshly scraped coconut meat and freshly juiced coconut and not from-the-shelf kind you see in groceries.” Mesa’s binakol bordered on the sweeter side of the palate, so keep that in mind when you’ll try it.

I: It was bland, like how my Tuesday usually goes. For a chicken stew cooked on coconut juice, it was missing a lot of the fruit’s sweetness. Even with the presence of sili, I did not detect any spice in the soup, and it felt like sipping water.

The One Dish That Screamed, “We’re Dining in a Restaurant, Everyone!”: Pinatayong Manok

M: Roasted chicken, at least from what we’ve been exposed to, is usually served as either whole or sliced. Mesa took a different approach by serving it standing—or rather, “hanging”, clothesline-style.

It would have been enough for the kind service crew to leave the chicken at that, but they had to slice it right before our very eyes. The entire chicken, with its juices dripping from every slice and the aroma from the marinade slowly enveloping our table, made it all the more appetizing. The meat, thankfully, was tender and juicy in every bite, and paired well with either ketchup or liver sauce.

Is this as Filipino as it gets? Well, I’m no Liza Soberano, but the pinatayong manok was certainly was the most presentable dish of the bunch, and the chicken even tasted as good as it looked!

I: The chicken tasted like the turkey I had from Thanksgiving. It might have been a bit dry, but still good. I hope the cooking staff could make the dish juicier so it could give a warm hug to one’s mouth.

The “Looks Familiar, Tastes Familiar” Dish: Laing 2-Ways

M: [EDITOR: Martin might have suffered from momentary food coma at this point since he didn’t remember tasting this dish.]

I: The laing, as its name suggests, was prepared in two different ways. Thankfully, this was the only dish I would have loved to eat at the same time. It was creamy-soft, and the sprinkled adobo chips were a plus. Most laing I tried were waaayyy too salty and, sometimes, even bitter. For this dish, it wasn’t as salty as I initially expected. So, for me, this is one of the best laing I have had so far here in Iloilo. It was perfect!

The “What You See is What You Get” Dish: Grilled Liempo

M: Are there any other ways of describing liempo? It’s nicely-grilled pork belly, which was just about the nicest thing anyone could hope for when eating it.

One plus I could say was that Mesa’s liempo was surprisingly soft and tender, with just the right layer of fat in between the skin and meat.

I: It has a porky aftertaste (and yes, this is me saying that pork isn’t my favorite dish).

Most “Fancy-Looking AF” Dish: Mango Panna Cotta

M: In my opinion, panna cotta, a well-known Italian dessert, was the right dish to ground us back into reality after all the heavy eating. It has to be said that this was also a technically-challenging dish to cook, so it would be understandable for even the most experienced cook to get it wrong.

The prerequisite “Pinoy twist” on the panna cotta was, of course its mango purée base that surrounded the soft gelatin and was topped with mango slices. With that, it brought out the flavors from the rather neutral gelatin taste. The sweetness wasn’t overwhelming, it was perfectly balanced.

I: This was like Expectation vs. Reality: the dish looked too pretty to be “real”, but it was just straight-up bland-tasting gelatin. I couldn’t taste the cream nor the vanilla, but the mango sauce saved that dessert. I hope they could improve upon it, since a good-looking dessert like this deserves a second chance.

Martin Espino is a caffeine-reliant, analogue-loving individual who writes in his spare time. You can follow him on Instagram at @frozen_armpits.

Ina Isis Deocampo is a freelance artist and has a passion for trying out new food culture. She also makes short vlogs or food reviews to add to her growing list of food trips.