Alegria Manila Has New Filipino-Latin American Menu
We’re loving Chef Charles Montañez's bold foray into the intricacies of transcultural flavor combinations!
As this April’s Filipino Food Month has come to a close, it seems quite fitting that I recently found myself dining in the dark and dreamy interiors of Alegria Manila. It’s a restaurant that seems to celebrate Philippine culinary heritage, but not in ways we expect or even recognize. Since the restaurant opened in 2022, its chef Charles Montañez certainly knows and cooks Filipino but in his own out-of-the-box way, without being constrained by whatever boundaries we tend to put up when defining a cuisine by its nationality.
Located in Uptown Parade in BGC, Alegria Manila has quickly made a name for itself thanks to Montañez’s flair for the transcultural, as he flits between Latin America and the Philippines, exploring its regional specificities and discovering flavor connections between them. At the restaurant’s invitation, I was privileged to experience Montañez’s brand new tasting menu, available as a full 14 courses, a shortened seven courses, with a pescatarian option available, plus wine and cocktail pairings.
While Alegria Manila’s first tasting menu focused on small bites and tapas, this new one highlights the main courses with a fun, more interactive approach. In a press release, Montañez shares, “We will be mixing and matching different components and cooking techniques while utilizing local produce and Latin American ingredients. We are creating dishes that are completely our own.”
From the very start, this young chef makes good on that statement with a parade of dishes I’m sure I haven’t tasted anywhere else. That’s because Alegria Manila seems to operate on a whole different “vibe” compared to other chef-focused restaurants. Perhaps that starts with the interiors—the neon-lit bar, the brash artwork, the trumpet-shaped chandeliers, the black walls, black linens, black staff uniforms—that feel more like a nightclub than a temple of gastronomy. With music playing a few notches louder than the usual background music (but still not too obtrusive), I felt a “club”-like energy reverberating throughout the evening, encouraging diners to tear down any pretenses, expectations or even inhibitions, and simply vibe to the flavor-intense experiences to come.
And vibe I certainly did, starting with the bread and butter that our server first laid out on the table. He explained that the bread is inspired by a traditional panaderia staple called putok, known for its star-shaped crown. Alegria’s version does have that same golden crown, but it hides a light-as-a-feather, buttery brioche interior, a very far cry from the much denser putok of my memories. The savory spreads that come with the bread are reminiscent of a Filipino breakfast—mini tapsilog patties using carabeef, garlicky sinangag-infused butter topped with grated egg yolk, and mango buro (fermented rice). This bread course made me so happy I could’ve tucked in a few more buns and called it a night. But this was only the beginning.
Like a movie teaser, the first set of dishes squeeze Filipino, Japanese, Latin American elements into bite-sized portions: smoked eggplant with oscietra caviar and sundried tomatoes; prawn “satti” on a toasty cassava bed; a chicken-intense chawanmushi featuring an inasal-tinged yolk-like sphere set in a stone bowl. Unexpectedly, my favorite snack is perhaps Montañez’s most daring one: a dinuguan mini-cup filled with tanigue kinilaw, ikura and a touch of aji amarillo or yellow chili pepper. The flavors are intense, almost too acidic even, but bring a punch like no other, searing themselves into my taste memory like not many dishes have the capacity to do.
The appetizers that follow bring a bit more heft (and carbs) to the fore. Etag jowl (preserved salted pork from the Cordilleras) is flavored with a sofrito of onions and jalapeño and comes with burong singkamas and puffed rice. While the dish may be inspired by Ilocano dinakdakan, it takes on a piquant character all of its own. The next appetizer is what I can best describe as a mashup of a Mexican quesadilla and an Ilonggo piaya, stuffed with aged Comté, goat and raclette cheeses, plus a sprinkling of muscovado. The chef serves this with a fiery salsa molcajete, named after the traditional Mexican lava stone mortar and pestle it’s crushed in.
After a refreshing mango-apricot-chamoy-pecorino palate cleanser, the main event arrived—five dishes that bring a plethora of geographic references to the plate. The first one is Montañez’s take on the quintessential Asian noodle soup, where he magically transforms ubod (heart of palm) into smooth pho-like noodles swimming in a light prawn head broth with Hokkaido scallop, and punctuated with house corn and kombu caviar. It’s clearly a standout dish that shows how cross-cultural elements can truly find common ground.
Next, Montañez dares to subvert convention, leading with a delicate beef dish, followed by a “meatier” fish course, instead of the other way around. He keeps his “steak” course light and elegant, by way of A4 Wagyu carpaccio arranged over a bed of adlai, enoki and smoked tripe, topped with crispy shallots, and with a side of bone marrow torched at the table.
The fish dish that followed is his version of Brazilian fish moqueca with a profusion of influences: Bicolano laing inside a Mexican tetela (a triangle-shaped wrapper made from masa), flavored with sibujing (a type of scallion prevalent in Maranao cooking) and Afro-Brazilian dende oil (a reddish palm fruit oil).
Next, the Iberico pork course leans heavier on a different set of Latin American references, with salsa Veracruz from Colombia, cinnamon-inflected horchata from Mexico, served with quinoa, kale chicharron and a red pepper-corn sabayon. The Pinoy touch, amusingly, is not in the food, but in the custom-made shiny balisongs (butterfly knives) offered to cut into the pork.
The last dish, a generous platter of tacos for sharing, is the most straightforward, but it may also be the most satisfying. Montañez explains that the fillings can change on any given day, but on the day of my dinner, he served slow-cooked chicken barbacoa redolent with spices, served with corn tortillas and a smattering of salsas. There’s really nothing quite like a proper taco, and this one more than proves why tacos are really one of the greatest food inventions of all time.
After zipping back and forth between the Philippines and Latin America through 12 courses, things calmed down a bit with the two dessert courses: a chocolate-caramel-vanilla-pineapple concoction, followed by a strawberry-basil-tea dish, one playing with the lush and creamy, while the other keeping things light and fruity. These were a fitting, more low-key conclusion to the rollercoaster of flavor combinations that Montañez presented. I admit that I did not fall in love with every dish on the tasting menu, but that’s perfectly okay, because the dishes I loved are forever imprinted in my mind.
From the very start, I sense that Montañez is operating from a very different playbook than the one most chefs play with, and guess what, he seems to be having a lot of fun in the process. He is clearly vibing to his own beat, deepening his knowledge of ingredients and techniques, and expanding his repertoire of flavor combinations without fear or trepidation.
People may debate the point of whether his food is Filipino or not, modern or fusion or borderless or whatever else. Montañez is probably not that concerned about this ongoing debate, letting his dishes happily dance to the gustatory rhythms that inspire him. And as long as we, as diners, sidestep the labels we all too often place on food, people and ideas, at least for one night, we can simply get entranced and even enamored by what Alegria Manila has to offer. After all, “alegria” means joy, and that’s exactly what we get when we enter its doors.