I am always curious to try Filipino food, and my search recently took me to Ensalada Cafe on K’Rd.
Until the excellent Nanam opened in Royal Oak a few years ago, Filipino cuisine had kept a low profile in Auckland. Then a few more places followed suit, from humble stalls in night markets to the finer A’Meza on Dominion Road and Azon in Parnell: suddenly Filipino food wasn’t so hard to find anymore. Despite having visited all of them, I feel like I haven’t tried enough chicken Adobo in my time to make my final verdict on Filipino food. So one dreary wet and windy summer’s night my friend Sigourney and I found ourselves sitting down at Ensalada Café on K’Rd, a Filipino restaurant that had come recommended by our friend Romeo who is of Filipino heritage.
Ensalada cafe is a bright, white space with a large mural of a monument undoubtedly in the Phillipines emblazoning one wall, and Filipino soap operas playing on a large flat screen at the back of the restaurant. It is evidently a mom and pop joint, both of who were at the helm the night we visited. The menu reads full of dishes that haven’t made an appearance on some of the finer dining Filipino restaurants; there is the option of ordering family sized mains to share or individual meals and offal makes more than a casual appearance in a number of dishes. I turned a blind eye to the ‘international mains and pasta’ section.
Sigourney and I were enticed by the ceviche kinilaw, however it is subject to availability of fresh catch and so there was no ceviche for us on this night; whilst a tad disappointing, I respect their commitment to freshness. We couldn’t say no to the kare-kare bagnet ($29), a dish featuring twice-cooked pork belly served over a peanutty stew of vegetables including green beans, eggplant and, continuing with the theme of seasonality, bok choy. An unusual but authentic dish, the pork belly crackling was nice and crunchy and the fat well rendered so there was no cloying greasiness; the kare-kare stew a very mild, satay-esque sauce which was served alongside a pungent chilli and shrimp sambal which pepped the dish up well.
We also ordered the ensalada pancit ($19), a stir-fried noodle dish featuring pan-fried chicken breast, chicken liver and an assortment of chopped vegetables. The pancit, although tasty (especially after being dressed with a squeeze of lemon which was as nice foil) was nothing special; this is not the more unusual or adventurous of dishes and the chicken livers were a bit strong for our tastes.
One can never order too many carbs (usually) and to soak up all the kare-kare sauce we also ordered a side of Java rice ($4), the Philippine’s answer to a pilaf of sorts. The Java rice was rich with turmeric and annatto (a spice commonly used in Filipino cooking) lending a vibrant golden hue and flavoured with butter and capsicums.
We would have loved to order the leche flan for dessert however our stomachs were groaningly full; we had leftovers enough to have fed a third person and happily took these to go.
Ensalada Café offers an accessible approach to homely Filipino food and is a good middle of the road option for those wanting to try it for the first time.