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BEST PLACE TO EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED Phoenix 2003 - Manila Cafe

There are times when just another meal of mainstream Italian, Mexican or American just won't do. We live on the edge, darn it, and our dinner needs to celebrate our daring, dashing nature.

Food doesn't get any more exciting than at Manila Cafe. It's Filipino, a dramatic blend of Malay, Chinese and Spanish, with hints of Indian, Mexican, Arab and American influences. For real adventure, we often leave the ordering up to the friendly family that owns the place. Just bring us what's best today.

This means we sit at our table in the tiny store for hours on end, nibbling at plates of things that we can't pronounce but that are mesmerizing with multilayered flavors of vinegar, black pepper, garlic, anchovy and ginger. Perhaps we'll sample bulalo (beef kneecap with vegetables), binagoongang baboy (sautéed pork with fish sauce, tomatoes, onion and garlic) and pritong bangus (fried milkfish). If we're a bit frightened of an unfamiliar fare, we're offered freebie taste spoons of dishes like afritadang manok (juicy sautéed chicken with tomatoes, onion and bell pepper), or dinuguan (a surprisingly tasty dish of pork with pork blood sauce, pork ear, vinegar, black pepper and jalape?o over white rice). We'd never have imagined the charms of pinakbet otherwise, bringing a wicked stew of string beans, tart bittermelon, okra, meaty eggplant and chunks of skin-on pork boiled in anchovy sauce.

There's no doubt our madcap side is well-fed here, with far-out but fantastic assemblies like pochero, a plate of pork, beef or chicken sautéed in tomato sauce alongside Spanish sausage, bananas, potatoes and cabbage. Wild thing -- Manila Cafe, that is -- we think we love you.

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