The local restaurant industry is steadily growing with several independent brands popping up alongside the influx of national and international brands. While new restaurants have the challenge of making their mark among the other established and new names, it would be a struggle for many, for any, to stay open past the first two years in this ever more fickle market. To stay relevant beyond five would be no mean feat.
The historically unlucky number thirteen bodes well for the homegrown Ilaputi in that they celebrate their thirteenth year, this year. With this luck came a lot of commitment to making each meal truly an experience. Behind the glamour of the food, the minimalist aesthetics, the hip music — this epitome of accessible, classy cool on The Island — is a story of blood, sweat and tears holding aloft a dream of elevating the standards of the local food industry.
Ilaputi’s story goes back to owner and Executive Chef Jan Rodriguez’s childhood moniker, obviously owing to his complexion, “Puti”. Fast forward years later and it finds its way into equally humble beginnings as a karenderya operated — in all definitions of hands-on involvement — by himself and his wife Karen with only a skeletal service crew. Given a smattering of eateries right across University of San Carlos – Talamban Campus, what was a student market from the get go had several answers to the perpetual question: “Where shall we eat?”. Didto sa Avalon, sa Kantina, kang Butchoy, ila(ng) Badong . . . Ila Puti.
Ila Puti’s following increased with the expansion of its more specialized menu and also as a space to both proverbially and literally chill in. The salaried crowd soon caught up with the college set and it didn’t take long after for its transformation to the institution that it is today. 2005 saw IT Park as the new home of the rebranded Ilaputi, the two-word former now fused into one and the old definitives meeting additional innovations.
Retaining all the old favorites, Ilaputi serves their signature Asian Soul Food as, in yet another distinction, the first and only full-service restaurant operating 24/7. In celebration of their anniversary, select local personalities and members of the media were invited to sit down to an intimate lunch for a review of what built the past thirteen years and a preview of years to come.
Gambas, simply done in garlic and olive oil, opened the special thirteen-courser. The straight-up sauté involves none of the Filipinization with tomato sauce and plays the pungency of garlic and the distinctive richness and flavor of olive oil to bring out the briny-sweet brightness of the plump shrimps.
Szechuan Peppercorns, with its secondary heat on top of the initial pepper flavor, give their new dish, Gong Bao Chicken, a kick. Of a thicker make than the standard recipe, the sauce packs savory-sweet flavor which extends into the rice which it is also stir-fried in. The smoky flavor and the leathery texture of dried peppers give extra dimension to the dish with the crunch of peanuts.
Ilaputi serves up a take on the liempo inspired by sinuglaw. Overnight-marinated Garlic Pork Belly served with Coconut Vinegar Dip and Garlic Shrimp Fried Rice make up their Grilled Liempo. The succulent, garlicky pork gets a smoky char from the grilling brightened by the tang of the dip with, “surf” to the “turf, dried shrimps hibi marrying the garlic in the rice in both flavor and aroma.
Grilled Hoisin-glazed Chicken Breast Fillet with Five-spice Barbecue Sauce, Hungarian and Chinese Sausages in Peking-fried Rice. That mouthful of a menu item description makes the Grilled Chinese Chicken Jambalaya one, too. Cool heat in the barbecue sauce is darkly sweetened by the Hoisin on a generous cut of chicken breast. The spicy Hungarian contrasts with the sweet Chinese sausage on the Oriental flavored fried rice. Sweated white onions add more flavor depth and crunch to the dish.
One of Jan’s personal favorites, Saigon Adobo gets its Vietnam feel from the Lemongrass-infused Tenderloin Adobo with the Nuoc Nam, a Vietnamese fish sauce, cementing it. Garlic-Shrimp Fried Rice completes the flavor profile.
One of the first dishes, the Penang Plato, represented the Puti’s Platos line. A Malaysian mock-Satay — mock as it is actually a stir-fry — was served with Coconut-Shrimp Fried Rice, Cucumbers and Peanut Sauce.
Oftentimes confused with Pasta Carbonara, a white sauce of Bacon-infused Mushrooms, Cream and Bacon Bits make for a simply straightforward comfort dish in the Pasta Puti.
Inspired by Coca Cola and the barbecue-flavored corn chips, Chippy, Ilaputi premiered another new item, Southside Ribs. Featuring fall-off-the-bone meat of Baby Back Ribs in spicy-sweet Homemade Guava Barbecue Sauce, it is paired with a Salted Egg Fried Rice peppered generously with hibi. Like that popular snack combination, the ribs and the fried rice dance in the mouth in a medley of spicy, sweet and salty flavors.
Expecting Chinese elements in the Dragon Chops, the dish had none. A Pan-seared Pork Chop was drizzled with Garlic Cilantro Yoghurt, paired with Garlic-Raisin Fried Rice and a side of Mango Chutney. The welcome dragon came by the diners breath from the strong garlic and cilantro flavors and scents. Sweetness from the raisins and the chutney with the earthiness of the turmeric and cumin in the rice balance out the more aggressive flavors.
Everyone admitted that the Stroganov has quite the strong pull. This short-order version of a three-hour cook-time Rodriguez family recipe may very well be the standard for Beef Stroganoff on The Island. Tender beef strips swim with mushrooms in a sour cream sauce that is good enough to eat alone with the inclusive Garlic Fried Rice.
In a nod to the growing local Korean population, Ilaputi serves a more savory, spicy version of the classic Bibimbap. Beef Tips, Carrots, Shiitake and Champignon Mushrooms, fresh greens and a pan-fried egg rest on a mountain of Gochujang Fried-Rice. Gochujang gave it enough heat reined in by the natural slight sweetness of this ferment.
Jan’s Signature Sisig does sisig right with an authentic Kapampangan recipe using grilled pig’s mask, pig brain, loads of chopped garlic and onions with chili and a dusting of umami dried-fish powder. Soft, chewy and crunchy textures of the offal mix played well with the spice and seasoning combo. Guest and Pampanga-native, Marco, nodded in agreement to the authenticity on his fist bite.
Jan spoke of long lines at a Bahn Mi shop manned by a beautiful girl in New Jersey. Curiosity satisfied the cat with a great sandwich backing up the come-on of the pretty face. His Vietcondobo Sandwich “Viets” out soft adobo pork with an intense Cilantro and Basil Pesto. Pickled Carrots and Cucumbers give it a crunch on a Wheat Baguette. Pickled Cucumbers and Skins-on Potato Wedges finish the board for this surprisingly heavy hitter.
Desserts were not served as they are also notably absent on the regular menu. For now, Ilaputi would gladly refer patrons to their neighboring coffee shops for sweet treats though a shortlist of one or two items are being considered to meet that demand in the near future. Sweets of the liquid kind are available to complement the savories in their extensive lineup of signature drinks. There are the more tame ice blended teas, juices and smoothies and the adventurous spiked blends.
Looking at passing on the business as a legacy for their four sons, Jan and Karen never rest easy in their constant push to improve and introduce innovations to the restaurant. Karen, having left her former job of ten years at a telco, now mothers over Ilaputi and their other concept, Irie Gastropubliko, as the Chief Operations Officer of the Ethan Irie Group. The couple especially welcomes the involvement of their patrons and relish the connections they make across all their social media platforms. With their tangible passion to share great overall meal experiences, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see another thirteen years of Ilaputi — even more.
Ilaputi is located at the ground floor of i1 Bldg., Cebu IT Park, Apas, Lahug, Cebu City.