Emphatic Exclamations: Empingao!

7 months ago

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LOCATED IN A DISCREET CORNER OF THE POBLACION DISTRICT, ONE IS DRAWN TO THE EFFERVESCENT VIBE RADIATING FROM EMPINGAO. With its flashing lights and mouth-watering scents wafting from the kitchen, the quaint joint oozes in personality, emanating a pure sense of Latin American vibe from its food to its interiors.

The name Empingao is a cheeky salute to its regional inspiration, a colloquial Latino term that roughly translates into “excellent” or “awesome.” The brainchild of a group of high school friends with a dream of opening up a food establishment, several collaborations with Chef Mikel Zaguirre morphed the original food cart concept into a full scale restaurant. Serendipity played a big role when the owners luckily chanced upon a prime spot that opened in the Poblacion district, a neighborhood slowly making a bold transition into the next foodie haven, with a surge of new restaurants opening close by. Careful studies of the area ushered in the concept of Latin American cuisine. “We felt that Latin American flavors went well with the vibe of the neighborhood,” shares Martin Palma, Empingao’s front of the house consultant, “We wanted to be a place where people could taste all the different influences of Latin America, a melting pot of sorts.”

The cool Bohemian vibe of Latin America beats all throughout Empingao’s warm and vivid space, from the bright, paunchy colors of its hand painted walls filled with references to Dia de Muertos, the Mexican Day of the Dead, to its easy breezy atmosphere that coalesces into the very energy that makes it as seductive as the Latin American spirit it embodies. A quick perusing of the menu indeed reveals just how prevalent this influence is, filled with offerings of Empingao’s creative take on what Latin American comfort food is, influenced by dishes found in Cuba, Colombia, Peru, and other countries where Empingao pulls its inspiration from. “The dishes here are all influenced by Latin American fare,” Martin says, “but as you can see, probably if you go to Mexico, you wouldn’t necessarily see our version of the Salmon Taco over there.”

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While Empingao stays true to the region’s flavor, one can easily sense the intangible stamp of Chef Mikel’s bold personality on all the dishes. “Knowing Chef Kel, he’s never shy or skimpy about flavors,” Martin describes, “every bite that you take really packs a powerful punch.”

And, what a wallop it is. Each dish that Empingao offers flows seamlessly into each other. Armed with an incredibly well-balanced menu, its impressive array of items provide an interesting counterpoint of flavor profiles for each other, heightening Empingao’s food that is full of soul and passion, yet infused with a subtle mellowness that belies its strong flavors.

Inventive plating, another signature of Chef Mikel, makes the food convivial and contemporary: hearty sandwiches skewered with pickle slices, baskets of crispy patacones, and piping hot skillets filled with tender, smoky meat slow cooked to perfection. “It really looks appetizing because you eat first with your eyes,” says Martin, “but when you bite into it, it actually exceeds the hype that your eyes provide.”

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Empingao truly delivers on the expectation of good food as their dishes are a veritable feast for the senses. Each bite reverberates with a richness tempered with approachability, much like the incessant beat of pulsating salsa music that echoes within Empingao’s walls. Start off with the vivid complexity of their Salmon Tacos: fried corn tortillas housing crunchy romaine lettuce, fresh grilled salmon, and succulent mandarin oranges, coupled with the sexy spiciness of chimichurri, offset with the delicate tang of mango mayo. By contrast, the Elena Ruz is an elegant sandwich that marries the sweetness of strawberry jam with the velvety richness of cream cheese and the candour of turkey ham. Not to be left out, the robust Cubano sandwich is full of character, with its hearty serving of ham and mojo pork, and Gruyère cheese nestled on a bed of pan Cubano. The Mofongo offers layers of contrasting textures: soft mashed plantains against the smoky goodness of pork rinds cooked to perfection and crispy bacon bits. The treacly wonders of their Tres Leches cake caps off any meal with its delightful creaminess.

Overall, it’s a cuisine that is both earthy and vibrant, comforting yet exciting, unprecedented yet familiar. It embraces the region’s diversity and invites it all in, truly leveraging everything that its name promises: exquisiteness in every bite. It encapsulates a lot of what Empingao! wishes to embody: an irresistible invitation to let one’s hair down and revel in the palpable sense of flamboyance that is the soul of Latin America.


Words by Mels Timan

Photographed by Floyd Jhocson of Studio 100


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