Takoyaki – those burning gorgeous balls of deliciousness from Japan that are so addicting, you are more than willing to put an entire hot scalding ball into your mouth with gusto. In this single instance, balls to the mouth sounds so wrong, but is oh-so-good at the same time. But enough of that. :et me tell you a tale about a 132km adventure from Makati to Lucena in Quezon Province to visit Kentouka PH – a place that promises the best Japanese food this side of, well, Japan. I’ve known the Kobayashis for more than a decade now and have oftentimes visited their place during fiestas, the baptismal of my friend’s first born son, etc. As such, I am familiar with Tita Marilyn’s cooking, which tastes vastly different from other Japanese restaurants here in Manila. When Yuki informed that they opened a restaurant last June and asked me to visit, I was delighted for them, but had no love for the more-than-6-hour bus ride from the Buendia terminal in Manila to the Lucena Grand Terminal in Quezon. One day, though, with a tank full of gas, a full power bank, a tuned up engine, powered by Waze, and armed with Spotify; it felt like the stars were aligned just right. I was ready to go on this adventure. First roadblock: I was unable to log in to Spotify… no tunes for me, then. Despite the stop-go traffic along the SLEX Calamba exit, parts of Batangas, and in San Pablo, Laguna; Waze guided us along the diversion roads of Sariaya and Candelaria in Quezon to shorten the travel time. It still took me more than 4 hours, though, as Waze also got us lost a couple of times, especially around the Lucena town proper. I have a love-hate relationship with this app. When we finally arrived, it was like Tita Marilyn already knew that we were very hungry and thirsty from the trip. She immediately served us some Okonomiyaki (Japanese savory pancake with various ingredients, Php150) and Gyoza (pork and cabbage dumplings, Php155 for 6 pieces). The Okonomiyaki is filling and delicious; the serving size can fill up one very hungry eater, but it can also easily serve two. I have had some good okonomiyaki here in Manila, but they pale in comparison to Kentouka PH’s, especially in regards to the texture. The same goes with the gyoza. We have good gyoza, but not great gyoza. What makes theirs stand out is the dipping sauce. You can really taste the spices and the sourness of the rice vinegar that complement the savory meat unlike the oftentimes watered down dipping sauce we get in some restaurants. While those aren’t that bad, they tend to hamper the overall dining experience. Then there is the Takoyaki (ball-shaped snack made with wheat flour and filled with octopus or other ingredients, Php95 for 6 pieces/ Php190 for 12 pieces/ Php285 for 18 pieces). I had my first taste of takoyaki when I was still a kid at the food court of a famous department store in Makati. Years have passed since then, though; my palate has matured. It has became a bit more sophisticated (I think), and every takoyaki I try, which claims to be “authentic”, has been a disappointment – one after another. It was either too thick, too floury, no protein with the filling (this is just cabbage, where is my octopus? At least you can out some squid in there), the sauce is tasteless, this is not Japanese mayo!?, skimped with the bonito flakes, so on and so forth (except you cheap and delicious takoyaki from that department store’s food court, I know you are not the real thing but you are my guilty pleasure). Kentouka PH’s takoyaki is said to be one of the best and one taste of it confirms that fact. Every mouthful of this delicious ball is a party and everyone is invited. No skimping with the ingredients – generous serving of octopus in the filling, the bonito flakes, the Japanese mayonnaise, the sweet sauce, the aonori, and the shell which was toasted just right for that bite! And just for Php95??? What can’t we have more of this in Manila? I could actually write an entire article on their takoyaki alone. There is only one place I know of that serves good takoyaki here in Makati. It is located inside a Japanese grocery store near the Manila South Cemetery, is only made on weekends at a specific time in very limited quantities, and you must call ahead of time to reserve a serving… but that is another story for another time. I love Katsudon (breaded deep fried pork cutlet with a bowl of rice, Php175) and this is actually how I gauge a Japanese restaurant. If they can make a basic dish great, then everything will follow. Nothing surprising here as every single morsel to the last grain of rice is very delicious. At this point, I was already full. My mother does not eat much, and this trip was supposed to be for 4 people. One was hung over and could not make the trip, and one just woke up when I already passed Laguna. But the tonkatsu was so good that I just had to finish it to the point that I found myself thinking out loud, “Busog na ako, hindi ko na kaya, pero ang sarap talaga ng kanin…”.Taiyaki (fish-shaped caked with cheese filling, usually anju red bean paste, Php80 for 2 pieces) and hot green tea (Php55) were the last things we had before heading home. I wish we had this restaurant back in Manila. There are a lot of good Japanese restaurants back home specializing in certain dishes, but Kentouka PH is like the greatest hits album – every single thing on the menu is excellent (I actually bought some of the dishes that were not served, what’s the point of traveling that far without bringing some home?). What makes Kentouka PH really stand out is not just the ingredients that were flown in from Japan, especially that pickled ginger which is 100% Japanese (if this was Iron Chef, that is the secret ingredient), and I believe just a few vegetables and meat were bought locally; but it was tita Marilyn’s 30 odd years experience cooking Japanese dishes. She was a chef at a Greek restaurant in Japan and also learned from her sister-in-law who operates a traditional kamameshi restaurant (Kamameshiokame) in Yokohama, Japan. Her husband Nobuyoshi-san also has a very traditional Japanese palate, aside from her daughters Yuki and Mariko. If that does not give her the street cred, I don’t know what will then.
Future plans would be expansion and I was trying to make them open shop in Makati, even during Saturdays at the Salcedo Saturday Market as they also have a place nearby, my stomach and wallet is ready. If not, it looks like another road trip for me in the future.