What’s that you hear? It’s the hungry sigh of the city’s Filipino tribes waiting for lunch to be served at La Mesa. After 10 years in Dee Why, La Mesa – Filipino for table – has moved south of the bridge to Haymarket to inject a buzz of Filipinessence in one of the city’s most vibrant food districts.
Up a flight of stairs on bustling Goulburn Street, a bright dining space evokes the colonial charm of yesteryear Manila. There are dark wood and wicker chairs, lights in rattan fittings and long upholstered benches, complete with cushions, which invite you to sit and linger. But La Mesa’s modern touches – walls adorned with black-framed sepia prints and a ceiling gleaming with ornate mirrors – save it from straying too far into the kitsch. It’s part fiesta, part home-cooked meal, but served just the way your Tita makes it.
And that’s the secret behind its success. Filipinos are notoriously picky when it comes to their food. Forget the Italians, in an archipelago of over 7000 islands catering to the variety of regional tastebuds – and getting it bang on right – is about as difficult as picking the winning numbers on Monday night’s Oz Lotto. But this is where La Mesa excels.
The quintessential Filipino flavours are well represented in an extensive menu divided into meats, seafood, noodles, and veg, as well more exotic offerings cheekily labelled ‘not for the faint hearted’. For those new to the cuisine get your tastebuds acclimatised with the mixed entree ($8.50), the highlights include the smoky skewer of caramel-soy bbq pork or chicken (your choice) and the crispy patty of fried shrimp and vegetables (okoy). There’s also a fried quail egg, a spring roll and a serve of beef tapa – spiced beef with a smack of chilli vinegar on the side.
For mains, do as the locals do and indulge in the salty-sour hum of the tamarind based pork sinigang soup ($18), the lip-smacking caramel, garlic and soy of the (unofficial) national dish, pork adobo ($15), and slow-cooked unctuous ox-tails in their thick semi-sweet, peanut sauce in the kare-kare ($21). Try it with a dollop of salty, spicy sauteed shrimp (bagoong) and wait for the fiesta to unravel in your mouth. Pork lovers shouldn’t go past La Mesa’s signature dish of crispy pata ($20). A deep fried pork leg so crispy and golden that every bite is a cross between pork crackling and tender meat.
Got room for dessert? The halo-halo ($8) – a Filipino knickerbocker glory – is a must. A dessert medley of tropical fruits (jackfruit, sweet purple yam, lychees and coconut) and candied beans served with shaved ice, milk and ice cream, it’s as colourful to look at as it’s flavoursome in the mouth.
This is food meant for sharing so gather your mates and immerse yourself in this slice of Filipiniana right in the heart of the city.