★★★★☆ / Filipino

Bong Bong’s Manila Kanteen review – Filipino food comes to Bethnal Green

BBQ Dreamz street food stall settles down in east London

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A street food stall serves up a cuisine barely known to most Londoners, earning plaudits and a devoted following in the process. Following a series of pop-ups, residencies and barn-storming media appearances, it finally finds a permanent home in trendy east London, albeit on a quiet, out-of-the-way street. There, it plies its trade as one of London’s newest restaurants, hoping to thrive against the odds.

It’s a story that’s very 2016, the biography of so many London restaurants that have come and gone over the past few years. It’s also the origin story of the quixotically named Bong Bong’s Manila Kanteen. Unrelated to either the Bang Bang Oriental Foodhall or Bunga Bunga, this Filipino restaurant started out life as street food traders BBQ Dreamz before finding its premises in Bethnal Green near Cambridge Heath Overground station.

illustrative photo of the lounge at Bong Bong's Manila Kanteen

No, I don’t know what those hanging ornaments are either. Cat toys, perhaps?

It’s a very functional location far from much passing trade. But despite this and its name, Bong Bong’s isn’t a no-frills greasy spoon. The lighting is moodily dim to the point that you need to use your phone’s torch to read the short menu. The bar area leads into a plush living room with its own sofa, although it can also be reconfigured to host a banqueting table.

illustrative photo of the dining room at Bong Bong's Manila Kanteen

Bethnal Green’s Paradise Garage is still sorely missed.

The short menu doesn’t attempt to recreate the entire culinary pantheon of the Philippines, but focusses on a handful of meaty favourites alongside a few seafood and vegetable dishes. The results can be an electrifying introduction to Filipino food.

illustrative photo of the bar at Bong Bong's Manila Kanteen

The decor of the bar area manages to evoke the tropics without resorting to the hoary old tiki bar cliches.

Bong Bong’s noodle salad was reminiscent of Vietnamese bun. Light, thin and supple vermicelli-style rice noodles came dressed with chilli, parsley, a dusting of crushed nuts and a tart brine. The best element here had to be the pickled green papaya, its tartness and bell pepper-style crispness proving to be the perfect encapsulation of this starter’s qualities – flavoursome yet refreshing.

illustrative photo of the noodle salad at Bong Bong's Manila Kanteen

Fruit salad.

The coconut creamed mix of spinach and kale was moreishly bittersweet, with Crispy Rendang and I fighting over every mouthful.

illustrative photo of the spinach and kale laing at Bong Bong's Manila Kanteen

Eat your greens.

Moist, chunky chicken wings came slicked with a glaze of uncommon beauty. Brimming with citrusy flavours, both sweet and acidic in perfect balance. Subtle yet somehow distinctively bold at the same time, it was electrifyingly addictive. Sadly, the wings weren’t quite as nuanced and bold on a subsequent visit with Crispy Rendang. While still moreish, the citrusy flavours were far less pronounced. The vegetarian-friendly version which replaces the chicken wings with cauliflower was underwhelming, with the florets proving to be poor conveyors for the glaze’s qualities. The cauliflower was, admittedly, firm and not at all overcooked.

illustrative photo of the double-fried chicken wings at Bong Bong's Manila Kanteen

Guess which shots were taken on my ageing phone and which were taken on my dedicated camera.

illustrative photo of the adobo-glazed chicken wings at Bong Bong's Manila Kanteen

Not a pasty.

illustrative photo of the adobo-glazed cauliflower at Bong Bong's Manila Kanteen

Tendrils.

Prawns served in a coconut, lemongrass and ginger sauce resembled a faint Thai curry, with the crispness of the herb garnishes and the milkiness of the sauce proving to be the most memorable elements in an otherwise deeply unmemorable dish.

illustrative photo of the prawns at Bong Bong's Manila Kanteen

One of Bong Bong’s more interesting neighbours is a Bulgarian grocers.

Although the skewered duck hearts didn’t have the snappy firm texture of the very best grilled offal, they were nonetheless earthy and moist. Texture came instead of crisp little morsels of pork crackling. Although the dish wasn’t the yakitori-beating blockbuster I had hoped for, with the crackling-induced texture a clever if only partially effective feint, these little hearts still won me over.

illustrative photo of the duck heart skewers at Bong Bong's Manila Kanteen

Half-hearted?

A generous helping of fleshy aubergine, cubed into chunks, came in a curry-like sauce of unparalleled beauty. It was an entrancingly sophisticated thing with layers of earthiness followed by muskiness and a gentle sweetness. It was so beguilingly addictive, I was almost in mourning when I finished the last spoonful.

illustrative photo of the aubergine kare kare at Bong Bong's Manila Kanteen

Love at first bite.

Although the slab of grilled mackerel didn’t have the distinctive taste that makes the fish so enjoyable, this fish dish was by no means a write-off. The mackerel was eminently scoffable thanks to a light and refreshing dressing of chilli, parsley, tomatoes, red onions and fennel with everything bound together by a citrusy brine.

illustrative photo of the mackerel at Bong Bong's Manila Kanteen

This review’s procrastination was brought to you, in part, by Daft Punk.

It’s easy to become blasé and complacent about pork belly, taking its charms for granted. Then you encounter Bong Bong’s version and realise just how wondrous it can be. These delicately crisp, then crunchy and unctuously meaty porcine cubes sat somewhere in between a Cantonese-style crispy roast pork and Hispanophile chicharróns, but were far better than any version of either that I’ve had in this town.

illustrative photo of the lechon kawali pork belly at Bong Bong's Manila Kanteen

Belly rubs.

Bong Bong’s cured bavette steak was a similarly wondrous carnivorous treat. The delicately pink medallions of rare beef had a moreishly tart and sour tang that shows there can be more to steak than just browning and fat. Although the green beans felt a bit intrusive, the radishes and coriander complimented the beef neatly with their sweet crispness and clean aftertaste.

illustrative photo of the beef tapa at Bong Bong's Manila Kanteen

Adeptly cut, marinated, cured, seared and served.

The lime sorbet was sullied by a veritable hail storm of chunky ice crystals. The sharp mulchy crunch and teeth-chattering cold were a shame as the flavour combination of tart sharpness and sugary sweetness was potently refreshing and satisfying.

illustrative photo of the lime sorbet at Bong Bong's Manila Kanteen

Wintery conditions.

A crisp, crunchy and oil-free spring roll came filled with a banana and cinnamon combo that was unsurprisingly reminiscent of caramel and chocolate in its tangy sweetness. That made the cool, smooth and refreshing qualities of the ube purple yam ice cream all the more essential. With a starchy sweetness akin to sweet potato, it was a delight in its own right too and well worth having on its own if you don’t fancy the deep-fried delights of the sweet spring roll.

illustrative photo of the turon banana and cinnamon spring roll with ube purple yam ice cream at Bong Bong's Manila Kanteen

Imperial purple.

illustrative photo of the turon banana and cinnamon spring roll at Bong Bong's Manila Kanteen

Can you get yam jam?

The Verdict

Bong Bong’s Manila Kanteen is far from the first Filipino restaurant in London, but it is one of the most high profile. Even so, its precarious location makes me worry – even on Thursday and Friday evenings, when other east London restaurants are often heaving from the get-go, business took a while to get going with empty tables going spare. This may explain why the proprietors have been so cautious in their opening hours, with dinner service restricted to Thursday, Friday and the weekends.

Although there were a few wobbles in Bong Bong’s cooking, this restaurant still demands and commands your attention. The multifaceted levels of glazing, marinading, brining and curing remind me of Little Duck The Picklery and the results can often be just as delicious. Bong Bong’s is a potential restaurant classic in the making, but that future is out of reach without your custom. Bong Bong’s deserves to succeed where so many other street food darlings have tried and failed. For now, all we can do is sing its praises and hope for the best.

Name: Bong Bong’s Manila Kanteen

Address: 460 Hackney Road, London E2 9EG

Phone: 07752315088

Web: https://bongbongs.co.uk/

Opening Hours: Tuesday-Wednesday noon-15.00. Thursday-Sunday noon-15.00 and 18.00-22.00. Closed Monday.

Reservations? highly recommended on and around weekends.

Average cost for one person, including soft drinks, when shared between two: £30-35 approx.

Rating: ★★★★☆

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.