Lola Phuong doesn’t want photos taken of her. I am old already – ugly, she said jokingly in Filipino.
Her namesake restaurant, Phuong, has seen two Los Banos locations since she arrived in 1975 from Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) at the height of Vietnam War with her Filipino husband: the first beside Agrix moviehouse for 18 years, and in 2008, about fifty steps away to a hole in a wall at F.O. Santos. But a lot remains the same: the signage, the same fare of thirty-plus dishes she has been serving for many years, dishes taught by her aunt and grandmother back in Vietnam, now carefully prepared by herself or with the help of a close relative.
Jupiter is a long belt of restaurants, food marts, karaoke bars and coffee shops in Makati, on the fringe of the gated subdivision that is Bel-Air. That’s where I find myself two years ago, walking with phone in hand, until I end up at a burger joint called Sweet Ecstasy. Aptly named, I thought as soon as I plop myself in one of their bright red chairs: a group of friends were comforting a guy who sounded like he was dumped by someone. Then, in my most recent visit, two tables away, one man was sobbing, rubbing his eyes with a handkerchief, lifting his eyeglasses from time to time. He was confiding to another man sitting across him, who was absent-mindedly tapping an iPad with Google Maps on the screen. Or maybe they were looking for something – or chasing someone? What were they looking for? Whatever the man said made the other guy calm: end of story. Or was it the burger?
You could say it’s the burger, or you could say it’s the place and the burger. The Jupiter branch’s spare interiors (if you could call the perimeter of the place as that, an interior, even if the place didn’t have any window) and its cement floors already betrays its charm: it seems to be a place you could go to and wail for hours, burger in hand, with a confidant. Chances are that no one would mind. You could say that it is a place to forget, to unload one’s burdens.
You could say it’s the lack of cutlery: if a burger is something you couldn’t hold in both hands, wouldn’t that be another burden? Although they offer extras (cheese, burger patties, bacon) at your discretion, by default the burgers at Sweet Ecstasy are not towering stacks that can get sloppy and messy. And for someone who prefers their burger unadorned, without the bells and whistles, I ordered the Steamburger. It was a difficult decision: this was the time when it was deemed heretical to get something from the menu that did not involve bacon, as if its absence would make anything less indulgent. Quite the contrary: the Steamburger is an exercise in restraint. It is simple and straightforward: beef patty, pickles and cheese sandwiched in steamed burger buns. You squish it in your hand, then you take a bite. The buns are breathtakingly soft – almost similar to siopao – and absorbent, taking in all the drippings, the pickle juice, the gooey melted cheese, all thrumming in wondrous alchemy. The flavors and the textures meld, and the burger-to-bun ratio specifically designed to signal one thing in your brain, underlined: burger. Specifically, a burger so simple it makes you wonder: Where did the steaming method take place? Did they fry the patty first, flip it once, put pickle and cheese on top, then stuffed it in the burger, before they steam it for, what, thirty minutes? Do they leave the burger buns longer in steamers or steam it straight from the freezer? How can it afford not to have a sauce? Is this something I can do at home? When will I have this again? All these questions pop in your mind as the Steamburger warms your hand. Perhaps in some tables are people wallowing in silence, burgers also in hand, while a couple of tables away, the chatter revolve around a friend who probably needed cheering up, their hands holding the balled-up paper where their burgers came in with for hours, and no one would mind.