Since Metro Manila first went on lockdown in March, a whole bunch of restaurants have had to throw in the towel due to the many challenges of running a business during COVID-19 times. However, one brazen café has bucked this trend by opening against all odds in late June. Serving its version of weekend brunch with Filipino touches, Almusal Café can be found inside The Pop Up, an open-air mall along Katipunan Avenue in Quezon City.
“Of course the conditions aren’t ideal,” admits managing partner James Thomas. “But we wouldn’t call it crazy to be opening right now. More than ever, people want comfort food. And Filipino breakfast food is about as hearty and comforting as it gets.”
Perhaps one reason for that brazenness lies in the story of these two millennial partners—Thomas and Matthew Lay—who both left their home countries, the US and Australia respectively, to settle in the Philippines. They first came for a short visit, fell in love with the culture, went back home, but after six months, decided to pack their bags and make a go of it in Manila.
The partners chose Katipunan Avenue for its young vibe, with nearby universities and a café culture already in place. “The idea was to marry New York and Australian café culture with Filipino breakfast, which we feel hasn’t quite gotten as much attention as it should have,” says Lay who runs operations. “There are three things all good Melbourne cafés have: tasty, creative food; great coffee; and they’re all connected to their communities in a deep way. That’s what we’ve tried to replicate at Almusal Café, from the recipes down to the furniture and to branding,” he adds.
Both Thomas and Lay have the necessary restaurant skills and experience to help ensure their new café gets off to a good start, especially with the more stringent hygiene, safety, and social distancing standards they have to put in place. A New Yorker, Thomas used to be the general manager of Jewel Bako, a Michelin-starred restaurant in the East Village. Lay, on the other hand, worked in Melbourne’s competitive F&B industry and also trained in Italy as a gelatiere (or gelato chef).
Thomas and Lay bring their cosmopolitan touches to familiar Filipino breakfast fare that they love. Their Beef Belly Tapa and Pork Tocino are cooked in a sous-vide machine for at least 24 hours before being finished off in the pan and topped with chimichurri sauce.
They cure their own bacon, adding honey butter for a subtle sweetness to counter the saltiness of the thick slab. They also slow roast their Lamb Adobo for at least 12 hours, with spices added for more depth of flavor.
They aptly call their requisite fried chicken dish the “Ultimate Fried Chicken,” as it consists of two giant boneless chicken fillets, breaded and deep fried, and served with thick country gravy, hot honey, and chili-lime corn.
Perhaps opening in the midst of a pandemic can be seen as an advantage, as it forces the owners to be prepared from the start. They properly researched the best eco-friendly packaging for their jarred sauces and frozen dishes, knowing that takeout and delivery would be a big part of the business, especially when dine-in is not allowed. They trained their staff from the get go in hygiene, safety, and social distancing protocols. They also signed up with Beep Delivery, Grab, and FoodPanda, making it easier for customers to order online.
While it’s still a challenging time to stay in business, according to the partners, the COVID-19 situation hasn’t dampened their enthusiasm for the local food scene and its potential. “I actually think it’s a time for local food to shine—we source a lot of produce from neighborhood markets and really prioritize sustainability, and in turn the community has come out to support us in a big way,” says Lay.
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“When people come in and tell us they’re excited to eat our food, that it’s a little something they can look forward to in these uncertain times—for us, that makes it all worth it,” adds Thomas.
Almusal Café, The Pop Up, 237 Katipunan Avenue, Quezon City, Instagram @almusal.cafe