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This 31-Year-Old Restaurateur Aims To Bring The Flavors Of Mindanao To Manila

Miguel Cabel Moreno is championing delicious dishes inspired by the south
by Vinz Lamorena | Jun 11, 2018
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A thousand islands could only mean a thousand more secrets harbored on its shores. But there is one secret making itself known on the streets of Manila: Mindanaoan cuisine.

The dishes of the south hold their own heritage and tradition, with recipes that share culture and history from the nearby peninsulas stretching as far as India and the Arabic states. These same dishes are what 31-year-old Miguel Cabel Moreno has grown up with, and now, he has built a new home for these flavors to be discovered and loved.

“I wanted to paint the south of the Philippines in a better light. It’s always associated with negativity, terrorism, and violence these days,” Miguel shares. “So I thought, why not introduce something that would show people that there’s actually something really good about those places?”

Photo by Vinz Lamorena

“That’s why I thought of food," he adds. "Kasi ’pag pagkain, that’s what really brings people—most especially Pinoys—together. And we have really good food. Everything we serve here at Palm Grill is purely Mindanaoan so people will know, at least for those who have not travelled south yet, na meron pa lang masasarap na pagkain sa mga areas na people deem na nakakatakot.” 

Photo by Vinz Lamorena

Among Palm Grill’s bestsellers is the Green Chicken, locally known as the Piyanggang na Manok, a Tausug celebratory dish often served during pamamanhikan and weddings. The chicken is slow-cooked in fresh coconut for at least an hour, and is packed with flavors from different herbs and spices. It is served with the traditional Moro turmeric rice, which is among seven other options for sides.

Photo by Vinz Lamorena

“What we serve here are my favorites growing up," Miguel explains. "It’s a fusion with the cuisines of the peninsulas down south. It’s all very traditional. And I think what makes Mindanaoan cuisine unique is a lot of Filipinos have yet to discover it.” Miguel says that he chose to highlight dishes from areas like Zamboanga, Basilan, Jolo, and Tawi-Tawi, parts of Mindanao that are unfamiliar to many. "The fact that it’s so unexplored makes the tastes so unexpected, and there’s a thrill in that. Plus everything is really healthy.” 

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The way they also cook seafood is simple and authentic—usually doused in coconut milk, aligue, garlic and turmeric. The savory Curacha, or deep sea-water crab, is also flown in fresh every morning, caught from the waters of Mindanao the night before so you get the taste of the sea and that succulent crunch in every bite.

Photo by Vinz Lamorena

The farm-to-table restaurant gets their crops from their very own farm in Zamboanga. Apart from opening job opportunities for their staff in Manila, one of Palm Grill’s objectives is to extend the same kind of working environment in the region Miguel wants to highlight in the first place.

Miguel’s vision for Palm Grill isn’t just about making his childhood favorites available in the city he now calls home. For him, it’s all about bringing out the inherent goodness of Mindanao.

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Why feature Mindanaoan cuisine?

I was actually born in Jolo, Sulu. We’re Roman Catholics and my grandparents hail from Ilocos Norte. I got a taste of cuisines from north down to the south. After that we moved to Cebu, and then finally decided to stay in Zamboanga City. That’s where I finished schooling from kinder to college, and basically lived most of my life there.

But I could not neglect the culture, heritage, and tradition of where I was born because as I was growing up, I used to frequent that Jolo back when it was peaceful. I’m happy to have that background and I’m happy I grew up there.

It’s a mix of Christians and Muslims, even Yakans, Badjaos, Tausugs—and we all lived peacefully and I was invited to their homes, ate their food. It saddens me the way it is now, it was always a peaceful place. So I wanted to bring that memory here in Manila.

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I asked myself, if Cebu had their lechon, Ilocos had their bagnet and empanada, and GenSan was known for their tuna, how about the places I grew up in? And I found the answers in the dishes I enjoyed every day as a child.

How did you choose which dishes to include in your menu?

Actually, all these dishes are inspired by traditional recipes, but my mom added some ingredients to make it our own. She helped me develop the recipes of everything on our menu, but early on I already knew what food I wanted to serve. I initially wanted to offer chicken dishes only, but there was just too much good food from the south. There’s an abundance of seafood, and various ways to cook meat.

Photo by Vinz Lamorena

What are the other interesting things that people should try at Palm Grill?

The Satti, which is the staple breakfast for people in Zamboanga. It’s a sweet and spicy taro soup with sticky rice balls and chicken barbecue. I also brought in the Beef Kolma, the Mindanao version of curry, which has a good balance of savory and sweet. Curacha is also caught everyday and flown from Zamboanga so we can serve it here.

We also serve Zamboanga’s Knickerbocker, which is often compared to halo-halo. It has no shaved ice, instead it’s a mix of frozen fresh fruit and ice cream. At Palm Grill, we call it the Knicker Ice Treat. It’s our own version with the nata de coco bottom and vanilla ice cream.

Photo by Vinz Lamorena

What's it like being an entrepreneur?

I’m a huge risk-taker. Part of it was because of my upbringing—my parents really taught us to be independent. My mom, most especially, made sure we were not afraid to fail. Being an entrepreneur means making a ton of bold risks. 

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It’s a really big change. I’m a registered nurse by profession and spent three years working in a hospital. But when you feel you’re not really giving your one hundred percent, and there’s that longing in you to try something else, you go for it. I also once worked for a huge fashion brand, a Swiss watch company, and this is where I got my background in operations, marketing, and advertising which I now use to run this business.

What kind of work culture do you want to establish?

I built this restaurant from the ground up. I’ve been hands-on about everything. That’s mainly because one of our ideals for this restaurant is we wanted to give opportunities and open doors for people to have a different kind of working environment.

I run things in a non-traditional way—the staff is like my family. I wanted to have an environment that was happy, because I’m working with happy memories from my childhood. I call the people I work with partners, and everybody’s on the same level—nobody’s ranked higher than the other. I try to foster an environment where you can turn to each other like family. We’re a small group of 16, that includes people from the back office, commissary, and staff—I’m the 16th man.

Photo by Vinz Lamorena

Is there anything else that you want to explore outside of this business?

I was definitely able to play around with the interior design of Palm Grill. I’m a frustrated designer at heart, and I just really wanted to make people feel like they weren't in Manila. I’m in love with the tropics, and hopefully that translates in how we built this restaurant with the greenery and color scheme.

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Palm Grill is located at 179 Tomas Morato Ave, Diliman, Quezon City

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