Global cuisine as comfort food: Sunae Asian Cantina

Published February 23, 2021, 11:18 AM

by Philip Cu Unjieng

Southeast Asian flavors swirl with ingenious twists and tweaks

It’s a completely unassuming eating establishment found on the 2nd floor View Deck of One Bonifacio High Street Mall. But thanks to the culinary wizardry and rich lineage of chef Christina Sunae, the Sunae Asian Cantina packs plenty of surprises, and repositions the oft-used and tired term of “comfort food” into something adventurous and exciting. It’s got dishes that can only be found here. Menu options that while familiar at first reading, are bursting with flavorful tweaking that speaks well of Christina’s kitchen-improvising skills.

You have to first understand Christina’s provenance to appreciate where all this “magic” is coming from. Born to American and Korean parents, Christina grew up in Pampanga when her father remarried a Filipina, and she was exposed to her Lola’s cooking. It’s here that she got hooked on Southeast Asian cuisines, embarked on a formal culinary journey in the US, and moved to Buenos Aires, Argentina. That’s where she “found” a husband, and set up restaurants offering Asian dishes.

Coming to Manila then is like a full circle being closed and the Sunae Asian Cantina can boast of food that’s inspired by Thai, Malaysian, Vietnamese, and Filipino dishes, as refracted by Christina’s kitchen prowess. The menu is a plethora of scrumptious small dishes featuring intriguing entrees, exciting cocktails, and drinks, plus bountiful desserts. And as can be expected, the proof is in the eating!

The lunch I had with my two sons, who both like spicy food, was a mix of various small dishes (eaten tapas style), a couple of entrees that we similarly shared. We started with the roti canai, and had the option to choose from the sweet peanut curry, pumpkin yellow furry, or the braised pork red curry as the dipping sauce. I loved the spicier red curry. We also had the Lola’s tinola dumpling soup, and my youngest now swears by the broth, and I loved the twist of having malunggay dumplings in the tinola.

The paos followed and they were yummy! The prawn tempura pao was my favorite, with papaya salad, sweet chili sauce, and peanut, while my two boys raved about the rendang pao, beef brisket with aioli sauce, peanuts, cilantro, and chili oil. The Thai cuadril rolls are slices of US wagyu flank steak, rolled, and stuffed with green lettuce, cilantro, mint, red onion, scallions, and a garlic-cilantro dressing. The Sunae kinilaw sa pipinu has morsels of lapu-lapu, with cucumber, pomegranate, fresh ginger, dill, coconut milk, powdered shiso, and chili peanut.

Our foray into the entrees section of the menu had us trying the Sunae’s sisig, which is the traditional pork belly, ear, and snout in a hot skillet with egg, but sprinkled with chicharon. The escabeche red snapper is a filet of snapper, with tumeric, escabeche, ginger, and red bell pepper, and don’t be surprised by the roll of fish skin that’s served with your snapper. It’s a welcome surprise that my boys dug into, leaving nothing for me!

From spying the menu, while I know it may not be photogenic, I know my next visit will have us ordering the burnt coconut curry. It’s braised beef ribs, burnt coconut sauce, with lemongrass, turmeric, ginger, chilies, cucumber, red onion, and parsley. Sounds truly interesting, and if it wasn’t for the fact that we were full.

Escabeche red snapper

To end the meal, we had the carioca pop: fried sticky rice balls, mixed with mango, sesame, coconut shavings, and sweet potato ice cream. The other dessert option is called Not Your Ordinary halo-halo, her deconstructed version of the very familiar halo-halo. The fresh juices include a mango cinnamon combination, a pineapple berry that mixes strawberries with the pineapple, and a tamarind drink.

Carioca pop with sweet potato ice cream

Sunae Asian Cantina opened about a week before lockdown last year. But beyond that rocky “birth,” it reopened its doors as the quarantine eased. I’m really happy to have finally tried the food. It’s the expected and traditional, mixed with the unexpected and unique. It’s Christina’s Sunae version of ‘coming home,” something we should all be thankful for. I know I’ll be back to discover what her interpretations of other comfort food is all about.