My Zambasulta food trip, with Palm Grill as my guide

A lunch date at Palm Grill with partners Miguel Cabel Moreno and Nelson Canlas will always turn out to be more than just the food arrayed in front of you, but also an enlightening conversation—that’s the closest we can get to culinary anthropology. Miguel is extremely proud of his Tausug heritage, and how the two have niched their eatery into a haven for Zambasulta cuisine. 

Nelson Canlas and partner/chef Miguel Cabel Moreno at their Palm Grill.

Zamboanga, Basilian, Sulu, and Tawi-Tawi, it’s pretty obvious that not much is known about their cuisine, and when you throw in the fact that Palm Grill is the sole restaurant in Luzon championing this cuisine. It’s not a surprise that it doesn’t enjoy the recall and popularity of say, dishes from Pampanga or Negrense kitchens, but if Miguel and Nelson (Nelson a Manila boy) will have their way, that soon may change. And, well, does it deserve that, as the food is quite exciting and unique.

Inspired by his Lola’s and Mother’s cooking from back home, Miguel informs me that the dishes at Palm Grill are put over a slow fire for 90 minutes; and how one of the basics with Tausug cooking has to do with young coconut meat roasted in a ‘pugon’ for 3 hours as part of the process.

One way to get yourself introduced to the Zambasulta flavors is to order their Dulang, which could be best described as a sampler of various Zambasulta dishes.

The tiyula itim, a Tausug version of Bulalo.

The tiyula itum is a black beef soup, cooked with lemongrass, galangal, tumeric, garlic, onions and pepper. The black aspect comes from the burnt coconut meat used in preparing this dish/broth. Think of Bulalo, but brought to a different Tausug dimension. 

The highly celebrated pianggang manok.

The pianggang manok is a blend of several spices, burnt coconut, and cooked in coconut milk, then grilled. This blackened chicken is easily the signature dish of Palm Grill, and ask for an extra helping of the sauce, as it’s like a thicker, very distinct pesto, but with more flavors at play. 

The pampano sambal.

The deep fried pampano sambal and the curacha, are the dishes that pay tribute to the Sulu Sea. The Palm Grill curacha version has coconut and crab paste sauce. The pampano has a herb-infused, salsa-like sauce smothered over the fish, and it’s a delight!

The curry-like Beef Kurma.

The beef kurma is their version of curry, and don’t think Indian versions of curry, as this one is more reminiscent of the Japanese iterations of curry. It’s morsels of sirloin, mixed with potatoes, and all slow cooked in curry, coconut milk, and peanuts.

The beef satti.

The satti is really a breakfast staple—it’s a combination of sweet and spicy taro soup, paired with either barbecue chicken or charcoal grilled beef on sticks. So it’s like having this soup of extra thick consistency and BBQ sticks on the side. I was surprised to learn this is the traditional Zamboangueño or Tausug breakfast. 

Homemade durian ice cream.

And leave room in your tummy for their homemade durian ice cream. I warned Miguel and Nelson that I wasn’t partial to durian, plus I’m lactose intolerant - but I offered to try this ice cream, and after one teaspoon full, I must admit I added another. It was that good. Miguel had found a way to eliminate the smell of durian, but retain its distinct flavor. And the texture of the gelato was great.

If Palm Grill is all about being proud of Zambasulta culture and cuisine, then it has to be said that Miguel and Nelson are doing an astounding job. They recently celebrated Palm Grill’s fifth year, and that includes over two years of this pandemic. It definitely says something for the resilience and bright near-future of Palm Grill.