Where in the World is Ambos Mundos?

By franco on 21 April, 2008

from top left, clockwise

Callos, Paella Ambos Mundos,

Interiors of Ambos Mundos, Exterior of Ambos Mundos

“Ambos Mundos? I ate there when I was a child.”

This is what my 79 year-old mother said to me when I told her that we were planning to eat at this century-old restaurant. “Didn’t think that they were still around…” my mom quips.

I have never hid the fact I love the small, the kitsch, the odd and the out-of-the-way. Because this restaurant is older the most lolos and lolas, I couldn’t help but get excited at the prospect of dining on dishes that my mother tried in her youth. How many restaurants can claim to have survived the finicky tastes of Manileno diners for over a century? Needless to say, I am prepared to go to great lengths for an interesting dining experience. I am hoping that Ambos Mundos is that and more.

Ambos Mundos is small restaurant in heart of the city of Manila. Opening its doors in the late 1800s, the restaurant was originally owned by the Gaudinez family. Now located near the corner of C. Recto and Florentino Torres Street, it still maintains the air of old Manila–an eclectic blend of Hispanic colonial, Chinese utilitarian and Filipino warmth. Diners are immediately struck by great number of animals in and around the restaurant including two very well-fed, snoring boars, a snake (on the second floor) and several tanks of unusual looking fish.

“Sorry, Sir/Ma’am, not for eating,” says Polly, our server, who seems as ancient as the restaurant itself. “The owner likes collecting animals,” the old-timer adds.

Walking into Ambos Mundos reminds me of a tea house in Binondo with a touch of the Iberian. Decorated simply, the first floor is left open to the street and cooled by old-style ceiling and wall fans. Inside the restaurant are wooden chairs with the dark varnish chipping away, tables covered in aqua and red tablecloths a bit worn out from too many washings and dusty, capiz Tiffany lamps, oddly placed near the entrace of the restaurant which is the brightest spot. The walls are adorned with old Spanish bullfight posters, old Armosolo-esque paintings and framed newspaper articles highlighting the charms of Ambos Mundos.

The food is mostly a melding of Spanish recipes tweaked to Pinoy tastes and are predominantly sweet or spicy. It is, after all, called Ambos Mundos or Both Worlds, a coming together of old and new world flavors. So if you are coming here thinking that you’ll be having a meal of authentic Spanish cuisine from a bygone age, think again.

First to arrive at our table is the specialty of the house, the Paella Ambos Mundos (P370). Served in a hot cast-iron pan, this small hill of bright red-orange paella is served with a generous topping of crabs, shrimps, mussels, chunks of fried pork, slices of hard-boiled eggs and clams. So generous are the toppings that they almost eclipse the rice completely. Once we got over our shock, A. and I tucked in. The paella is nothing like one would expect. The rice is mushy and almost soup-like. The entire dish is covered in a tomato sauce which leaves an odd reddish sheen on all the ingredients. A cover-up, we surmise, for one too many reheatings. Sadly, after a few bites, all we can taste is the spicy tomato sauce. Lost in the wave of red are flavors of the pork, seafood and eggs.

While we were still dissecting our mountain of paella (as to avoid spilling all the seafood on our much too small table), our order of Lengua Estofada (P220) joins the party. For those of you unfamiliar with the dish, a Lengua Estofada is stew of beef or ox tongue, cut into thin portions and slowly braised in a tomato-based broth until the cuts of tongue are soft to the bite. The lengua comes practically submerged in its own sauce. You almost want to ask, “Where’s the beef?” Biting into the tongue (pun intended) I find this cut of meat, tender and distinctive in taste and texture. The accompanying sauce is flavorful and yet not overpowering. A. is not a fan of ox tongue, as I imagine many people are not. And although this was not the prettiest of dishes, it was one that seriously enjoyed consuming by myself.

Callos (P240) is a revered traditional Spanish dish. A stew of ox tripe and legs, chorizo, and chickpeas, all in a rich, spicy tomato sauce…once again. And here lies the problem. Having specifically ordered some of the house favorites, we had inadvertently ordered all dishes with the same tomato-based sauce. Once this dish is served at our table, our palates are so exhausted from the previous entrees that all we can taste is spicy tomato. And besides, the bowl was dominated by a large, nearly meatless bone joint and had only a few slivers of tripe. Two red dishes are tolerable. The third was a mistake.

There are many reasons why people dine out. One of the reasons why I enjoy eating out is the possibility of a gastronomical adventure. Ideally, from the moment you enter a restaurant until you step out, a diner should feel enriched and entertained, fully satisfied by the experience. Most of the excitement of this particular food trip was in getting there, the adventure of it all. With the price of an LRT train ticket, you are taken out of your comfort zone and transported to place you knew existed but never really truly explored.

I wanted to love this restaurant, if only because of its rich, historical tradition. But in the end, it still must be about the food.

My advice to would-be diners: Come for a taste of the history. Take in the sights, sounds and smells while navigating through downtown Manila. Enjoy the experience of Ambos Mundos but leave your culinary expectations at the door. Or at least, avoid ordering too much red.

Thank you to Carlos for walking us the right way.

Ambos Mundos

750 Florentino Torres

Sta, Cruz, Manila

Telephone: (02) 734 1160

LABELS: , , ,



Post a comment
  • APRIL 21, 2008 1:37 PM

    Sakai said...

    inspect ur food very well before eating, hygiene can be a bit of a problem:)

  • APRIL 23, 2008 2:07 AM

    whiffandasip said...

    I must agree. I set out to Ambos Mundos with a mindset of loving the place. I mean the place has so much history! But every dish served just kept on chipping away on my positive outlook on the place. Paella looked impressive I must say but was absolutely mushy from the first bite. Callos was like a soup with hotdog bits on it. It really is Filipino Spanish fusion =P

  • APRIL 23, 2008 9:08 AM

    Franco said...

    Hi Sakai,

    Honestly, hygiene was the least of my concerns. :)

    Hi whiffandasip,

    Sad, isn't it. But, there must be a reason why Ambos Mundos has survived this long?

  • APRIL 1, 2011 2:24 PM

    Experience Old Manila style dining at Ambos Mundos | loQal - Food and Beverage | Philippines said...

    [...] of Table for Three Please saw a mishmash of Hispanic, Chinese and Old Manila influences in the interiors adding that the idea [...]

  • DECEMBER 9, 2012 3:03 PM

    Darwin said...

    Hi, I just visited the place a few days ago and my experience with their food was quite tasteful. For starters, the facade was very nice, amidst the busy street of recto, it is very relaxing to find Ambos Mundos with the signature boars greeting the customers. On with the menu, we had Pork sinigang, lumpiang ubod, and asado. Boy, it was the best tasting asado I had ever tasted! Sinigang was so-so. Lumpiang Ubod is better than most I've known. But their Asado is a must-try. We have asked for the house specialty, paella and callos but Im not really up for tomato-based food so we pass.

  • FEBRUARY 15, 2013 8:50 AM

    Lifeisacelebration said...

    I was there only last week. A bit of a challenge getting there but here's a tip. Park your car in Sta. Cruz Church then take a tricycle ;-) On to the food... Ordered Morisqueta Tostada, Lengua and Patatas con Giniling. Blah. Not as I remember them. The Lengua was not tender at all and the Morisqueta too bland. For all that, P700+. Didn't think it was cheap for the quality. Blogged about it and merited a comment that "this is not the authentic Ambos Mundos". Seems there's a long story dealing with family, proprietary rights and legal issues here.