It’s been a long while since I’ve written about a Cebu Secret Chow, what I like to call a restaurant that is not located in a mall or better known as a “hole-in-the-wall.” Cebu Secret Chows have been the focal point of this blog but thanks to the social media boom in 2013, hole-in-the-walls don’t stay hole-in-the-walls for long. The longest a restaurant can stay under the radar is probably two months these days. Social media has pushed “location” further down the “opening-a-restaurant” checklist for restaurateurs. This might be good news for restaurants who want to get their names around the soonest possible, but I personally think this often kills the charm and essence of hole-in-the-walls.
Most hole-in-the-walls are residential abodes converted into restaurants and it is the unpretentious home cooking and homey ambiance that captivate our hearts. These are where nostalgia is manufactured, where memories of food and experience are imprinted in our food memory bank—memories that linger and beguile us from time to time.
There’s one I’ve been eyeing on since last year when it opened, but since it was always out of the way from my usual route to and from school, it was a pretty elusive target. I consider it a hole-in-the-wall because it does not belong to or is not located within a commercial establishment. It is not your ordinary home-turned-restaurant; it transcends the norm of comfort food, serving heartfelt Spanish dishes that reflect the artistry and passion of the chef owner.
No. 9 is named after its address, #9 E. Benedicto St. It has a modern rustic interior with hints of Spanish tones that evokes just enough mystery to spark that excitement for what’s to come as you settle down in one of the tables. Perusing through the menu, you will find that it is brief yet just enough to extinguish any confusion or further delay in making your selections.
Callos and Lengua are some of my favorite childhood and comfort dishes, so these are a default if I find them in a Spanish restaurant. And of course, we had to have the infamous Fideo Negro, the sinister squid ink pasta that is most featured from this restaurant. And to cap off our Spanish dinner, I ordered a Sangria for my accompanying refreshment.
It was a calm, quiet night at the resto, creating an intimate atmosphere for my date and I. At the same time, excitement was brewing in my belly, as this was a much-awaited moment – finally tasting the dishes of this mysterious restaurant.
I was given my Sangria (P168) to subdue my enthusiastic anticipation. But even just the sight of the sparkling crimson drink only fueled more of the excitement. The Sangria was so pleasantly refreshing that I would love to go back to No. 9 even just for the cocktails.
The first dish that arrived was the Lengua (P300). I was fascinated to find that it was served as an appetizer – crisp petals of ox tongue bestrewn on slices of lightly toasted brioche with quenelles of mustard on the side. This was an interesting dish that opened my eyes to another form of lengua preparation that definitely veers away from the comfort zone of the all too familiar lengua estofada or lengua in mushroom gravy.
Next came the Fideo Negro (P320), commanding a sense of authority on the table with its pitch black glory, contrasted by the bright yellow aioli that almost looked like an egg yolk in a crown of squid strips. Was I ready to dig in. The pasta slid smoothly in my mouth, still al dente, the squid ink flavor clearly distinguishable and the richness and creaminess amped up by the aioli. So good, at the end of each forkful you’d want to smile. But wait a minute, take a look at your reflection on your phone or the knife. No, you wouldn’t want to smile with your teeth now etched black by the pervasive squid ink. But then again, every table is most likely to order this dish, so you’re not the only one with a sooted smile. So I go ahead and smile forkful after forkful, delightingly giving in to the irresistible darkness. This is a brilliant way for restaurants to literally and figuratively leave a lasting impression on guests.
Almost simultaneously, the Callos (P350) arrived. Though like a humble pauper beside the Fideo Negro, it refused to be subdued as this comfort food was executed perfectly. Melt-in-your-mouth tender and the sauce so flavorful. The nostalgia surged in mouth at the first spoonful.
We were too full to get dessert but I was happy enough with my sangria anyway. No. 9 did not disappoint and it is easily one of my favorite restaurants in town. I would love to go back for some cocktails with friends at their garden and on another visit, try the rest of the menu.
“To know Cebu, eat Cebu!”
#9, E. Benedicto St., Cebu City
(032) 253 9518
Facebook: No. 9
Price range: P300-500