Cover JJ Acuna | Photo by Edward KB

From smuggling his favourite Filipino treats into Hong Kong to reminiscing about his top spots to eat when in the Philippines, designer James JJ Acuna’s love for Filipino food runs deep

What does James JJ Acuna love most about Filipino food? “The sugar, the sour, the savoury all mixing together from appetiser to dessert,” says Acuna. “People think our diet is weird, but it’s all the best things from all of the cultures that ever came to the Philippines done in a really bold way—turned up to 11.”

The designer, who is founder and creative director of interior design firm JJ Acuna / Bespoke Studio which is based in both Hong Kong and Manila, is clearly missing the Philippines and its food. In normal times, he usually travels to the Philippines’ capital once or twice a month, but the global pandemic has meant he hasn’t been back—or had his fix of Filipino food at home—since 2019. 

Read more: How Can Filipino Food Go Further Than It Has Already Come? Hear From Top Chefs Margarita Fores and Chele Gonzalez

The scope of Acuna’s work predominantly encompasses projects in the F&B and hospitality space, so he is no stranger to restaurants. Work in Hong Kong has included the interiors of F&B spaces such as Elephant Grounds, Tate Dining Room, Hansik Goo and, most recently, Coffeelin, while concepts in the Philippines include Elephant Grounds outposts there and Tokyo Tokyo Trinoma. Given the current situation, most construction projects in the Philippines, in particular, are now on hold, but Acuna has been busy elsewhere, working on Xiao Ting, a Guangdong-style restaurant and tea-house at Four Seasons Macao Cotai Strip in Macau, and an upcoming project in vibrant—especially on the dining front—Ho Chi Minh City.

Hopefully, it won’t be long before Acuna can return to Manila, as there are plenty of places he’s dying to get back to. Read on to find out where he’ll be heading first, the places he believes you should go for a true taste of the Philippines, and how he gets his Filipino food fix at home in Hong Kong.

Related: A Taste Of Home With Food Journalist Cheryl Tiu-Snyder

What do you miss most on the food and drink front when you are away from the Philippines or haven’t been back for a while?

Recently, I was having lunch with a few professional Pinoy friends of mine in Hong Kong who work in finance and apparently, they have found a way to smuggle in anything we want from Manila. I didn’t want to ask what “anything” meant, but at that moment I thought to myself, “Wow, I’m really craving cheese rolls and ensaymada from Mary Grace". Like law of attraction, two weeks later I got 12 dozen cheese rolls and 12 dozen ensaymada through my Pinoy pastry mule. I saw photographs of the purchase on Thursday and by Sunday night I had received them. Again, I’m afraid to ask how they got it here––but they did. That’s Pinoy ingenuity for you.

Related: Where To Get The Best Ensaymadas Around Metro Manila

What is the first dish you eat when you return and where do you go for it?

I love a simple garlic rice, fried egg, and tocino/tapa dish with ensaymada and a hot steaming cup of tsokolate. This is breakfast and lunch. Then perhaps a papaya slice for dessert—you know for fibre.

Do you have a favourite restaurant in the Philippines—for fine dining or special occasions and for more casual experiences?

A week before I fly to Manila, I usually make reservations to have a meal at chef Jordy Navarra’s Toyo Eatery. It’s on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list, but I’m happy to note that I was there to try his delicious cuisine right at the very beginning. I also love supporting Grace Park by chef Margarita Fores, Helm and Savage by chef Josh Boutwood, anything by chef Nicco Santos, and of course chef Bruce Rickets at Mecha Uma—sublime! There’s also a super casual place called Locavore, which is worth a visit.

If you have visitors or guests with you, where do you ensure you always go to give them a real taste of the Philippines?

I take my guests to any or all of the above for the complete selection of Pinoy foods. For market fair, I take guests to the Salcedo Village Saturday Market if we’re in the city because there are tons of cooked food options and gifts you can buy from organic farmers from all over, or we go to Tagaytay to have something from Antonio’s. It’s real home-style food in a nice ancestral home setting in the middle of nature—and we usually buy buko (coconut) pie or cassava cake along the way.

Read more: How Did Tony Boy Escalante Of Antonio's Adapt To The Pandemic?

What are your favourite local Filipino dishes and where are some of the places you go to find them?

I love cheese rolls from Mary Grace, halo-halo from The Peninsula or Milky Way, adobo from Manam, Chickenjoy from Jollibee, and when in Iloilo I go direct to Netong’s for the country’s most original La Paz batchoy, a wonderful soupy creation with Chinese roots.

Where do you like to meet up with old friends for food?

We tend to do lunch at Blackbird, or go to Greenbelt or The Fort because it’s easy, or we just invite them to our house and get something catered from Manam.

Do you have a favourite bar or café in the Philippines?

I used to love going to Polilya* in Poblacion, or Bank Bar in The Fort, or even XX/XX*, but I wonder if they will be around after COVID-19. I hope they will be. I also love going to Wildflour Café, for everything and anything.

Read more: 9 Ways To Support Restaurants During A Lockdown

Is there anywhere else that you never miss visiting when you are back?

Our restaurant and interior design studio, JJ Acuna / Bespoke Studio designed Elephant Grounds in One Bonifacio High Street and SM Podium, so I love going to spaces we’ve designed to really enjoy the experience, because we put so much heart and soul into it.

What do you always take back home with you when you leave the Philippines?

20 extra pounds on my body and extra cheese rolls and ensaymada from Mary Grace to give away to people.

Where do you go to find authentic flavours of home in Hong Kong?

In my kitchen, my partner and I cook my mother’s adobo recipe quite perfectly. But Hong Kong really needs an elevated Filipino cuisine concept. I’m putting that out into the universe right now!

More from Tatler: Chef Johanne Siy Shares Her Recipe For Adobo