Ode to the Wise
Far from the stock estimation of Cubao by people of days bygone (vaguely sinister, in varying states of collapse), it has now become a sort of hipster hub, what with the front-and-center post being currently enjoyed by Cubao X and its art galleries, thrift shops specializing in vinyl and other totems of unironic reminiscence, and the occasional indie rock show. That it's nicknamed such by its very patrons is a feat in itself, a silent triumph for a once heavily caricaturized locale, a much-needed upgrade, imagined though it may be. But it's easy to lionize changes such as this; imagine, where Marikina-made footwear once took the cake (it used to go by Marikina Shoe Expo), it's now, well, art. What deserves a second look, however, does not fall under the usual-suspects category. Consider, then, Shopwise across the Araneta Coliseum (sorry, the Smart Araneta Coliseum) as Exhibit A. Furthermore, consider my modest proposal to pet-name it "The Wise," and I'll explain why. Twentysomethings to early-thirtysomethings would not typically single out a grocery store as a place to kill time, shop, or dine in. Groceries, after all, are mom-and-dad places; not worthy of our precious ten minutes and our discerning hawkeye pop-culture consumerism. But, oh, you'll realize the terrible transgression once you make it to the end aisles, by the produce and the beverages.
There, in the thick of things, you might say, is nestled a veritable triumvirate of "wise" eats: Soda Fountain, Sushi and Sashimi, and (the icing, really, or the ceramic centerpiece to an otherwise run-of-the-mill cake) Mongolian Stir Fry. Now, Soda Fountain sells burgers, hotdogs, and soda; Sushi and Sashimi is self-explanatory; but, Mongolian Stir Fry, though equally deficient in brand-name ingenuity, sticks out like a sore thumb (a sore thumb dowsed in chocolate syrup, but I'm mixing metaphors here). Though not a fan of joints that require me to prepare stuff myself, the ridiculous P149 price tag (the price of two short cab rides, a single-issue comic book, possibly a movie somewhere inexpensive) pulled me right in. One has to pay up-front and is given a ceramic bowl, a number, a tray, and is let loose in the kitchen.
Base ingredients include rice and vermicelli (sotanghon to you and me), then there's an array of veggies (young corn, tomatoes, onions, and so on), some more tummy-fillers (button mushrooms, tofu slices), seasoning (vinegar, soy sauce, sugar), and sauces of your choice (singularly or in compound: Mongolian, teriyaki, and some others). There are little thongs positioned by each ingredient, preventing the possible glutton from overstuffing the mid-sized bowl to the brim, but nothing really ever stopped those guys (picture erstwhile images of Wendy's salad-bar enthusiasts, making their own impressions of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and tell me you're genuinely surprised they stopped running that show). By the end of the console, when it bends to a corner, is when the freewheeling arrangement ends and the cook steps in; he or she gets your bowl and makes you choose three kinds of meat (there's tiny shreds of pork, chicken, and beef, and also squid, shrimp, and kikiam) to lend the so-far-lightweight mix you've made some actual food weight. You wave goodbye to your bowl with the same pride (and trepidation) you have bringing your child to his or her first day in school (and no, I don't always liken my meals to schoolchildren, thank you very much), then wait a quarter of an hour for your number to be called out, perhaps less during off-peak hours. When your number's called - or, alternately, when a sign bearing your number is raised - you proceed to the counter and claim your baby.
Here's the rub, though: the question of whether or not you'll actually enjoy the concoction is a matter of, well, "Hell is what you make it." It's a blameless enterprise except when it comes to you, lousy chef-in-waiting. The ingredients are passable, far from topnotch but possibly fresh if you chance upon fresh refills, and the end verdict is really an either-or: either you permit yourself a self-assured pat on the back, or you get a chilling reminder of why your family doesn't trust you with the cooking, treating you like a terrorist of some sort in the kitchen.
Patrons of the Mongolian-bowl place generally put on subtle game faces, and, in a row, they look like they may be quietly engaged in a competitive sport. Kidding aside, though, the fact that it is in a grocery store, a milieu predicated on multiplicity of options, and one which emphasizes mix-and-match thinking, makes the experience less of a laboratory-like undertaking and more of a (mildly serious) art project. I'm no armchair sociologist, but this kind of mini-foodcourt at an unlikely spot in The Wise (doesn't it roll nicely?) runs counter to the majority's preference for the mammoth-mall experience, where they can consume just about anything. Rarely does anyone go to a place just to mix themselves a Mongolian stir-fry bowl, after all. This very smallness is perhaps this place's triumph. There are options beyond this nook of three kiosks - The Wise, in fact, still keeps a standard row of stand-up/takeout eats by the opposite exit; also, a promising bakeshop that's trying to be a cheaper French Baker just a few steps away - but not too much that you are immobilized by decision-making paralysis.
Not life-changing, not terribly tasty (though, yes, partly my own doing, blah blah blah), but the experience is a good antidote to what we're used to. Afterwards, do whatever it is you do when you're in Cubao - your thrift shop, your basketball game, your Gateway movie, your marathon Booksale scouring; hell, eat at that place with The Bee or The Clown to your heart's content for all I care - but know that you have a choice.