In Oriental Buddhist mythology, the god Sambokojin (Sanpou-Kojin in some translations) looks after home kitchens and families. He makes sure that the home-fires never stop burning to ensure that peace and prosperity will never leave the household.
In the Philippines, the name is synonymous with a new chain of all-you-can-eat yakiniku restaurants where the grills are kept good and hot, the offerings are certainly bountiful, and diners emerge from their meal totally at peace with the world since their bellies are totally stuffed – and stuffed well, as a matter of fact.
The thing about Sambokojin is that it is run by the Triple-V Group, a company long known for running some of the Philippines’ biggest and most successful all-you-can-eat chains, namely Dads’, Kamayan, and Saisaki. That said, you know that it’s run by people who know their stuff and make sure that everything is of good, even exceptional, quality.
The buffet is laid out in such a way that display counters are built around small, modular kitchens that ensure the immediate refilling of empty trays almost as soon as they’ve been emptied by voracious diners. The sushi/maki station, in particular, is a fairly busy one with the two chefs behind the counter rapidly rolling up rice and fresh fish in seaweed together with other ingredients, slicing up sashimi, and mixing bits of fresh tuna and salmon with mayonnaise or other dressings to make fish salads. As shown above, they do a pretty dandy job of it.
Personal favorites from this section of the menu were:
- Practically anything with fresh salmon, so there were Alaskan Beauty rolls, fresh salmon chunks in wasabi mayonnaise, nigiri-zushi topped with salmon, and salmon sashimi dressed with spicy sesame oil;
- The fresh tuna in a spicy dressing;
- The Miss Saigon roll – an uramaki (inside-out roll; principle similar to a California roll) filled with chili-spiked crab salad and wrapped in rice paper with some lettuce.
Other sections feature a variety of both Japanese and Korean dishes, crowd-pleasers all. Anyone heading to where the fried treats are will be especially delighted because of the array of battered or breadcrumbed things on offer. The ebi tempura is crisp on the outside and beautifully cooked within, as are the sakana furai (breadcrumb-crusted fish sticks) and the creamy salmon croquettes. Another moreish delight is a spin on torikatsu (breadcrumb-crusted chicken fillets) with paprika-and-chili-spiced cornflakes as a deliciously crunchy crust.
A number of Japanese dishes were also done beautifully: the tofu steak was light with just a thinnish wrapper around it and the mushrooms in the sauce were properly meaty and succulent. The gyoza was also pretty good, being fatly stuffed with pork and leek forcemeat; and the sakana chiizu maki (creme dory fillets rolled around slices of mild cheddar before being coated in crumbs and deep-fried) was nothing to sneeze at. There was also a fairly interesting casserole of mixed seafood cooked with a deliciously cheesy Mornay sauce; it was good and quite substantial.
There were also several Korean dishes, including old favorites like pa jeon (leek and squid pancakes), chap chae, and spicy twice-fried chicken. But, save for a slab of pa jeon, I stuck to most of my Japanese favorites.
If you’re into banchan, those savory little nibbles that come with Korean meals, you’re in luck because Sambokojin makes sure that there are fresh, flavorful ones on hand along with steaming tureens of miso soup, sukiyaki, and a steamer loaded with cups of savory chawan mushi.
If you adore kimchi, then the banchan counter will definitely put a smile on your face with Napa cabbage, jicama (singkamas; it’s a refreshingly sweet, tangy, and spicy thing to crunch on), cucumber (finely sliced or chunky), and white radish varieties. I went for the sikeumchi – chilled sesame spinach – and some sweet, soy-glazed marble potatoes; both were delicious.
Incidentally, you may not always have to go hit the buffet if you want refills of one item or another. The staff at this particular restaurant is exceptionally attentive and are happy to bring in more iced tea or soda, rice, your choice of soup, and some even go around carrying platters of fast-disappearing items like tempura, dropping off ample helpings to diners at their tables. And speaking of tables…
Table-top dining is top-notch here. You go pick your choice of meats, veg, or seafood from another chilled section of the buffet.
Unlike other buffets where the food is pre-seasoned and the platters they’re on are just left on serving ledges, the raw ingredients for the Sambokojin buffet are placed on trays in an open-top chiller case so the temperature is constant. Plus, these are basically unseasoned save, perhaps, for a bit of salt; seasoning depends on you and you can do that by brushing your food with any one – or more – from the jars of sauce/marinade already at your table. That said, everything comes in fresh and stays fresh till you’ve got the grill at your table all fired up.
Interestingly, no butter or oil appears for greasing the yakiniku grills; instead, you get a fresh bit of beef suet to help grease and season it. Not, I daresay, for vegetarians, but a-okay for all the rest of us.
I recommend the marbled beef, king prawns, and sliced squash, by the way. All of them are very good.
And, if your belly’s still up for it, the desserts are also great. Fresh fruit is nice, of course, and anything served verrine-style (in wee shotglasses) that isn’t pink is, too. (The banana-caramel parfait and mango yogurt cream above? Fab, very much so.) And they do serve the usual petits-fours, cakes, and have chocolate fondue stations on hand. But really: just end your meal with a wee bowl of Big Scoop ice cream which is so much richer in terms of both texture and flavor – can there be anything better?