pastries from manileño photo by michelle volansky

First Look: Manileño in the South Grand business district in St. Louis

There’s something about Manileño that has us really hoping it does well. It might be the smiley faces of the family who runs it; it might be the grit and determination behind the realization of a dream, and it could much more simply be the food.

This Filipino restaurant opened in mid-February at 3611 Juanita St., just off South Grand Boulevard, in the Tower Grove South neighborhood of St. Louis. Formerly occupied by Sno, it is owned by Rocky Torio and her brothers, Resty, Randy and Rolando Torio.

Rocky Torio’s mom, Josie Seele, is “boss” here; she’s the one in the kitchen, cooking up delicious meals she’s been making for her family for decades.

Typical of the food in Manila (where Rocky grew up), it’s a meaty menu. For dinner, she recommends the kare-kare (oxtail stew) made with house-ground peanut butter, eggplant, bok choy and shrimp paste. For lunch, head for the shish kebab. These generously long skewers of sweet-and-charry chicken or pork come with rice and two spring rolls. Definitely don’t skirt dessert. There’s a lot of purple in this display case, but few words to say enough about the ube pandesal, and even fewer for the mini ube ensaymada, which is a sweet, buttery dough pastry topped with cheese. Pancit, an encompassing word for traditional Filipino noodle dishes, is made at Manileño with stir-fried bihon (rice sticks), chicken or pork, vegetables and Chinese sausage.

This is generally a sunny place. Noon light falls in at just the right moment when office workers are either in need of an ube latte or are starting to think about lunch. Sit on high stools in the cafe portion of the restaurant, or be the envy of all and take your latte and kebabs back to your desk. The latte is an absolute beauty and, unlike so many frou-frou coffee drinks, it’s lovely and strong in the (house-blended) coffee department.

The large space has 4,000 square feet space spread across two floors with seating for 175 people. Upstairs is a whopper of a room with a pleasant bar.

Having climbed the handsome staircase, we were struck by the comfortable acoustics: The large room feels small on the ears, pleasantly padded, almost felty. This seems to suggest that, even in a room this size, it will be a great place for good conversation. It felt even nicer once we had sat down on some of the mod emerald chairs and then – to test – a similarly desirable daffodil-hued sofa.

According to Rocky and her brothers, it’s possible that, by late spring, the restaurant will be roasting whole pigs. (Yes, with an apple in their mouth). “But with 10 hours or more cooking time, it’s a lot of work,” Rocky said. “But well worth it.”  

The bakery is open 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. The restaurant is open for lunch from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday to Friday and for dinner from 4 to 8 p.m. Tuesday through Friday. Weekend brunch is available from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Manileño is closed Monday.