Famous Thai hotpot restaurant opens in PH
MANILA – Coca, the oldest Chinese hotpot restaurant in the Thai capital of Bangkok, is now in Manila, where it has morphed into a high-end, contemporary restaurant at the Sky Park of SM Aura at the Bonifacio Global City.
Coca, which dates back to 1957 when it opened as a 20-seat Cantonese restaurant in Bangkok’s Surawong district, is slowly expanding overseas through franchising. Since opening its first international branch in Singapore in 1987, Coca can now be found in Japan, China, South Korea, Malaysia, Indonesia, Taiwan, Laos and Myanmar.
Mother Spice Food Corp., the same company that brought the Mango Tree chain of Thai restaurants to the Philippines, is also behind Coca in Manila.
Although popular Thai elements have found their way into Coca’s dishes – the cold appetizer jellyfish salad, for instance, is heavily spiced – Coca is considered a Cantonese restaurant, reflecting the family history of its owners. Thailand hosts a large population of Chinese immigrants with some estimates showing that up to half of all Thais have some sort of Chinese ancestry.
As such, diners at Coca can expect to find dishes that are typically served in Chinese restaurants such as crispy fried wontons and soya chicken.
But even in Thailand, where Coca has several branches including one in the beach town of Pattaya, the family-owned restaurant is best known for its Suki Signature Hotpot, which remains the highlight of the Coca dining experience and reflects the tasty marriage of Thai and Chinese food cultures.
When CNN featured Coca in 2010, it focused on this particular menu item. According to the article, Coca decided to serve steamboats or suki “to move away from chef dependency.” Moreover, the restaurant’s owners wanted to give customers “the freedom to order and pay for what they wanted” which also includes allowing them to cook the ingredients themselves.
This is also the case in Coca at SM Aura. Although the staff is on hand to assist guests, diners can have fun taking part in the cooking. They can also mix their own special suki sauce to suit their taste, although a prepared sauce is also served.
Tables are set up with stoves and a “ying yang” pot, one half filled with chicken stock, while the other has the Thai staple tom yum. Not surprisingly, our group went for the sour tom yum which had just the right amount of heat. If you prefer it super spicy, you can adjust the spice level of the suki sauce.
But the Coca suki experience doesn’t end there. Using the same soup in the hotpot, now more intensely flavored after all that table-top cooking, rice is added to stock to create Khao Tom, a rice soup dish similar to Chinese congee that is popular as a breakfast item among Thais.
Another must-try dish is the intriguing Coca Chicken in Paper Bag, which has an interesting history as well.
Coca restaurant group CEO Pittaya Phanphensophon, who personally saw through the opening of the Manila branch, related the story behind this dish to our group of select food writers and bloggers.
The very amiable second-generation restaurateur recalled that when his father started serving that dish, parchment paper was impossible to find in Thailand, such that they had to settle on Chinese kite paper, which they imported from Hong Kong. They also had to cut the rolls of paper into small squares and fold it by hand to create the small packets for the dish.
“At that time, we slaughter our own chicken in the restaurant,” Phanphensophon added.
These days, the parchment paper already comes as a pouch but the process behind this special dish remains the same. The chicken is marinated with a “true mix” of Thai and Chinese herbs and spices and placed inside in the paper packet with the sauce, closed with a toothpick and then deep-fried.
“The juice stays inside and the oil is outside,” Phanphensophon said of the process, which results in tender chicken meat, oozing with flavor and aroma.
The dinner ended with galorgee, said to be a classic Thai-Chinese dessert. This is reminiscent of the local palitaw but deep-fried to a crisp and topped with crushed peanuts, sesame and sugar. Phanphensophon suggests taking this sweet treat with strong Chinese tea.
The Coca restaurant at SM Aura is a far cry from the original Coca in Bangkok. The Manila branch has a sleek, lounge look, with a bar area in front, serving innovative cocktails like Chili Mojita, and even an upscale al fresco area.
“It's a whole new Coca experience,” noted Eric Teng, CEO of franchise holder Mother Spice Food Corp.
Phanphensophon agrees with the changes. He said even in Thailand, customers go to restaurants “to have a good time,” and that stretches from pre-dinner cocktails until the end.
“I look at their lifestyle and it's changing,” he said.
Sky Park, SM Aura Premier