Perhaps, like most Filipinos, my earliest recollection of surimi came in the form of the Pinoy street food sensation, fish ball. It wasn’t so much the memory of snacking on them as it was being expressly forbidden to touch the stuff. My fearful parents heard all the stories of customers unscrupulously double-dipping the fish balls into the communal vat of sweet sauce, a practice that has led to many a spread illness. Therefore, my first taste of surimi/fish ball involved a covert operation orchestrated by my then-best friend that included two big no-nos: sneaking out of school grounds and eating street food. That day in the first grade was memorable, because of our little mission and because the fish balls were honestly pretty darn delicious.
Since then, my encounters with surimi have mostly been limited to hot pot eat-all-you can restaurants and DIY shabu-shabu meals at home. The dining experience itself has changed drastically. The humble fish ball and its BFF, the squid ball, have branched out into the likes of mozzarella balls, crab claws, cartoon character balls, etc. And in the spirit of the new year, the search for surimi heaven has brought me to a packed Mogu Tree Noodle House in Marikina for another ball-centric adventure.
Bustling from the moment we stepped in and well after we were done eating, Mogu Tree is a make-your-own noodle soup restaurant that also offers dimsum and rice toppings. The location is part of a string of boutique-size restaurants along Lilac Street that would’ve been easy to miss, had it not been for the big banners (with food pics). Clever touch with the tarpaulins. At least you get an immediate idea of the food served as you drive by.
We were a little overwhelmed coming in with the crowd of people at the door. As it turns out, the noodle soup ingredient table is positioned right beside the door and opposite the cashier, so a lot of the traffic is immediately at the front of the restaurant. If a moderate-sized group decides to line up for the noodles together, they already effectively block the entrance. That’s probably the only con. There’s also the matter of ingredients running out very quickly during the dinner rush, but refills are fairly quick and are sometimes already served up at the counter.
How it works: For the noodle soup, you grab a bowl and a pair of tongs from the cashier, then you proceed to select your ingredients. The noodles are pre-portioned and you can only get one serving, but that’s a generous amount already. Select your surimi balls and other ingredients (like hard-boiled eggs, beef roll, or a packet of salted seaweeds). Then you go back to the cashier for the soup selection, ingredient-counting, and billing. An egg counts as one topping. Three surimi balls, assorted or the same kind, counts as one topping as well. On the menu, the prices printed are for two or three toppings, but you can get more than that for an additional payment.
Dad and I ordered the Laksa soup, while my mom preferred a plain soup. We were ushered to a table in the back, but there are actually two floors. (Didn’t get to go upstairs, though.) It didn’t take so long for the order to arrive. We amused ourselves with the fact that this restaurant actually serves Apple Sidra soda! I haven’t seen this drink outside Chinatown, so that’s cool.
The steaming soup arrived in what looked like Bibimbap plastic bowls. We noticed veggies floating at the top, so it turns out that the kitchen automatically adds them to all orders. The Laksa had a thick layer of coconut cream froth on top. It reminds me of the so-called “impurities” we had to skim out at culinary school, but it’s perfectly acceptable in this occasion. I like the idea of rich, creamy coconut foam. The soup base has little chili, so don’t worry about the hot and spicy.
Unanimously, the fam agreed that the surimi balls are the same high-quality stuff you find at the more pricey hotpot joints. Some have legitimately impressive fillings like the Crab Claw Ball with an actual mini claw inside, the Seafood Bun with something like a mayo-crabstick salad filling, and the Crab Roe Bun with plenty of roe (faux or surimi, you get the texture either way) in each bite. The filled ones are the best, in my opinion, since you get plenty of different textures and flavors to keep your palate entertained.
Verdict: It might not look like a lot while you’re selecting ingredients, but there’s a lot of noodle soup to be had once it’s been cooked. The table next to ours initially wanted rice with their meal, but they soon realized how heavy a single bowl is on the stomach. As I mentioned, the high-quality surimi ball ingredients are the same ones you find in the more expensive eat-all-you-can hotpot places. Mogu Tree is the place to have the freedom of selection at a more affordable price.
Mogu Tree Noodle House
60E Lilac St., Concepcion Dos, Marikina