Nestled at the heart of Malate, Manila and a mere ten-minute walk from the DLSU-Manila campus is a Thai and Asian Fusion cuisine restaurant, aptly named Doon. Rustic and cozy, the restaurant’s ambience immerses any customer into its calming setting right from their first step into the threshold.
Once the customer is sat at a table, it would not be amiss for AJ Puno (BS-MKT, ‘17), current restaurateur of Doon, to approach them with a smile and some chirpy small talk. Usually, customers ask about the story behind the name of the restaurant—in a 2017 article written by The LaSallian about Doon, then-head chef Jun Puno, father of AJ, reveals that it was named after the Filipino word’s usage in many families’ conversations about where to eat.
Now in the hands of the Puno family as a united effort, the restaurant now faces a more innovative and distinguished future. But although they may be implementing some changes here and there within Doon, its authentic heart and spirit remain.
Return to its roots
Doon was initially established to fill a gap in the local food scene around Taft. “My dad started it as an experimental project for students back in 2017 because, [at] that time, we noticed that there wasn’t any Thai food around,” explains AJ.
His father already had prior experience running a Thai restaurant from a previous venture, so putting up a Thai restaurant seemed like an opportunity ripe for the picking. “Sabi ko, maybe there’s a market in La Salle…so we gave that a shot,” he determined.
After a brief hiatus of the Malate branch over the pandemic, Doon has made a comeback in Taft with its grand reopening last September 14. The restaurant still boasts an impressive and mouth-watering array of authentic Thai dishes, but has now also taken on a more upscale dining experience.
For instance, the restaurant has expanded in size and made air-conditioned indoor seating areas available to customers. Its menu has also evolved; although the items have seen a considerable increase in price, they now come with larger and more filling portions. “Everything is for sharing,” AJ declares, explaining that Doon revised its menu to cater to families, as students had been unable to visit the restaurant due to the pandemic.
During these turbulent times, corporate clients helped the business to stay afloat. “They [order] for their roundtable events…they do events over Zoom, and then they all want to have the same food,” AJ recounts, noting that bulk and online orders had become the lifeline of the restaurant. Delivery applications, such as Grab and Lalamove, also played a part in its survival, along with orders from celebrities, which helped to greatly boost the restaurant’s popularity.
“It wasn’t easy though…sabi ko ‘Paano ko gagawin ‘to?’,” he divulges. Thankfully, Doon is now well on its path to recovery, most especially with the return of face-to-face classes at the University and other nearby schools.
(I said, ‘How will I be able to do this?’)
With this in mind, Doon has once again introduced a more student-friendly menu. “If you show your ID, you can order all of these at this price [from the student menu], like the P200 and P195 price, which used to be similar to our prices before the pandemic started,” AJ says excitedly.
Despite the changes, he stresses that Doon still retains the same soul, “We still wanted to keep some sort of familiarity… so we put this (student menu) in, and we still kept the old signage, the old set up outside. It never really changed, we just added stuff to it.”
As AJ passionately relays the story of the restaurant, seven of their best menu items are laid out on the table. The Vietnamese Fresh Spring Rolls and Thai Spring Rolls are perfect appetizers—the sweetness of the peanut sauce complements the tanginess of the spring rolls, leaving the customer wanting more of their dishes.
Next, the delectable main course: the perfect balance between sweet and sour in the Tom Yum soup, and the restaurant’s famed Chicken Pad Thai take center stage. While the warmth of the Tom Yum washes the mouth with its bold taste, the Chicken Pad Thai is an immediate burst of flavor, with each savory note in harmony with the perfectly seasoned vegetables and tasteful bites of chicken.
When asked about his personal favorite on the menu, AJ’s hands decisively gesture toward the Chili Beef and Bagoong Fried Rice. Although he admits that people often wonder about his partiality toward the deceptively mundane-looking Chili Beef dish, its attractiveness lies wholly in its simplicity. “It’s a sweet patis paste stir-fried dish, and you eat it with the rice—wala, masaya ka na!” AJ quips, “It’s easy to prepare, and a lot of the flavors are pronounced na pronounced, talaga.”
He goes on to reveal that the chili paste made with the dish is concocted by him personally in his own kitchen, as are all the other sauces present in specific dishes. “I actually grind the sauces myself kasi I need to make sure that the taste and the quality of food is at par with what we’ve been doing ever since,” he asserts.
Finally, the rich and soulful zest that each dish provides the customer can be perfectly washed down by their Thai Milk Tea, another one of AJ’s personal favorites. Creamy—yet not too sweet—it’s an excellent partner to all the different savory profiles found on the menu.
All of this is tied neatly together by the excellent management of the restaurant and superb service from the attending staff. Indeed, Doon is the kind of restaurant with an atmosphere that’s easy to fall into, making the customer believe that they are actually situated within the beautiful and calming country of Thailand instead of the sprawling, active streets of Malate.
What lies ahead
When asked about where he sees Doon five years in the future, AJ expresses that he hopes to eventually open more branches, and that this newly-reopened branch will receive the same amount of patronage that their established Magallanes branch has already achieved, and they can eventually build on that success to increase their reach in the food industry.
He also wishes to take on a less taxing role in business in the future. “On my end, [I want to become] a little bit more of an overseer na lang. Kasi right now, I’m very micro-managing,” he shares. While the rest of his family also plays a big role in managing the restaurant, AJ typically handles its day-to-day operations, as his mother and sister are heavily involved in managing their family’s business in the entertainment industry.
AJ imparts to aspiring business owners, “Believe in what you’re selling—your product is what makes you [and] is technically your identity.” He adds that no matter what product someone sells, be it a type of service or food product, they must always believe that they can do it.
All in all, Doon promises a unique experience with its comfortable ambience, edible masterpieces, and fabled history. What more could anyone ask from a restaurant that delivers on all fronts? Students that have yet to try this immersive Thai cuisine experience will be pleasantly surprised when they discover that all they’ve been looking for was Doon all along.