Ever since I came back, the hunger for everything Filipino cuisine had been constant–it is an endless craving, really. I had dreams of kinilaw and grilled pusit and lechon and ampalaya with bits of egg, and budbud with tsokolate all the way flying across the Pacific straight to these shores, quite desperate to erase the months of having to do with American-size pizza and pasta and burgers and, oh dear God, burritos.
I shall never eat burritos again, as long as I live.
And so it was that I found myself rediscovering the culinary delights of my City. And there was much to be, well, delighted about. You see, there used to be a time when dining out was a perennial problem in Dumaguete. The culture–and it is a culture, a lifestyle–simply did not exist, banished for the most part by the air of provincial practicality that fixed the universe in the banal confines of “home.”
Not entirely bad this idea of “family togetherness” for every meal, but sometimes we did long for culinary adventures that went beyond malunggay and mung seeds and bulad.
But there wasn’t much to be had, and what time in the weekend we had to spare for adventures in tasting was nipped in the bud considering that Sundays in those days were always a closed affair.
What coffee culture there was, for another example, was an instant Nescafe concoction, none of those trips to cafes brewing expensive Italian-sounding beverages nobody could distinguish properly for lack of cultural context–what’s a cappuccino, an Americano, a latte, a mocha latter?
It was roughly the same with dining, and not that we lacked for restaurants. Everybody knew the best meal in town was in Lab-as, where you could get mouth-watering seafood dishes already renowned in the rest of the Filipino food world.
There was the chicken inato at Jo’s, the staple grilled poultry dish in town long before there was competition in City Burger (where the burger is largely imaginary–I mean, who goes there for the burger?), and later in the lechon manok varieties of Golden Roy’s and San Pedro.
For a more dressy fare, you went to North Pole or Don Atilano or Mei Yan, and later to Le Chalet and Casablanca–and if you had a car, all the way to Santa Monica and South Sea. (We used to frequent this delightful little Thai restaurant in Tanjay–which was quaint enough to patronize largely due to the distance and effort, and the food was truly brilliant, never mind the hangers of dreadful RTW crowding out the make-do tables and chairs. Once it made the move to Dumaguete, however, it carried its barriotic eccentricities with it, and was promptly shunned by the AB aspirational crowd that’s the Dumaguete bourgeoisie. Everything in food, you see, rests on reputation, and Chin Loong has had its ups and downs, and CocoAmigos has been in steady decline for the past few years.)
For good food with a beer garden ambience, you went to Rosante’s. For a quick burger, you went to Taster’s Delight.
But things have changed. The City has changed. Some of those restaurants have shuttered, or have rebranded, or have burned down.
Today, with a mall south of downtown, the choices have become a little more crowded. Not in the same way that Cebu or Manila or Bacolod does it, but nevertheless, it’s a stirring of sorts, perhaps a sign of better things to come.
There’re already Gabby’s Bistro and Jutz’s Café (formerly Boston Café) and Neva’s and Likha and Mamia’s and Royal Suite in the mix.
A fire had razed Rosante’s but this was soon resurrected into the posher Don Roberto’s. Sans Rival expanded from a small pastry shop to become a full-fledged restaurant, open even on Sundays.
Mang Inasal, meanwhile, has stolen Jo’s thunder–a perplexing development, considering the blandness of its fare. We still go to City Burger sometimes to have our fix of its sugary sauce on our chicken–but the staff is rude and lazy and the orders take a hundred years to come. It is as if they do not want you to plunk down your money for a taste of their food, and so most of the time I don’t go–until I have a full reserve of masochism, enough to withstand the poker faces they sport as you complain and complain and complain.
In the mall–and hopefully it will be the only mall Dumaguete will ever have–the more popular fare is in Mooon Café, a place I have a love-hate relationship with. It’s a sometimes delightful place, perhaps the best in that egg-shaped promenade that houses Robinson’s small cluster of eating places. The food is passably good, nothing to proclaim heaven with, but it is the service that often irks me.
Once I experimented with their sense of service. Ten minutes. That was how long it took for any of the wait staff to take note that I was in a table, waiting for at least the menu. I timed it. Good thing that the Mooon steak, with its good gravy and sizzling smokiness, is an eternal favorite. Then there’s the chimichanga, the quesadilla uno, the nacho de salsa, the campesinos jalapeno–they pass. The meat of their Mexican baby backribs doesn’t exactly fall off the bone, but it, too, passes. Still, I like the place. It has become a familiar haunt.
Let’s go downtown. Before it became known as a weekend hangout where dancing and much beer-drinking happens, Sandpipper Café started off as a fine dining place that offered a wide range of dishes cutting across cultures. I was there right in the beginning, already terribly worried about the possible misspelling of its name. Is the extra P necessary? In the menu, there seemed to be the same problem. You see, they offered a “clam chowber” dish. I pointed that out, and asked the waitress: “Don’t you mean clam chowder? With a D?” She shook her head, and said, “No sir, it’s clam chowber.” Uh-oh. I ordered it anyway. It wasn’t good. Nor was the babyback ribs that I ordered with it. It was quite a chunk of meat–which I initially thought was a blessing–but soon realized it was as bland as mulched paper. I never thought trying to finish an entire rack of babyback ribs could be an ordeal of tragic proportions, but after a while, I had to tell myself, “Eating more of this wouldn’t make it any good.” And discard it I did. I went home with such sadness.
But the foll0wing are places I like, and I shall perhaps write about them extensively in the coming days.
There’s Sundown, near the intersection that leads to Robinson’s Place–a beautifully-landscaped beer garden, complete with the alfresco feel, that transcends whatever image it wants to project to offer some of the most surprising cooking in town. Surprising because you don’t expect so much from such a small place. Still, it has the imprimatur of Santa Monica’s kitchen, which says a lot about the seriousness of its food.
There’s Flaming Grill in Tubod, along Hibbard Avenue. This is where you get what is possibly the best burger in town. If you’re a Dumagueteño and you swear by your memories of Taster’s Delight, your loyalty is actually rooted in that strange alchemy its peculiar Russian dressing makes in the burger.
Flaming Grill is different: the sumptuousness is in the patty itself–a smoky, rich, almost creamy munchiness that will leave you craving for more. It is that good.
Then there’s Mifune along Sta. Catalina St., just across Food Net. This is where you get the best Japanese food in town bar none. Do not let its karinderia looks fool you–I consider that part of its understated charm. It has everything, from your regular sashimi and sushi to their sumptuously prepared okonomiyaki. The taste is just right–and the staff contains some of the friendliest I know in town. And they know their menu well, which is a feat.
And finally, there’s KRI along Silliman Avenue, across the Hibbard Hall. I have been going to this place almost every day for the past few weeks, judiciously going through its menu in search of another gustatory delight. So far it has not disappointed. Their pad thai has been consistently great, their spicy shrimp and tofu has solid fans among friends I know–but I swear by their fish of the week dish. It has a delicious simplicity to it that tantalizes the palate, and all for less than 99 pesos. A bargain, really. Exactly what discriminating Dumagueteños look for–something cheap, but approximating the fineness of fine dining.
Consider this an appetizer of sorts. Perhaps full praise requires another story.