A Table Hopping Adventure in a Small City
Ian Casocot waxes poetic about his favorite culinary haunts in his hometown of Dumaguete.
Every time a traveler comes to Negros Oriental, I am always asked the same two things, the first being an inquiry about the local delicacies, some edible pasalubong to take home. That has become a kind of touristic expectation--Cebu with its lechon and chicharon, for example, or Bohol with its kalamay and peanut kisses.
Such a query used to vex me. What do we exactly eat in Negros Oriental that is worthy of culinary tourism? Over time, it has become easy to answer. My roots being Bayawan, a small city in the southern part of the island looking out towards Sulu Sea, I am ready to pronounce the gustatory delights of baye-baye, a kind of sweet cake made of sticky rice and coconut (and thinking of it now brings on a surfeit of childhood memories--I'm imagining the burst of sticky sweetness that explodes on the tongue, and the way the paste lolls around the mouth). Then there's Tanjay's budbud kabog--the town's version of puto bungbung, really. (Alas, why it's named after the local species of bat is beyond me.) In Dumaguete, the easy answer has come to be the silvanas from Sans Rival, a quaint cake house near the Rizal Boulevard that has found a solid way to make this frozen delicacy of a pastry last a plane ride by coming in pasalubong variety: its powdery shell is made extra hard, which preserves the quick-melting creamy heaven inside.
The second query, still about food, has nothing to do with pasalubong, but everything to do with the matter of solving any current pangs of hunger. If one is a stranger to Dumaguete, where do you exactly go that would also define a sense of place? To eat where the locals gather is, in a sense, getting to know well the stirrings of everyday life as it exists in this peculiar spot of geography.
But if "definition of a place" must be a criterion, you could always start with this one kind of fast food popular in the city: the "tempura," a flour-coated something (definitely not shrimp--but it sure does taste a little like it), which is an unhealthy mix of MSG and deep-frying oil. But locals do gravitate towards the tempurahan, what we call this spot at the head of the stretch of paseo, at the corner fronting old Siliman Hall, which is the city's picturesque Rizal Boulevard. At night, the place turns into a haven for moon-seekers, its acacia-lined stretch overlooking the dark currents of Tañon Strait lit orange by lights emanating from Corinthian lampposts that dot it. Many years ago, a city mayor once thought of doing away with the "tempura" vendors, their makeshift chairs and colorful beach umbrellas considered an "eyesore" in the midst of the Boulevard's Spanish/American feel. But then the New York Times, in its travel article about Dumaguete, splashed images of the tempurahan across its pages. It became an instant curiosity of a place, a tourist spot. The order was withdrawn, and so the tempurahan stands where it is until now, gentrified a little bit, the vendors now in uniform. (The tempura is also available with hot sauce, and coupled with a bottle of Coke, it becomes a kind of feast. One has been known to devour fifteen pieces of it in one sitting.)
Dumaguete, for some reason, is in a culinary renaissance of some sort, which may be of interest to the traveler.
But there used to be a time when dining out was a perennial problem in Dumaguete. Essentially a big town with small city airs, it was a place where nobody went out for dinner--and if they did, it was mostly a family affair that was quick, usually undistinguished, lacking the pizzazz of experience the way a place with a culture of dining out has.
Things have changed. That much can be said. The city has changed. Today, with a new Robinson's Mall south of downtown, the choices have become a little more crowded. Not in the same way that Cebu or Manila or Bacolod do it, but nevertheless it's a stirring of sorts, perhaps a sign of better things to come. Sans Rival has expanded from the small pastry shop of our collective memories, to become a full-fledged restaurant, open even on Sundays. There's even a new Thai restaurant, an affair called Ti Ban Thai along San Juan Street, a stone's throw away from Sans Rival, where the waitresses remind me of the girls in Patpong--scantily dressed, luring in a specific kind of customer. (Here, I ordered kai sate for appetizer and pad thai for dinner. The kai sate tasted like an afterthought, its meat brittle-tasting, verging on the merely okay. Dipped in generous peanut paste, the pad thai was a little more passable, its noodles had a respectable consistency, and it had the surprising earthy airiness of sprouted mung beans; the whole thing, caked in a mushy layer of fried scrambled eggs, seemed like something concocted with an eagerness to please.)
Amid all these new developments, some places still stand out. The following are three of the Dumaguete restaurants I happen to love...
A Hispanic Refuge
When I think of Café Antonio, located deep in the heart of the Spanish Heritage along Avenida Santa Catalina, I think of good café latte and fraps--and also deep comfort, a refuge really. This is where I go when I want to hide from the world without really hiding from it. The streams of its devoted patrons go through its glass doors unceasingly, which points to the growing popularity of the place, due in some part to an experiment in music its proprietors--the Piñeros--hatched: a monthly jamming among its young regulars, which started with a very successful The Beatles Night, and wrapped up a few weeks ago with the Apo Hiking Society Night, complete with Buboy Garovilla in the audience. (A Dumagueteño, he quickly obliged with everybody's fevered expectations by singing one song with the band.) There is also its new experiment in food, courtesy of Chef Eugene, who has given certain explosive twists with his onion soup with bread and cheese, his garlic shrimp salad, his seafood paella, his grilled squid, his pasta marinara, his pesto pasta with tomato sauce, his pimiento basilica, his carbonara, and his French toast with the caramelized banana (the mango slivers hidden in the bread was a touch of genius). His Fricadel burger with mushroom is an experience.
An Old Favorite
Mamia's has been around for some time now, and it was perhaps one of the older restaurants in Dumaguete to give the city a glimpse of a possibility: that this place can, in fact, be quite capable of handling a discriminating dining out culture. Part of its charm lies in the fact that it is located in one of the old sugar houses along the Boulevard--so-called because these were residences built by the province's hacienderos at the height of the sugar boom. Like any institution, it has gone through growing pains and eventual evolutions, part of which is the café found right beside it, now a favorite watering hole for those in need of caffeine, WiFi, and a good dinner of grilled Hungarian sausage. (The pastry is also not bad.) But when it comes to dining in the main hall, what comes to mind are the following: the crab mango salad (the crisp green of the lettuce slides well with the gorgeous subtle succulence of the crab, which is complemented with the sweet dash of mango); the very crunchy sisig (the texture of which almost a delightful shock to the tongue, its spiciness adding to the gusto); the cheesy cordon bleu, which surprises with its tender meat and the lack of dryness so typical of such a dish; the Norwegian salmon and lemon cream sauce, which has a rosy kick that comes from the back of your tongue; the Steak Mamia--a pinkish slab of tenderloin that vies for the title of "best steak" in Dumaguete simply because it melts in your mouth; and for dessert, the frozen cappuccino with its tidbits of chocolate and the layer of coffee crumbles at the bottom, and the blueberry cheesecake, which has the right moistness, not so sweet and not so cheesy, something you can convince yourself you can have over and over again.
Still the Best Meal in Town
But everybody knows the best meal in town, if you only had one night to stay in Dumaguete, can undeniably be had in Lab-as, where you get mouthwatering seafood dishes already renowned in the rest of the Filipino food world.
Lab-as, which means "fresh" in Cebuano, has a laid-back charm--some say even too laid-back--that does not betray the astonishment it presents with its menu. And that name is its very theme. They cook for you what is readily and instantly available, fresh from the sea--dorado, tangigue, tuna....
Consider also the bestsellers in this restaurant: there's the talaba, which comes in cheese, basil, garlic, or sibuyas dahon, and presented with wasabi, is always firm and fresh, each bite a whole buffet in one swallow; there's the crispy shrimp, seasoned in calamansi and garlic and dusted with corn starch and then deep-fried, that comes to you--all in delectable crunchiness--with bagoong, tomato, and sibuyas; the halaan or punao clear soup, which is filled to the brim with tomatoes, onions, and sili--an instant taste of home, something comforting and "makakalma"; the fat chili crabs sautéed with garlic and onions, and then served with a bit of tomato sauce; the sinuglaw--which is binakhaw tangigue with sugbang baboy; the panga of the blue marlin or malasugi, grilled to perfection; the succulently fat crab; the grilled squid or inihaw na pusit; and finally, the popular Dumaguete Express, complete with flesh of botong, shrimp, coconut milk, ginger, and onion. One soon realizes that the beauty of Lab-as' food is that it is basically the most basic of home-cooking, but taken to an elegant level.
There are more restaurants, but for now these will do.
Still, when you are around Dumaguete for more than just a little while, you soon realize that tickling the palate for the increasingly discriminating (and loquacious) Dumagueteño is never a simple matter to wrestle with: a restaurant's success is not always earned overnight, and the word-of-mouth news of culinary disappointment is quick and easily bandied about in this small town. One courts the Dumagueteño diner like a patient lover, which is not always easy in a small city where the rents don't come cheap. But once you get them coming, the rewards are often enormous, and loyalty is all but assured.
There are many things for the eyes -- and tummy -- to discover in Dumaguete. All one has to do is keep an open mind, an empty belly, and the willingness to explore.
Basta Pinas, Suroy Dayon!
Ian Casocot is a multi-awarded writer, having received honors from the Don Carlos Palanca, NVM Gonzales and PBBY-Salanga Awards. His first novel was longlisted in the 2008 Man Asia Literary Prize. He currently holds a faculty post in Silliman University.
*The TravelBook directory has listings to restaurants, hotels, resorts, and other establishments in PLACE.
See Cafe Antonio's contact details here.
See Mamia's contact details here.
See Lab-as Seafood Restaurant's contact details here.
Staying in Dumaguete? Find hotels and resorts here.