Saturday, February 2, 2019

Tacloban Dining - A Post-Disaster Restaurant Recovery

When Super-Typhoon Yolanda struck central Philippines in 2013, it decimated much of what lay in its path, but the city has fought back in the five years since to one thriving with construction projects, new hotels, and an ambitious growth in new dining establishments. As a restaurant professional of over two decades and someone who has seen this city rise up in recent years, here are my picks for where to visit, what to eat, and some advice for concepts navigating this growing landscape.

Giuseppe's Ristorante
 Italian (173 Avenida Veteranos)
Neopolitan pizza with tomato sauce, cheese and basil
Guiseppe's is one of Tacloban's oldest restaurants, serving authentic Italian specialties such as different pastas, meats, and fish, as well as some Filipino favorites to welcome those who cannot go a meal without rice (not risotto). The owners are often there keeping a watchful eye on the dining room and welcoming guests such as the Mayors Romualdez, to locals, to foreigners like me. Staff are always friendly and prompt; the servers even made me a welcome back sign for a group photo one arrival! Ambiance is warm and comfortable. Go for family-style dining or single dining. I'm told the pork chop is a local favorite, but I usually go for the pizza. My first critique was that I like a Margherita pizza that has a better balance of the red, white, and green (rather than a cheese pizza with a few slices of basil for pizazz), and they are happy to accommodate. The pastas are delightful, but sized appropriate for a coursed primo, so you may consider ordering a secondo or antipasto if you are fairly hungry. No Filipino spaghetti here (grazie!)

Dream Cafe
Filipino & Australian (222 MH Del Pilar St)
breakfast plate of omelette and toast
Just around the corner from Giuseppe's is this casual restaurant and bakery. In my volunteer days in Tacloban, this was a favorite Sunday morning treat for us foreigners who wanted some eggs and hash browns in a pleasant air conditioned atmosphere. Open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner seven days a week, Dream Cafe is an oasis of comfort food, whether you want their Dream Big Breakfast from their all-day breakfast menu, Chicken Cordon Bleu, or Crispy Pata. I'm actually a little ashamed that I only really go there for breakfast (even in the afternoon), because all the food is consistently quite tasty. 

Cafe Lucia
Coffee Shop (Rotary Center, Real St., Sagkahan) 
Spaghetti in red sauce and tuna on patio table by the sea
Self-labeled a "coffee shop," Cafe Lucia is another fixture in the city's culinary landscape, yet it is not a full-service restaurant. The draw here is the location - situated with lawn seating on the Concobato Bay with gorgeous views of coastal Tacloban and the airport in the distance. Come for the coffee or a beer and enjoy the sea breeze, come as I do for the Tonno Pasta from their limited menu and watch day turn to night, but don't come for the service - while fairly efficient if you don't mind going back to the counter to order what you need, you would be hard-pressed to see a smile or hear a "welcome" or a "thank you" at any time in this establishment. Ordinarily, that might be an issue, but like I said - location.

Fyzz by Hotel XyZ
Greek & Japanese (P Zamora St)
Large group of diners standing at long table in restaurant with chandelier overhead

Speaking of ambiance, Hotel XyZ is one of the best hotels in the city, so you would expect a restaurant to match, the Fyzz dining room perched up on the 9th floor has views that are unparalleled in the city as well as a comfortable, hip, lounge-style feel that is rare on this island. This alone is worth the trip here, and they even have live music acts in the evenings and a cocktail program that seeks to impress. Unfortunately, I always feel this place should be better than what it is. For the price and location, I would want more memorable cuisine; I would want all the guests' entrees to come out at least relatively at the same time; I would not want to have to pay separately for both a gin and a tonic when ordering a cocktail, which can be a bit expensive and annoying. This of all places in the city, one might expect a service staff to be trained to make appropriate recommendations, yet that doesn't seem to be taught very many places in the country outside Manila and Cebu. All of that being said, Fyzz is a classy place that offers uncommon luxuries in a city not accustomed to such and can be a charming way to spend an evening.

Jose Karlo's / Rovinare
 Coffee Shops (Real St - Downtown & San Jose)

Recent years have seen the growth of several in the coffee shop category, but few offer what Jose Karlo's and their newer sister restaurant Rovinare do so well. Both offer unique and cozy atmospheres for a cappucino or a nice lunch. They offer couches and different tables perfect for a business meeting or getting some work done in some peace and quiet secluded from dusty and noisy Tacloban. You can get lasagna or french toast paired with your choice of traditional coffees or sweeter coffeehouse concoctions. You can always find something sweet and delicious for dessert if you choose to linger; I like the apple pie a la mode. All day breakfast is much appreciated as are the smiles!

Kuya J Restaurant
Filipino (Robinson's Mall - Marasbaras)
crowded table of dinner and desert

Despite my best efforts to exclude large chain restaurants, Kuya J has consistent delicious Filipino food, and locals love it. With many offerings as family-style portions, it's great to go as a group and share traditional foods such as beef caldereta, pork sisig, or halo-halo. I went back by myself and had a delicious bulalo soup. The mall setting is a bit bright and not such an escape, but the food quality is sure to please the traveler and the local alike!

Brews + Breakfast: Fusion Coffee
Coffee Shop (832 Brgy 83-A Burayan, San Jose)

Walking in the door, you can tell this place is serious about its coffee - with a pour-over station adjacent to the counter that has also the giant espresso machine and a chalkboard that lists the origins of the available coffee beans. You might conclude by now I am a big fan of breakfast throughout the day - this is yet another - and they do the best scrambled eggs I have had in a really long time, maybe ever. Bonus points for including some salad with the foods; veggies are often overlooked in this city. Service is very friendly and welcoming.

Chew Love
Diner/Filipino/Asian Fusion (P Gomez St)
Friends at a table in quaint restaurant
Home to thousands of cellphone-addicted, selfie-obsessed college students, Chew Love is an Instagram and Facebook haven, with everything in sight just as cute as a heart-shaped button. The food is just that too - cute - although some portions a bit small for my taste and the mac-n-cheese not at all for my taste. You can find classic beef, fish, and chicken Filipino dishes fit for a Barbie tea party and fun takes on refreshing non-alcoholic beverages. While the cuisine may not be the top draw here, the place is just so damn cute that you kind of overlook that little fact, and the clientele are probably more interested in what's going on in the virtual world anyway. I recommend the fish.

Sean's BBQ Pit
Barbecue (Brgy Tigbao Diit)
Outside of downtown on the way to San Juanico Bridge along the highway is a sign for barbecue - "smoked low and slow." I instantly knew they weren't selling the same innards and pig fat on-a-stick that are at EVERY SINGLE BBQ STALL IN THE CITY. I found this place on accident while walking by, and it may be unlike anything I've been able to find in the city, with it's long entrance past a manicured lawn and newly planted trees, bamboo huts for semi-private dining, and an outdoor dining room that feels a bit like a biergarten in Munich. However, few actual barbecue items exist on the menu from this American's perspective (and fewer when they are sold out of pulled pork), but I think that's fine for a new restaurant, as long as they do what they do well. The burger was a good choice - with fried egg and onion rings. I really must go back for the brisket, although it was a bit more than I wanted to spend at lunch. Grab a few friends and take the multicab out here and enjoy the day.

Japanese (Esperas Ave) 
bowl of ramen with beer

Just across the street from the playground at Astrodome and the Typhoon Yolanda Memorial in the wedge of buildings that begin to separate Esperas Avenue from Real Street, on the second floor, is one of my new favorite eating destinations. On a personal quest to find the world's best ramen, this is not it (I swear these are places I recommend), but it is well-made and tasty. However, you are greeted in gleeful Japanese upon opening the sliding door to enter. Friendly smiles welcome you immediately and make you feel at home, commensurate with the claim of "home cooking." Aside from the two ramen choices on the menu (I prefer the spicy, and in the photo they added an extra half egg), most of the rest of the menu is more izakaya in style, and everything is tasty and very well done. Try the seared and delicately moist gyoza, the unbelievably tender chicken karaage with sesame sauce (I add some of the hot chile oil), and the steamed spicy edamame. Yes, try those, but the highlight for me is the takoyaki. Someone brought the idea of takoyaki to the Philippines, yet outside of Otabeya they don't seem to get it right. Here the takoyaki is perfect - hot and creamy center, tender chunks of octopus, and bonito flakes dancing as a garnish atop the hot deliciousness. Go.

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