The Philippines is a food-obsessed country with hundreds of regional dishes, and it’s no small matter that Ilonggo cuisine has yielded some of the its most beloved and iconic snacks. Foodies have the bounty and culture of the Western Visayas to thank for delights such as batchoy, pancit molo and KBL (kadyos, baboy and langka).
Not surprisingly, an Ilonggo cuisine haven like Iloilo City takes its native food very seriously. The food scene is dominated by decades-old eateries serving unpretentious, heritage recipes in laid-back, convivial atmospheres and at affordable price points.
“We constantly think about food and believe that eating must be a fiesta,” explains chef Rafael Jardeleza, a passionate ambassador for the port city’s delicacies and former owner of now-defunct Rafael’s La Cocina del Sur, a restaurant that specialized in Spanish-influenced Ilonggo cuisine.
Jardeleza has a caveat, however. Ilonggos prefer that their cuisine remain traditional, simple and unpretentious. So when a new restaurant attempting to do something different opens, the owner should pray to the gods that it is a hit, while preparing himself for a miss.
TAKE FOR EXAMPLE THE CASE OF Breakthrough, Iloilo’s most iconic seafood restaurant. When marine biologist Raymundo Robles and his wife, Isabel, first opened it in 1987, they were the first to display live fish in massive cement tanks for customers to pick and have cooked.
They were also the first to introduce managat, red snapper with a soft and fatty flesh, to the city. “It used to be just a pest that ate milkfish fingerlings in fishponds,” says Mia Robles Ng, the couple’s daughter and Breakthrough’s operations manager, who refers to Breakthrough as her twin sibling because she was born in the same year the restaurant opened.
Customers will try something new if it is offered, but when they return, they go back to their regular orders
At Breakthrough, the service is casual and often unhurried. Before Covid-19, the restaurant would be filled with boisterous diners and the clink of flatware against plates can be heard everywhere, much like in a Chinese restaurant.
But from March 17 to the first week of May this year, Breakthrough had to temporarily close due to a government-imposed lockdown. On May 8, it reopened for take out and delivery. “ It was actually our first time to do deliveries. On Mother’s Day. we were a disaster. We were overwhelmed with orders on a skeleton workforce. Our wait staff became deliver riders,” Mia recalls.
On June 16, Breakthrough finally welcomed back its regular dine-in patrons. “We removed some of the tables to make way for physical distancing. Our place is quite spacious, we still have lots of tables, but still less patrons coming to dine in,” Mia says.
Hopefully the situation improves now that residents of Panay can now travel unrestricted around the island – which includes Iloilo, Kalibo and Roxas cities – and to and from neighboring Guimaras island.
The food served at Breakthrough is traditional and reliable. The evergreen favorites on the menu include fried rice laden with crab fat and crabmeat; the fatty grilled managat brushed with garlicky orange annatto oil; the plump oysters; and the hard-to-find diwal, or angel wing clams – all firmly within the Ilonggo diner’s comfort zone.
But when Breakthrough introduces new dishes to the menu “to keep up with the times” the results are mixed at best. One of the new dishes that Mia conceptualized is a refreshing tuna and abalone sashimi, served with tiny cubes of soy sauce and ginger jellies, and strands of lato, a seaweed abundant in the Philippines that looks like miniscule grapes. But it has never picked up.
“Customers will try something new if it is offered, but when they return, they go back to their regular orders,” she sighs.
DoVa’s operations were lightly interrupted at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic but guests have been able to dine-in since June
AT MEGAWORLD BUSINESS PARK, a 180-acre mixed-use community constructed on the former site of Iloilo’s airport, young restaurateur Miguel Cordova has been running the 654-seater DoVa Brunch Café since 2016. He relocated here from Javellana Street in Lapaz district to take advantage of the then-upcoming business district and a newly built eight-lane highway called Diversion Road.
DoVa was the first in the city to introduce the brunch concept. And while other restaurants throughout the area have also started offering brunch, DoVa still leads the game.
Brunch is Miguel’s favorite meal, and he does it with a passion. Describing DoVa’s menu, which serves mostly American comfort food, he says, “I only serve happy food.” Moreover, Miguel knows better than to compete in the already crowded market for traditional Ilonggo cuisine.
DoVa’s most popular dish is the Pulled Pork Benedict, Miguel’s take on the common star of the brunch table, which incorporates shredded pork instead of ham and marries the sweet and spicy flavors of American-style barbecue with the buttery tang of hollandaise sauce.
There’s also Grandma’s Meatloaf, which packs a punch of flavors under its blanket of rich tomato sauce and is the sort of food you can eat one-handed, with your eyes half-closed, while nursing a hangover.