The culinary reign of Spain extends far and wide, and in Dumaguete, where Spanish flavors abound, we tell you where to load up on the city’s mouth-watering Castilian- and not-so-Castilian-inspired offerings. At first glance, Dumaguete may seem like any other provincial city in the Philippines. But with around a dozen colleges located within its boundaries (an area of 34km2), this locale hosts a lively campus town atmosphere and a surprisingly vibrant restaurant scene.
Along Rizal Boulevard — the site of a picturesque seaside promenade — college students, faculty and local residents let their hair down amid spacious walkways and stately acacia trees. Just across the street, an entire neighborhood of homegrown bars, cafés and restaurants offer everything from cheap eats to local barbecued specialties and reasonably authentic international fare.
The presence of foreign students along with a significant number of expats (the low cost of living and low crime rate made Dumaguete one of the world’s best places to retire according to the 2014 Retire Overseas Index) has injected a cosmopolitan flavor into the local dining scene. And because of this, foreign staples like Japanese ramen, Swiss rosti and even Persian shawarma have joined the list of typical mealtime options. Common as these “exotic” dishes may be, however, it is hard to miss the distinctly Spanish influence on the native cuisine.
You’ll find this on the menu of every other Filipino restaurant from humble to high-class: Spanish, or Kastila, dishes such as chorizo, callos (ox tripe stew) and paella that are familiar to most Filipinos. Spain ruled these islands for almost four centuries, so it’s natural that their flavors have assimilated into local cooking. Yet, here in the area of Dumaguete, where large numbers of Spanish immigrants arrived to start a sugar industry in the 1800s, the Castilian culinary legacy is kept alive by their direct descendants. We’ve all had Spanish-flavored Pinoy food (or Pinoy-flavored Spanish food, as the case may be) — it’s part of our culinary DNA, after all. But in this corner of the Visayas, with delectable comidas (Spanish for “food”) prepared by chefs drawing from generations-old family recipes, the Hispanic legacy just feels more palpable — and it’s frankly more delicious. Here’s a taste of three of Dumaguete’s favorite Spanish establishments.
“This is it — this is what a lot of people come here for!” says Tinto’s Teresa Yoldi of the restaurant’s most popular menu item: small, round chorizo. These handmade ground pork sausages are commonly found in Pinoy markets, with local variants appearing in just about every town and city in this country. Those served at Tinto, however, are made based on her mother’s closely-guarded formula, which does wonders to the mix of meat, garlic and paprika. Their chorizo is renowned around town for its mouth-filling peppery flavor and its smoky aftertaste.
Despite having no formal culinary training, Teresa manages the kitchen at Tinto, a family-run Spanish restaurant owned by her sister-in-law. She credits her mother Adelina — and her family’s love for gatherings and good food — as the source of her education in the kitchen. “These are all based on my family’s recipes. You can say this is everyday food in my house,” she confirms. Everyday food includes Castilian delights such as patatas bravas, fried potatoes smothered in a tomato-based sauce and topped with a fried egg, cheese and aioli cream; croquetas de béchamel (croquette balls); and time-honored Kastila classics like lengua (beef tongue in a mushroom-based sauce), callos and the delectable puntas de solomillo (or tenderloin tips cooked in garlic and white wine).
And of course, chorizo.
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The chef-owner of Señor Juan opens our meal with his take on chorizo — a larger hunk of pork and paprika called chistorra, which hails from the northern region of Spain. Served with freshly baked bread and an entire head of garlic, it is a meaty appetizer that begs for a bottle of beer. Together with his partners, chef Kim Sevilla — who comes from a family with a strong culinary tradition — started Señor Juan as a humble chorizo stall along Rizal Boulevard in 2016. Business must have been good, because a year later they abandoned the spot and opened a restaurant at its current location.
The place may be tiny with only a handful of tables, but its funky casual vibe more than makes up for the lack of space. “I like having my own restaurant because it gives me freedom to experiment with the menu,” Kim says. He puts his hotel and restaurant management degree to good use by running a tight kitchen and whipping up fusion meals of European and Filipino flavors. Most notable among the starters is a dish that features saang — a type of local conch, blanched and then tossed in vinaigrette made from sweet, local tuba (palm wine). There’s also the pako salad with pomelo, the main ingredient of which is the tasty fiddlehead fern mixed with onions, salted egg and cherry tomatoes. Also on the menu are familiar dishes like the lamb adobo — a truly divine, melt-in-your-mouth rendition of the Philippines’ favorite Spanish cooking method.
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Located a few blocks south of both Tinto and Señor Juan, Tres Bistro is a two-year-old restaurant that would look at home in any large urban setting — with tastefully laid-out interiors, mood lighting and retro leather seats — and is among the more popular spots in Dumaguete’s lively dining scene.
“I’d say it’s only been around three years since the restaurant business started to really pick up,” says restaurant owner Teri Villegas. “Tourists began landing in our city en route to places like Apo Island or Siquijor (off the shores of Dumaguete) and Oslob in nearby Cebu. There was this growing demand for more cosmopolitan food.”
Despite the more varied choices, though, she observes that resident diners still prefer time-honored Filipino classics. The Spanish cuisine of the local mestizos has, in fact, become “Filipinized” over time, with succeeding generations adapting recipes for the local palate. “Generally, Pinoys like stronger flavors,” Teri says. “If you are used to eating Filipino Spanish food, you’ll probably find some of the original Spanish recipes to be bland.” Their offerings include the standard (and, needless to say, perfectly executed) callos and lengua stews, along with not-so-standard house specialties like her mother’s deep-fried, savory spring chicken and the restaurant’s famous Parmesan chicken wings.
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This article first appeared in the April 2018 issue of Smile magazine.