By CJ Juntereal
Monday mornings at Urbiztondo beach in San Juan, La Union are quiet. The weekend crowd has gone and only the locals are left, plus a few visitors like me-tired, burned out from work, and hoping that the sea will work its restorative magic. There are a few surfers out in the water, making do with what waves there are to practice their skills—carving, stepping, pumping. They’re not beginners, and I take the time to watch them, envying their balance and the ease with which they handle their boards and the waves. Once upon a time, I was getting the hang of surfing—enough to get up on my board eight times out of 10, and turn my board right or left to make the most of a wave—but that was before all this food writing turned my body into the sedentary type it is today. So now, I simply sit and watch and wish. Eventually though, I lie back on the sand, close my eyes, let the sun burn into my skin, and let the whoosh of the waves lull my mind into a state of calm.
Things have changed in the years since we first started coming here, and today a few more restaurants and bars line both sides of MacArthur Highway. Even my favorite resort, San Juan Surf, has kept up with the times and added a small spa to its premises. It’s nice, because there are more food options available (surfing makes you hungry, so food has to be plentiful, tasty, and reasonably priced), but sometimes we miss the quiet.
Years ago, there were only a few places where we enjoyed the food—the restaurant at San Juan Surf, Halo Halo de Iloko, and Rosebowl. The resort’s restaurant is our go-to for breakfast. The owner, surfer Luke Landrigan, is half-Australian, so the breakfast dishes include baked beans on toast—served with fried eggs, jam, and in our case, an extra order of bacon. The pinakbet and inihaw na liempo are also good.
Halo Halo de Iloko is along a small side street in San Fernando. It’s a tiny place, decorated with all sorts of knick knacks (including two carabao skulls and paintings by local artists), and always crowded. The restaurant serves our favorite pinakbet. The string beans, okra, ampalaya, and eggplant are always bright green and look like they’ve been picked just that morning. Each vegetable is cooked just until crisp tender, and the bagoong sauce is perfect for spooning over rice. We always ask for a side order of bagnet, because there’s nothing like chunks of crisp-skinned, deep-fried pork belly eaten with steamed rice and the ubiquitous Ilokano siding of KBL (kamatis, bagoong, lasona). The halo-halo uses ingredients from around the area—ube, nata de coco, corn, sweetened saba, cornflakes, gulaman cooked with buko juice instead of water, home-cooked yema flavored with pandan, and muscovado sugar as a sweetener. Strings of grated processed cheese top the whole concoction, adding a salty contrast. If you are having the halo halo for merienda, pair it with emparedados, which are a fried buns stuffed with Vigan longanisa.
Rosebowl is a 20-minute drive away from the beach, and while many people have said that the original in Baguio is not the same anymore, were happy with the San Fernando branch. Our standard orders are chopsuey, because the vegetables are always so fresh, and butter chicken. The kitchen sends out a platter heaped with piping hot chunks of battered chicken; crispy outside, juicy and tasty inside, and just brushed over with a melted butter sauce that we know is, in fact, margarine. Nevertheless, that margarine adds an indefinable quality that we’ve never been able to replicate at home.
These days, we have new favorites. Gefseis Greek Grill is beachfront, in between Sebay and Big Kahuna. The Greek owner is around most days, sitting at a corner table with his smokes and a beer, keeping an eye on the kitchen. The decor is all blinding white and bright blue, the beachside colors of Santorini in Greece. The Kontosouvli pork is marinated in Greek spices (we guess oregano among others), slow roasted, and served with a squeeze of lime. The moussaka is a generous square with layers of eggplant, potato, ground meat, a thick béchamel sauce, and a blanket of tomato sauce. It’s tasty, stick-to-your-ribs kind of stuff. The hummus and tzatziki are subtle, not overpowered by garlic and lemon; and the zucchini fritters are served hot and crisp.
Across the street from Sebay is Mad Monkeys, a roadside joint that serves a burger with cheddar beer sauce and fries. I wish the burger had more of a crust, but it’s tasty, and the cheese sauce mixes with the burger juices when you bite into it. The fries are made of real potatoes, and they have a tangy, spicy sriracha-lime mayonnaise that’s sort of addicting.
El Union Coffee, a large “kubo” near Little Surf Maid, serves very good coffee and is one of the few places that serves dessert—indoor S’mores and warm, gooey skillet cookies. Among the iced drinks, I like the Horchata, a Mexican rice milk drink flavored with cinnamon. It’s always crowded, but the music is laid-back and beachy, and everyone is friendly and willing to share a table.
Most of the restaurants are along the highway, so you have to be prepared for a little dust, and vehicles whizzing by.
Within a 10-meter radius of each other are Olas Banditos, which serves good burritos and quesadillas; and Aloha Sweets and Treats which serves R100 cups of home-made ice cream. In the evenings from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. except Wednesdays, a small blue food tricycle parks outside Olas Banditos to serve Asian food. The laksa lemak came in a tiny bowl, and was a bit pricey at R150, but it was big on taste; fragrant with coconut milk, and spicy with sambal.
Every time we visit San Juan, we see new restaurants. And we’ve heard that a few new places will be opening up soon, to add to the growing international flavor of the food scene. With all of that going on, we’re hoping that restaurants serving good local food also pop up. I’ve pretty much given up trying to get back into surfing shape, because it looks like I’ll be spending more time eating and lying on the beach!
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San Juan Surf Resort. Urbiztondo Beach, San Juan, MacArthur Highway, La Union.
Halo Halo de Iloko. Zandueta St., San Fernando, La Union.
Rosebowl. MacArthur Highway, Bauang, La Union.
Gefseis Greek Grill. Urbiztondo Beach, San Juan, La Union.(beachfront near Hacienda Peter)
Mad Monkeys. MacArthur Highway, San Juan, La Union.
El Union Coffee. MacArthur Highway, San Juan, La Union.
Olas Banditos. MacArthur Highway, San Juan, La Union. (roadside near Hacienda Peter)
Aloha Sweets and Treats. MacArthur Highway, San Juan, La Union. (roadside near Hacienda Peter)
Seawadeeka. Parked in front of Olas Banditos every night except Wednesdays, from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m.