By AA PATAWARAN
Images by JULES VIVAS
I was at Sabores de Visayas early this year, a rather casual invite-only affair in Jaro, Iloilo. It was casual because it was a buffet, although the buffet had all the stuff you would serve at a fine dining restaurant, an exquisite seafood broth, for instance, or a Valenciana onigiri, or some fancy interpretation of a snail dish, otherwise called escargot. The setting, of course, was worthy of a 1996 Dom Perignon Rose Gold Methuselah dinner, the sprawling front lawn of the Nelly Garden, the beaux-arts mansion from the 1930s strewn with tables covered in black linen. The key players, guests chefs from Manila, also screamed “exclusive,” over whose IG posts, magazine features, and TV appearances most of us could only drool—Sandy Daza, Chele Gonzalez, and Sharwin Tee.
The man behind Sabores de Visayas, Chef Tibong or Rafael Jardeleza Jr., has his feet on the ground, if only because that’s the kind of society Iloilo is. No one has problems mixing with everybody else, regardless of economic standing or family background, the latter more pronounced because many hail from very old, prominent landed families. But as a chef-restaurateur, he has his pinky up, whipping up Spanish dishes like callos, lengua, and paella negra that, to me, just all taste rich, as in lavish and opulent, if not even posh. His restaurant, Rafael’s Cocina del Sur, in the quiet village Alta Tierra in Jaro, is also not that easy to reach. It’s not in the mall or any of the commercial centers that have sprouted across Iloilo City like mushrooms. It’s not in any of the hotels or the street, any street in Iloilo that has some kind of a secret cart or kiosk or hole-in-the-wall.
So when someone told Tibong that all he could do was uppity, upscale sit-down dinners, he took it as a challenge. After all, as I myself have seen over the past three years, this chef knows food in Iloilo like the back of his hand, from, say, the Granary of the Richmond Hotel Iloilo at the Megaworld Business Park in Mandurriao to the most humble bibingka cart in Villa/ Arevalo. To him, the true measure of good food is its taste, neither its price nor its reputation, and he doesn’t discriminate against any ingredient, whether it is a creeper that grows abundantly in anyone’s backyard or it is an extremely seasonal seashell like diwal.
When he decided to rise to the challenge, it was not so much to prove his friend wrong, as it was to seize the opportunity to create a new platform on which to raise the flag on Iloilo food. Since I met Tibong a couple of years ago, I’ve had him take me only twice to his own restaurant. He is always taking me elsewhere, like some nameless batchoyan in Santa Barbara or Popoy’s at Iloilo Central Market or the La Paz Bakeshop, where the ube brazo de Mercedes is TDF and the filling is honest-to-goodness purple jam.
And so the first ever Ilonggo Night Market and Street Food Hawkers Festival came to be, held from Thursday to Sunday, a rainy, stormy weekend, last week at Robinson’s Place Pavia about 10 kilometers outside Iloilo City. It was a great venue, a transport hub that was converted into some kind of a mess hall for the duration of the festival. I’m not sure where the buses and the jeepneys were moved in the meantime.
Tibong personally handpicked the festival participants, though he was also open to those who had something new or strange or unfamiliar to offer. His targets were modest. Though the venue, a PUV terminal, could accommodate so many, he aimed only for 500 customers.
Good food is not about expensive dining. Visit a street food hawkers festival and you’ll know what I mean. —Tibong Jardeleza
On its first day, prospects for the festival, like the skies over Pavia, seemed bleak. It was pouring in the morning, but the chef kept his spirits up. When he picked me up at the airport, late as he was because of the rains, he said to the rainclouds, “Go ahead and pour yourselves out and tonight leave me be.”
By the time the mayor of Pavia, Laurence Gorriceta, arrived to officially open the festival at 4 p.m. at the popup bazaar just outside the mall, there were more vendors than customers, but Tibong soldiered on, escorting some of his personal guests, along with the mayor and his entourage, to the 24 food stalls, where we started trying myriad street food and hawker items on offer, such as the pizza from Yellow Box, the native chicken bigabiga from Beige Eatery, the red wine anchovies from Bonami, the La Paz Batchoy ice cream from A Artisanal Ice Cream, even the batuan cooler with tanglad jelly from Crypto Café.
It was only 5 p.m. and I was already full, but the festival had just begun. A one-man band went up the stage, singing anything from standards to rock classics, and by the time he finished his set, and another band took over, the venue was packed with happy eaters. The count was 750. Not bad for starters.
Before the night festival would open, Tibong would take my two-man team, myself and Manila Bulletin Lifestyle content producer/photographer/videographer Jules Vivas, around because Jules was an Iloilo virgin and our goal was to make his introduction nothing short of a gustatory milestone. At Iloilo Central Market, just as we were showing Jules the finer points of a bowl of Popoy’s, I myself had a chance to try two other batchoyans in the vicinity—Mia’s and Joey’s.
But I think in those lull hours before the four-day festival opened each night, I found the best find of my Iloilo trips ever, Samal-ukan, home of Boyet Susvilla’s sensational nilaga or stew, made of carabao meat that’s been boiled for four hours in a broth enriched with lemon, lemongrass, and a mix of five secret herbs, none of which he would reveal, not to his ex-wife, not to his current companion, or not even to any of his four children, “not until the day I die,” he said. Open only for lunch, his eatery, literally a hole-in-the-wall, steamy and smelly on an unnamed sidestreet in San Agustin, is such a hit—and it’s only one of a growing number of branches in Iloilo—that by 11 a.m. it is closed, except for those with prior reservation. Even on Saturday, one more day before the close of his festival, Tibong was trying to convince Boyet to bring a big cauldron of nilaga to the food fair so the festivalgoers could have the treat, but I guess logistics got in the way. I have no doubt Samal-ukan will be in the next edition of this highly successful event.
On Sunday, while awaiting my late-night flight back to Manila, I went to Pavia for the final dinner, gorging on native chicken adobo paired with Tiger beer. Judging from the presence of so many teenagers, some of them swooning, the band on stage, an all-male band called Apollo from Ateneo de Iloilo, was hot, singing OPMs, including Orange and Lemons’ “Hanggang Kailan,” which to this day I am singing in my head.
It was crazy! So many people, young and old, farmers and señoras, students and lolas, familias and barkadas, walking from stall to stall, sticks of Molo fishballs from Mama Dra or platters of inadobadong takway from St. Martha or bowls of linagpang native chicken from Flavors of Bucari in their hands as they negotiated the throngs to squeeze themselves into the crowded tables.
The turnout was 1,000 by the time I left to catch my flight.
Food unites us all.
You have done well, Tibong!