In late June, I was surprised with the offer of a lifetime from my employer: help with our international expansion, and you get to live in the Philippines for the next few months. I had been waiting years for this kind of opportunity to come along, and after a consultation with my wife, I accepted.
I arrived to my new home in Iloilo City on August 5th, which is in the central part of the country, a growing city in the Western Visayas region. I’ve spent the last couple of weeks becoming acclimated to the time zone differences, fighting depression from cabin fever due to the never ending rain, and trying to adapt to my new home away from home.
Yesterday, the sun came out, and stayed out. I took advantage of this by swimming in the glorious infinity pool at the Richmonde Hotel in the early morning, before adventuring out to check out the area a little.
By lunch time, I found a curious stop called Salvi’s Grill, just outside the local SM Hypermarket. There were signs indicating they were open – but it was hard to tell, as the restaurant itself is actually a series of bamboo huts, down a narrow pathway. I wandered down, looking for signs of life. Just then, an enthusiastic server arrived to greet me. “Welcome! How many?” I looked around at the vast emptiness, and said 1. He nodded, and led me to a large room with a family sized table for 6. I took my seat. “How many?” he asked again. I pointed to myself. This time he got it, allowing me to settle in.
Despite the fact I am a 6’1′, 230 pound white guy wearing a New England Patriots hat, and speaking only English, he was somehow able to deduce that I was not a local. In order to make me feel comfortable, he pointed to the fried chicken dish they offered. I explained I wanted to eat Filipino food, but given that neither of us understood each other, he asked if I wanted the fried chicken.
I took matters into my own hands at this point, and asked for the Lechon. He pointed out that there was a combo option for 120PH (~$3.50), which came with talaba, and “Birds Nest”. I asked if there was eggs in anything; as Filipinos have a tendency to sneak them into everything, and I simply can’t stomach them. He confirmed no. I asked what talaba was, and he said “baked”, so I assumed he meant some sort of bread. He asked if I wanted my lechon salted; a question which should have been rhetoric, quite frankly. Finally, we got to the drinks, so I pointed to Pepsi Max on the menu. “No, just Pepsi!” Ok, let’s try Coke Light? “No, just Pepsi!” Gotcha … Sugar and I aren’t on good terms, and my international digestive system wasn’t ready to even tempt fate with the water, so I went for a San Mig Light beer.
Curiously, the beer was delivered alongside a glass of ice. Given that it was 30 degrees outside, the intentions were good – but as a proud Canadian, I’ll brawl bare knuckles with a mother moose before I drink beer over ice. However, I improvised.
The food took nearly 30 minutes to get delivered, but they were kind enough to set up electric fans to keep me comfortable. I sipped at my beer, and eyeballed the restaurant, which given time to appreciate was actually quite beautiful. The lush garden that was growing over the roof tops really gave it a jungle feel; a near perfect setting on a hot day.
The food arrived, and the first big surprise was to find out that talaba was actually oysters on the half shell, baked in butter and garlic. Holy jackpot! I *love* this country. I mean, this whole meal is setting me back a whopping $5 including the beer and tip – and I’m being surprised with fresh oysters? On the other hand, the birds nest soup struck me as incredibly suspicious, but I was feeling adventurous enough to give it a go.
First though, the lechon … just heavenly. Lechon is one of the national dishes of the Philippines, and I was getting mine kawali style – meaning fried pork belly. The pork belly is where the bacon comes from, but served fresh without curing is just as good. These pieces were salted, and fried – allowing the wonderful fat to turn into a rich buttery texture, with the skin giving me crispy bites. I am a sucker for pork, and this stuff was boss.
The oysters hit the mark too; just swimming in the flavor of the butter and garlic. Having just 3 was a tease, and I can see making a return trip just to chow down on a plateful of these gifts from the sea.
On the other hand – one bite of the birds nest soup was more than enough to let me know that I’d had one bite too many. It was a gelatinous mess; like a far too thick chicken kiev sauce without the seasoning. Of course, as soon as I got back to my hotel, I made the mistake of researching it, to find out it is literally made out of stuff you find inside a birds nest. Stuff like … the hardened saliva of the birds, reconstituted, and served up hot. Yes, my soup was made out of bird spit. It’s a Chinese creation, believed to contain many medicinal properties. I can’t vouch for those claims, but I can tell you that the soup was utterly fowl.
At the end of the day, two out of three ain’t bad, and I can tell my grandchildren someday about the time the old man ate the leftover loogie of an Asian bird. Such is life when you’re feeling adventurous. As for Salvi’s, I’ve got no doubt that I’ll be back before the end of my journey. I look forward to being offered the fried chicken.
Address: Jalandoni St, Jaro, Iloilo City, Iloilo, Philippines
Facebook: Salvi’s Grill