In a foreign country, where I don’t know anyone, keeping busy is the only way to stay sane. Battling the constant rain has been an issue, but Sunday began nice enough, so I ventured out to SM City for my weekly haircut, and another brawl with the Filipina Ric Flair that the Riviera Spa calls a “massage”.
With my muscles tenderized to pudding, I looked around the mall for food options, but nothing was inspiring me. I was craving chicken. Not just any chicken however; the legendary native chicken.
Working with a lot of young locals, I had explained to them I was just as much here to enjoy the culinary traditions of their humble island as much as I was here to work. Time and again, they’d tell me I needed to visit Tatoy’s – a seafood place not far from the ocean, and try the chicken. Even while I tried to wrap my head around the idea that a place with surf in the title was specializing in turf, the mouth watering descriptions made me hungry.
I jumped into a cab, and about 20 minutes later I found myself travelling off the beaten path, through a series of poor neighborhoods – the kind of places that small goats freely range on the front lawns, eating grass and trying to keep cool. Not sure what I’d gotten myself into, I breathed a sigh of relief when I pulled up to a large restaurant property. Cars were parked up and down the street, and families were headed in by the half dozen, dressed in their Sunday best. A quick glance at my watch tipped me off that these were likely church-goers, enjoying a little family togetherness over shared plates of seafood.
The restaurant was a big confusing. I was expecting a traditional menu and table service; but instead throngs of Ilonggos crowded around a deli-style counter, eyeballing the plates of prepared food – giving you a visual of what to expect from the menu. I tried to stand in line, but these folks were aggressive, with one old lady even using her purse as a battering ram to keep me in check. As the out of place foreigner, I just maintained my patience; an impossibility back home.
Finally I got the attention of a waiter and I asked about the native chicken. I was told it would be at least an hour, maybe more. As much as I wanted it, I simply didn’t have THAT level of patience. It was nearly 40 degrees with the humidity, and there was no way I was going to survive in the open-air for that length of time; especially on an empty stomach. Instead, I opted for the steamed talaba – which you may recall from my time at Salvi’s are clams. She asked if I wanted anything else. The lechon looked great, so I opted for a half kilo. She pressed on. “And then?” I advised her that would be plenty. Except now she wanted me to accept rice. Ok – garlic rice. “And then?” This has been a theme throughout the trip; there’s literally no end until you emphatically state you’re finished. I can’t decide if they are trying to appease the fat American-looking guy, or if this is simply how they do.
I took a seat at one of the many cafeteria style tables, and waited. And waited. Despite the near violent attempts to ensure they are always the first people in any given lineup, the Filipinos are armed with a counter-trait; never rushing, for any reason, at any time. I realize that neither behavior is aligned, and doesn’t make a lot of sense – but for these people, it’s a way of life.
After nearly 45 minutes, my food arrived. The lechon caught me immediately. The glistening pieces of crispy fried skin were like pieces of stained glass; the kind of texture you’d expect on a creme brule. The first bite was heavenly; which was immediately followed by the second, and third. It was like biting into a salty candy coating – with a rich, buttery underbelly from all that rendered fat that had turned into flavor. Amazeballs.
The normal pork pieces were quite juicy, and I was thrilled to see I had the money muscle. The money muscle is a round piece in the shoulder, resembling a loin. It’s the juiciest part of the pork, and is named because competition BBQ cooks usually slice them and throw them into the judging boxes, often getting them “the money”. I had to be careful though, the pork was chopped randomly, with bits of bones and cartilage present. If you’ve got a weak stomach for off kilter texture, this probably isn’t the right dish for you, because you’ll be picking out the weird bits from every bite. However, for a pork-hound like me, slathered with a bit of their homemade BBQ sauce, it was a gift from God. On Sunday. Praise be.
The talaba portion looked daunting, especially on my below-average eating space, but given that the actual meat is less than a half ounce per clam, I was able to get through them. They’re steamed right out of the ocean, allowing their internal brine to help perk up the meat, as the shells slowly open. They’d firmed up just enough to prevent them from being slimy, but not so much that they’d turned to rubber. The saltiness of the ocean was all they had – and quite frankly, was all they needed.
While I was disappointed that the chicken wasn’t ready, it worked out, because that lechon bark was incredible. With all due respect to the other restaurants I’ve tried it at; they pale in comparison to the work put out here. I’ll be back on a weekday, battling against a less hostile crowd, and preferably when the weather is a little more forgiving.
Location: Baluarte – Calumpang – Villa – Oton Blvd, Villa Arevalo District, Iloilo City, Iloilo
Facebook: Tatoy’s Manokan and Seafood