So what would I say if someone asks me, “what is the traditional Davaoeno food”? To be honest, the answer is not clear cut. Unlike other regions in the country, the people of Davao don’t have a popular dish to match their identity…not in the way the Batchoy or the Molo does for the Ilonggo, the Laing and Bicol Express does for the Bicolano, or the Sisig and Bagnet does for the Kapampagan and Ilocano. Heck, even the Cebuanos have their own “Inun-unan”, “Law-uy” and “SuTuKil”.
The Bounty of the Sea.
So what is “Davao food” then, besides the pungent Durian? Nothing influences a region’s cuisine better than the natural resources that are in abundance in the area, and for Davao, this means the bountiful sea. The Davao Gulf provides the city with an abundance of sea food…and next to rice, fish is probably the most common thing found in the Davaoeno’s dining tables. The Davaoeno’s prefered cooking style is also simple. Seafood, from fish to squid to shrimps, are often just grilled. No complicated sauces, or time consuming marinades…just the natural flavor of fresh catch, seasoned by the flavors of nature.
The city folk also have a penchant for raw fish, and “kinilaw” is something they prepare with pride. I don’t really know where kinilaw as a dish originated, but Davaoenos treat it as their own regardless. There the preparation of the dish is almost an art…ensuring a balance so that the vinegar (suka) coats the fish with flavor without “cooking” in its acidity. Try serving a Davaoeno some kinilaw from large chains like Gerry’s Grill or even from Dampa in Paranaque, and watch him shake his head, like how a Japanese probably would when served maki from Tokyo Tokyo. He knows when it was or was not done right.
Davao City has its share of surprises in hidden corners, and one of these you can find in Ma-a, a residential district not far from downtown, and literally a stone’s throw from the NCCC mall. It’s tucked away discreetly along one of those dark side streets that few people need to pass through. It’s got no name, no signage and no advertisements whatsoever…the whole place is just about good food, and a little word of mouth.
Their specialty is the “Tuna Paksiw”, and theirs is a truly one of a kind stuff you won’t see anywhere else…and I really do mean anywhere else. Apart from that, they also serve nice chunks of steak, as well as other dishes most Filipinos would be familiar with. The place is cozy, quiet, the food is good, and the price is just right…all that you need for a good meal.
Another of Davao’s hidden treasures lies deep inside the Marfori village, another residential subdivision minutes away from downtown. Unlike the one above, this one has a name. It’s called Lachi’s, and though it is hidden, it’s probably Davao’s worst kept secret.
They made a name for themselves with their cakes and pastries, and I can personally attest to their mastery of this craft. We did in fact commission them to create the dessert buffet on our wedding reception a few years ago.
Their humble looking store however, betrays their stature and reputation. Their cakes are sought after within the city and beyond, but their solitary store looks like a high school canteen. Here however, they offer more than just sweets.
They carry a full menu of rice and pasta dishes, and some sandwhiches. They take pride in their Melt In Your Mouth Roast Pork, among other noteworthy dishes. And though their price is also a bit “high school canteen-ish”, their cooking certainly isn’t. Lack of ambience aside, few places – if any, offer more bang for the buck.
The advent of malls also brought large restaurant chains to the city, though Davao has been a notoriously difficult market to penetrate. Don Henrico’s opened to much fanfare during their heyday, close to Gaisano South Mall. It wasn’t long before they flopped just as spectacularly, a precursor to their fate in the rest of the country. Even Max’s, a staple in Manila’s malls, has found it tough to keep going. Another common one, Kenny Roger’s, got booted out after a time of struggle. Food of any kind is abundant in the city, and trying to sell food that many others cook – in Manila prices – is a sure way to get punched out of the ring. Curiously, other not so cheap chains, like Yellow Cab and Pizza Hut, managed to flourish. I guess differentiation worked for them. No one else in the city offered exactly what they had, and that was their ticket to the game.
The recent opening of Ayala Mall’s Abreeza brought a chance for some to re-enter the market (eg. Max’s), as well as for a whole batch of newcomers to try their fortunes (eg. Teriyaki Boy, and even the more upscale Italianni’s and T.G.I. Friday’s). This time around, even the biggies from Cebu have weighed in. Golden Cowrie and Laguna Garden Cafe, two stalwarts from Cebu’s food scene, opened outlets in the mall as well.
The Cebuanos probably know Davao’s market pretty well, since Davao today is roughly what Cebu was a number of years ago, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see them gain an assured foothold. I’ve also been to Laguna Garden Cafe in Cebu, and I myself hold them in high regard. Plus many Davaoenos – myself included – have Visayan ancestry, so their food will not be all that “alien” to the locals.
As for Friday’s and Italianni’s, or even Teriyaki Boy, I’m honestly quite surprised, but of course also delighted, to see them come in this soon. Cuisines like Japanese and Italian are still very much niche markets there. Many probably can’t tell maki from sashimi, and a lot of people still think spaghetti is supposed to be sweet. But then again, someone has to test the waters, and maybe this time, the mainstream populace are ready for vinegared rice, and sour pasta.
* All photos taken with Panasonic Lumix LX5