Cebu. Style. Pizzazz. Cheer and cheers. No wonder it’s the country’s top tourist destination in the Tourism department’s list in 2009, beating even the highly publicized Boracay.
Some people visit Cebu to relax on the beach. There’s diving and jet-skiing and just plain sunbathing with a Pale Pilsen for a tan and San Mig Light for your throat, without the bloat. But just like in other competitive tourist destinations, food is part of the attraction, with Cebu fast gaining its own following of foodies.
Raves for local faves
At first, raves were heaped on local faves, particularly the world-renowned Cebu lechon that’s perfectly roasted on the outside and made divine with lemongrass on the inside. The debate continues on who offers the best.
Since chef and food critic Anthony Bourdain named it the “best pig ever,” Marketmanila’s Zubuchon has become the most popular lechon for Cebu visitors, especially foreigners. Lonely Planet just gave it a glowing review recently. An “acupunctured” lechon (i.e., punctured while being cooked), it achieves a unique crisp skin that some describe as “pumuputok” (having a crackling texture). No cold shoulder for this pig! The people behind this also use backyard-raised pigs as opposed to commercially grown pigs for a healthier flavor. And they emphasize the non-use of MSG. Have it with their famous Kamias Shake to temper the cholesterol. Now who are we to debate with Bourdain?
Those who are more accustomed to Tagalog lechon like Elar’s, though, might prefer Rico’s. Forget the “clean taste.” This is the strong, heart attack-inducing version with flavors of lechon as the plebeians know—and love—it. Also offered is a version with a hint of spice. This, with a heaping mound of steaming hot rice and a really cold bottle of beer is, to me, Cebu heaven. Don’t eat this alone!
Another Cebu classic is the Cebu bulalo which they call pochero. In response to the challenge of Tagaytay, Abu-han has mastered the art of the “utak” (cow brain and marrow). This restaurant has been around for over 30 years—and the interiors look it, too! Don’t expect anything fancy. You can come in shorts and eat with your hands. It is simply downright good Pinoy chow.
A for Abaca
But the Cebu restaurant landscape has altered tremendously in the past 10 years. Jason Hyatt of the Abaca Group has been especially influential. It all started with Abaca, Hyatt’s casual dining intro to the Cebu resto scene at the Abaca Resort. The pizza here is great, as are the sandwiches. But the resto is quite far from the city so he opened A Cafe at Crossroads. And boom! Cebu’s answer to Apartment 1B. Great espresso? Check! Great burger? Check! Great all-day breakfast menu? Check!
Then as if to say, “Cebu, I know you so well,” the Abaca Group opened Maya Taqueria and Tequila Lounge, a supremely hip, attitude-laden, classy Mexican restaurant. Start with the high ceiling and larger than life wooden doors. Absorb the dusk and grey atmosphere. Look to the left and there’s a skull as big as a Mini Cooper on the wall. Go up the second floor and appreciate the skull mask collection on the wall all the way to the top. And don’t leave without taking a photo of yourself between the giant horns to make it appear like they’re growing out of your head. And that’s just the vibe. The food, by the way, is fabulous and can compete with any Mexican restaurant in Manila. Order the carnitas—organic pork shoulder roasted for six hours, and any of the tacos. And of course, don’t scrimp on the tequila.
For a more romantic date, hit Tavolata. Capitalizing on Mr. Hyatt’s excellence in creating wood-fired pizza, the Abaca Group also opened an Italian restaurant. It’s a trattoria, but do come dressed—the place reeks of chic. And dig into the treasure of flavors—X marks the spot. Do go for the Chianti-braised oxtail if it is still on the menu when you visit. As for the pizzas, there is a truffle pizza but you can also stick with the classic prosciutto.
In fact there are a LOT of Italian restaurants in Cebu. All with a rustic, trattoria-ish ambience.
The Waterfront Hotel presents La Gondola. The entrance gives off the vibe of an Italian garden, with an indoor trellis that leads to the outdoor patio. The brick oven is in the center for all to see. And you sit on an elevated platform that gives you the feel of a terrace. There are interesting takes on pizza such as the Caesar’s Salad pizza which is hilariously salad on top of the pizza, so stick with the classic pepperoni in this restaurant.
Just five minutes away is one of the older Italian restaurants, La Tegola. Say hello to Atlas as you enter and observe the grappa collection by the cashier when you leave. Try to come for lunch or early dinner so that you can appreciate the outdoor garden. The resto may no longer have the best menu and may need a bit of an upgrade, but it remains a charming hang-out. A Chianti and a platter of sausages and cheeses are perfect here.
For the best casual Italian dining experience in Cebu, make your way to Giuseppe Pizzeria and Sicilian Roast. Chef Giuseppe Genco had worked at the Peninsula and Shangri-La Hotels previously and it shows. But more importantly, he has over 30 years experience in making Sicilian food. It was my best Italian resto experience in Cebu, tbh (to be honest). Definitely have a calzone to share. It’s ginormous. And a pizza. And whatever else the chef recommends.
For those who want to experience a bit of the Cebu nightlife, a kitschy hangout is Gilt. It has fun interiors: a dental chair as you ascend the steps; sofas instead of chairs in an ante room; high bar stools and purple lights. On a weekend you may catch a few of Cebu’s Who’s Who getting trashed here, and it’s fun to watch.
What to take home? Forget dried mangoes. My favorite candy in the world is Mangorind, a candy made of mango and tamarind. I always bring back at least six bags. For something even better, wake up early, hit the palengke (wet market) and buy some fresh danggit and other assorted dried fish. But if you are really cramming, the airport has rosquillos from Liloan, chicken chicharon (to die for!) and yes, Zubuchon lechon to go. It won’t taste the same as when you eat it in Cebu, but your dearest ones will at least get a semblance of the great flavors of this sunshine-y city.
Cebu has so much more to offer and I’m sure there are a few more restos on your own list. But this list should be a decent start. A great way to vacay even in stormy weather! •