Ilonggo dreams

Published January 13, 2022, 11:00 AM

by Jules Vivas

Every food trip to Iloilo led by Chef Tibong is a new adventure

ARRÒS NEGRE Chef Tibong’s paella negra

Last year, I had the pleasure of visiting the food haven of the Philippines courtesy of a dear friend, Iloilo culture champion Chef Rafael “Tibong” Jardeleza. The coverage was the annual Tabu-an Ilonggo Heritage Cooking Competition. Attendance was a must, Manila Bulletin (MB) being the official media partner and all. While each of Chef Tibong’s events is always purposeful and an occasion all its own, what I look forward to the most on every Iloilo visit would be the food trip that Chef Tibong takes us on around the city and the province.

There is something about each of our culinary explorations that never gets old. It could be the company, or the ambiance, perhaps Chef Tibong’s street-smart, maybe the warm reception of the Ilonggo people, and definitely the delicious food.

On my last food tour, I was in the company of MB Lifestyle editor AA Patawaran, food journalist and cookbook author Angelo Comsti, chef Don Baldosano of private dining restaurant Linamnam, MB columnist and culinary celebrity Sandy Daza, and the duo behind the progressive Filipino dining concept Hapag, Thirdy Dolatre and Kevin Navoa.

TREASURES FROM THE MANGROVE Mud crabs prepared by the Ledesma brothers of Muling

Apart from the Ilonggo favorites such as St. Martha’s, Breakthrough, Tatoy’s, Popoy’s and Deco’s La Paz Batchoy, we were brought to two new food destinations.

On our first day in Iloilo, immediately after we landed, we went straight to Muling’s Kalanan sa Jaro Plaza. The rolling store was established in 1987 by Sophia Ledesma nicknamed “Muling.” It is now managed by her sons, Michael Angelo Ledesma and Roem Ledesma. The place we went to, however, wasn’t exactly the plaza but the Javelosa Ancestral House on Lopez Jaena Street. Muling’s would set up a carinderia every morning and transfer to the plaza in the afternoon.

SEA TASTE Fresh oysters from Balai Vitorrio

Muling’s bestsellers are the pata, which is stewed for hours, and the savory-with-a hint-of-spicy duck estofado. But what I enjoyed the most during that lunch was the off-menu mud crabs, especially prepared by the Ledesma brothers for us.

But back to seafood, the mud crabs were incredibly malaman (meaty), earthy, and salty with a tinge of sweetness. Fun fact, the first-ever National Mud Crab Congress in the country was held in Iloilo. The Philippines is among the top exporters of mud crabs in Southeast Asia, apart from Indonesia, Thailand, and Vietnam. In Iloilo, mud crabs are high-priced aquaculture products. Mud crab hatcheries and technologies are abundant over there.

FASHION FOR FOOD Tablescaping by Vivien using products from her store Casa Vittorio

The rolling store can be found in the open square outside the centuries-old Jaro Cathedral in Plaza Rizal Street, Jaro, Iloilo City.

The second new restaurant that Chef Tibong introduced to us is actually a bed-and-breakfast. Balai Vitorrio in Cagbang Oton opened three years ago, just before the pandemic hit. The private dining restaurant is co-managed by sisters Vivien Clavel and Leda Clavel-Cervas. The dining setup was impressive, as Vivien has also had a line of tablescape goods called Casa Vittorio. From ceramic embossed plates to woven Monstera placemats, the online store boasts of locally made products by Filipino artisans.

SWEET SIS Leda Clavel-Cervas holding an ube cake that she baked from scratch, with her sister Vivien Clavel

Served in Balai Vitorrio are pizzas, pastas, Spanish fare, Filipino, and of course Ilonggo cuisine. Those looking to eat at the B&B need to reserve at least two to three days in advance. Vivien does not entertain mixed groups because she wants each dinner to be intimate.

“My first market was breakfast. I serve Pinoy and Ilonggo breakfast and have this concept called ‘Pinoy breakfast in a bottle,’ from Chicken adobo flakes to grass-fed tapa,” explains Vivien. Items people can try are the ibos or suman, pajo (mango), tsokolate de batirol (hot cocoa from tablea), pancit Molo, chicken adobo flakes, Ilonggo longanisa, Spanish pudpud (skinless longanisa), oysters, etc. Balai Vittorio is along the Pakiad Road in Cagbang, Iloilo.


The following day, we were brought to the Iloilo Central Market, located along Guangco and Aldeguer Streets. The public market building was built in the early 20th century using Deco motifs. It is among the most visited areas in the city, so you can expect a busy crowd. Our business downtown was to try out various carinderia items in a venue where Chef Tibong used to hold the Tabu-an. It was your typical palengke (wet market), but the spot where we had our breakfast was in no way malansa (fishy), which was a surprise to me. It was also my first time eating at that market. We sat at a cement chair and table near JR Rawit’s Native Lechon Manok. Served were oysters, the popular Rawit native lechon manok, some seafood, and, the winning dish of that day, the torta nga hipon or shrimp omelet. It had a slight crisp on the outside, a tender and a bit soggy texture on the inside, and a remarkable sweet, shrimpy, creamy taste.

There is something about each of our culinary explorations that never gets old. It could be the company, or the ambiance, perhaps Chef Tibong’s street-smart, maybe the warm reception of the Ilonggo people, and definitely the delicious food.

Fast forward to the final night of our Iloilo trip, which was among the highlights was dinner at Chef Tibong’s house. Finally, I got to taste his famed lengua estofada and paella negra. The dishes did not disappoint, despite my high expectations. They were really good, better than most of the Spanish fares I’ve had so far. Another good friend, Jackie Tinsay of bakery W Kitchen surprised us with her scrumptious apple pie. Its unique citrusy aroma, mild tart balanced well with the sweetness was a fantastic desert for the outstanding dinner.

PIE-TASTIC Jackie Tinsay’s Christmas apple pie (W Kitchen IG)

Check out her online shop @w.kitchenmanila on Facebook and on Instagram.