Huge drops of rain splatter on the windshield, quickly obscuring my vision of the snail-paced cars ahead. It is almost lunchtime. Traffic crawls as a public school frees its children into the drenched Real Street. “So where do you want to eat?” I turn to Vincent and Tita Zenny, my visitors from Manila, as I switch on the wiper. Though summer is near, the sun has been elusive in Tacloban City and the Christmas weather seems to be limping its way out. “It’s up to you. We can have seafoods if you like” suggests Tita Zenny. “Yes please!” Vincent’s eyes perk up. “Let’s have seafoods then” I concur. Vincent is an IT professional who works in a stressful jungle called Makati. Having succumbed to a fastfood diet in the bustling city, he is eager for some fresh and piping hot seafood dishes.
We slowly traverse the slick roads towards San Jose, which hides a small restaurant named Yolanda’s in Barangay 86.
Unnoticeable if not for the expensive-looking cars parked on its lawn, this eatery unassumingly sits among the seaside houses and shanties. A faded signage which timidly says “Yolanda’s Eatery” barely clings to a concrete post a few meters away, beside the pink barangay hall. The entrance leads to a small kitchen whose windows are scarcely covered by acetate and native beaded curtains. Beside it is the kitchen sink, which beds several bright-eyed Blue Marlin (Pabila), Travelly (Mamsa) and Mackerel (Tangigue), their freshness flaunted by the firm shiny flesh and the bright- red gills. After choosing a few cuts of each, I ask the cook to make us some Waray-Waray staples: tinola, sinugba and kinilaw, which intrigues my Tagalog visitors.
The delirious rain calms to a drizzle. Fresh sea breeze wafts through the bamboo walls of the dining area. Outside, fishing boats lounge on the wet brown sand, while newly washed clothes dance from the fences and windows of the nearby shacks. The gentle sound of waves drowns the coos of the pigeons frolicking on the roof of a dilapidated shanty.
A few minutes later, the steaming Tinola na Mamsa arrives on our table, its aroma perking us up. We blow and slurp the soup, savoring every spoonful of comfort gliding down our throats. I pour some over my rice. Ginger and green chilis give the broth extra warmth, perfect for the chilly weather. The firm and fine flakes of the Mamsa have a sweet delicate flavor, and deliciously contrasts the pungent dip of patis, chili and lemoncito. “Sarap!” exclaims Tita Zenny ” Truly, nothing beats a fresh catch!”
I pause to savor the firm, moist and large white flakes of the Sinugba na Pabila, letting its mild delicate flavor linger in my mouth before regretfully swallowing it. Its crusty surface has a salty- citrusy flavor that pleases my tongue.
Vincent scoops some Kinilaw na Tangigue into his brimming plate. He says it is his first time to try this dish. “Wow! This is way better than sushi!” The fresh Tangigue chunks are drenched in a thick mixture of coconut milk, vinegar and spices, and are adorned with crunchy ripe tomatoes and shredded carrots. I sink my teeth into the firm flesh; the strong hints of spices and citrus and the richness of the sauce dawdle in my tongue. Tita Zenny scrutinizes te dish. “I’ll make this when I go back to Manila.”
We sit potbellied, almost motionless. Bowls and platters scatter on the table, nothing but weary fish bones in it. Vincent signals the waitress for the tab. “No! This is on me.” I object. While my sister enumerates to Tita Zenny the ingredients of her new favorite, the kinilaw, Vincent bites the last piece of the zesty dish from his fork. “Now this is what I call real food. These kinds of fish are rarely sold fresh in Manila” he says. Having also worked in the big city for a few years, I couldn’t agree more. After I pay the bill, we walk towards the door with satisfied grins on our faces.