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The multi-awarded Iloilo Esplanades, a 10-km (and lengthening) protected pathway on both sides of the Iloilo River that connects four (and soon, five) of the city’s six districts, has energized and revitalized the city for over a decade.
Along the banks and nearby areas of this park, a number of food establishments have recently cropped up, taking advantage of the increased foot and bike traffic, as well as the views of the city skyline, river, and mangroves. Many establishments pre-dated the Esplanades, and their location has made them more popular and accessible to promenaders. Whether it’s buko juice, street food, Tex-Mex, Korean grills, coffee, spring rolls, pizza, burgers, pancit Molo, or standard Pinoy breakfast fare, Ilonggos are now spoiled for choice for what to fill up on after their Zumba sessions, biking sorties, and walks.
Here is a listing of some of them. (Notes: Inclusion in this list doesn’t necessarily mean an endorsement; ambulant vendors come and go, or are there at specific times only; and in general, I’ve included only places that are within two blocks, or a three-minute walk off the Esplanades)
First, the spots at Esplanade 1 and 2 (Molo side). In the early mornings, one cannot miss jovial Felix, with his cart full of coconuts, calling out to everyone, “Felix Buko Puro Puro” – to indicate that what you will get is water from young coconuts, pure and unadorned. There is often a taho vendor beside this cheery character.
In the afternoon, the space is taken over by vendors with the usual Pinoy street fare: fish balls, kikiam, squid balls, chilies, and an assortment of other stuff wrapped in lumpia wrappers and deep fried – served in plastic cups where you can use your fingers or make “tusok-tusok” with a bamboo stick, and from where you can lap up the sauce, which is graded according to spiciness levels.
A block away is a food park on San Jose Street that is popular with call center workers; my favorite place there has Ilocos Vigan empanada. Walk one more block towards the church and the Molo Plaza – the place is very lively in the afternoons, with food stalls offering even more kinds of street food: corn-on-the-cob, hot bibingka loaded with young coconut, gooey yellow waffles slathered with margarine and sugar, cotton candy, popcorn, shawarma, peanuts, balut and milk tea. There is also an Andok’s lechon manok spot with an aircon dine-in area, and a Ramboy’s, originally from Aklan, that offers tasty lechon kawali.
A café in the plaza, run by the Association of Barangay Captains, has good and cheap native coffee; come in the mornings and pair the brew with pan de sal and boiled saba bananas. Kapitan Ising’s pancit Molo and lumpiang ubod is also available here. Across the plaza, the neo-classic Molo mansion (with an SM Kultura outlet) has food stalls where one can snack on pizzas, burgers, nachos, takoyaki, and sandwiches al fresco. Jollibee, Mang Inasal, and Chowking are a formidable, if predictable, triumvirate at the main street corner fronting Molo plaza. Ilonggo chain Coffee Break is there, too.
Cocina de Bay is right at the base of Carpenter Bridge, on the Tabucan/Mandurriao side, beside the “I am Iloilo” sign, which is a favorite for photos. It has Pinoy breakfasts, caldereta, and arroz caldo. About 200 meters away, a side gate along Esplanade 1 leads to Andres Pata and WhiteCups Bistro, which has cheap barako coffee.
A kilometer away along Esplanade 1 going towards the Diversion Bridge, you can enter Restaurant Row at the Boardwalk and try Chinese at Spring Palace (congee and dimsum in the mornings), Vietnamese street food – spring rolls, crepes, banh mi sandwiches, and pho at Troi Oi, Korean and sukiyaki at Kogi Vegi, Pinoy fusion at Punot, Italian at Luigi’s (which has a second-floor sports bar), Mediterranean at Jardin, and coffee and cakes at Latte.
Other nearby places include a Blue Jay Coffee (fluffy and buttery ensaymada and cheese rolls), and at least a dozen other places at the Smallville complex. Just near the Esplanade 1 entrance on Diversion Road is a pastry and coffee place as well – the cozy and reasonably priced Daily Buns; it also has a branch along General Luna St. just off Esplanade 4 near Jalandoni Bridge.
At Esplanade 2, sneak into an Ilonggo landmark, the Hotel del Rio, which opened almost six decades ago. Go through their back door by the poolside. Their Café del Prado serves meals, snacks, and an assortment of some of the best cakes and pastries in town. Just descending from the bridge, or if emerging from the under-bridge walk between Esplanade 2 and 4, is Café Augusto, run by a fifth-generation scion of the venerable Panaderia de Molo; it has more than the Spanish-influenced galletas, hojaldres, rosquetes, and bañadas; on some days they serve scones with butter and jam.
Esplanade 1 Extension is known for its skate park, and in the early mornings a lugaw stand is open on the service road side. For many varieties of barbeque/inasal, Arturo’s is near the bridge just beside St. Joseph’s School, and is popular in the late afternoons and evenings. This soon-to-be-completed extension along Dungon Creek on to Jaro will also open up to more restaurants and dining places along the Gaisano City Mall and the Cubix container van food park.
Esplanade 3, along Treñas Avenue, has Big Bad Bowls, which serves a variety of steaming hot noodle dishes. It’s just across the highly Instagrammable “Garden of Love” and the Rubber World playground.
Esplanade 4 has several places with direct (and indirect) access. One that recently opened is the pricey Waterfront, and through their gates one can pop into the popular Filipino-Chinese restaurant Ocean City. The Mad Platter, which has great value meals, is also accessible through a small entrance to the Uptown Place apartments off Esplanade 4.
Near to the Jalandoni Bridge, with direct entrance to the Esplanade, is a perennial favorite – Mestizo, with its Tex-Mex fare: tacos, burritos, enchiladas, churros, and sweet iced horchata, a Mexican rice milk drink with cinnamon. It has a great brunch menu – shakshouka, a Mediterranean dish with eggs, bell pepper, and chorizo bits; a variety of omelets, eggs benedict, and vegan bowls. Beside it is the JD Bakeshop, which has branches now in other provinces, and the Burger Project, a specialty burger place. A few steps away is a Korean samgyup place with a great view, and a Luna’s Arroz Caldo; both these places have entrances along General Luna street.
Esplanade 5 has the Gaisano La Paz Mall with the usual fast food chains. Cross Forbes Bridge to get to Esplanade 7, or walk three blocks to the public market for the famous La Paz Batchoy at either Deco’s, Ted’s, or Netong’s. Sweet treats in the market are at the La Paz Bakeshop, which was the pioneer in making ube brazos; the halo-halo in the market is also worth a try.
Esplanade 6 runs from Jalandoni Bridge to Forbes Bridge. A Korean restaurant in front of the University of San Agustin is one of the most authentic in the city. The Legacy Guest House has an entrance along the Esplanade featuring standard fare – nothing outstanding – but it has colorful murals and coffee-inspired cheesy posters, and is a comfy place to relax in. Towards the Forbes Bridge is the River Queen Hotel, which could soon have an entrance to its terrace from the Esplanade.
On Esplanade 7, another personal favorite is MAC’s Garahe – with its silog meals, egg coffee (originally Vietnamese, where fresh egg is blended with condensed milk and mixed with Batangas espresso), fried lumpia, and burgers. It’s one of the city’s best-kept secrets.
Esplanade 8, which snakes through the Muelle Loney, has little by way of eating places beside it, apart from pulutan joints with names like “Pigadong Sosyal,” but walk a block into the Iznart-JM Basa-Calle Real area and you have an array of restaurants and carinderias along the historic central business district: Summer House, Dainty House, Nora’s, Kong Kee and Roberto’s (both famed for their siopao), Marlu’s, Carlo’s, and the Grand Xing hotel restaurants. Southern mainland Chinese food is on offer, turo-turo style, at the inexpensive Master Chua.
Over at Esplanade 9 in the Lapuz area, you can sit and enjoy the view of Iloilo’s skyline along the river. The classy Muelle Deli smokes its own meats and has European-style sausages.
There may be close to a hundred different food places beside, or just a five-minute walk from, any of the Esplanades. All that walking, biking and Zumba makes one hungry – and this makes a perfect mix for the acknowledged biking capital and (aspiring) food capital of the Philippines! – Rappler.com
Vic Salas is a physician and public health specialist by training, and now retired from international consulting work. He is back in Iloilo City, where he spent his first quarter century.