Three Under-The-Radar Restaurants in Dumaguete You Must Try

For the longest time, it felt inevitable: lockdown in Dumaguete and neighboring towns meant lesser foot traffic, non-existent reservations, and newfound difficulties in securing supplies and upkeeping equipment. And so we lost a considerable number of our old culinary haunts. Most of us still miss KRI and Alima Café — although our old favorites from those places can still be had at Esturya along Hibbard Avenue in Tugas. Some opened with considerable promise but eventually proved short-lived, like Bakugo Ramen along EJ Blanco Drive and Sinati over at The Flying Fish Hostel along Hibbard Avenue, which will be mourned. Many closed for good, like Charlene Sweetness, and some closed at the beginning of lockdown and still show no signs of returning, like Halang-Halang and Kimstaurant. Some closed branches and consolidated their space, like Roti Boss and Qing Hia Town Cuisine. Others closed down their old venues only to reappear a few months later in another place, like Poppys, still offering much of the same but somehow lacking the magic of the familiar. It’s an upheaval only a pandemic as pervasive as this one could effect.

And yet, despite the pandemic still raging in Dumaguete City, there are new restaurants and cafes sprouting all over the place, which is something of a culinary miracle and could be the perfect demonstration that in times of great need, we turn to food for comfort — not just in the eating, but also in the making.

As far as I can remember, the first ones to open in the new uncertainty were Sobremesa in the old Daddy’s Gastro Park along West EJ Blanco Drive and Beyond Plants tucked in the premises of Hoy Lugaw along the Rizal Boulevard. Their opening was a gambit for the entrepreneurs behind each venture: if they managed to have some success in a time that was extremely challenging, pursuing more success in a world gone back to normal would be easier.

And now, that gambit has become a kind of a widespread call. There are now new bakeries and dessert shops, new milk tea corners and Korean dives, new coffee pop-ups and barbecue pop-ups, new swanky dining places in swankier venues. North Point along Escano Drive is a delightful dining-out beehive, the final word in the evolution of the Dumaguete food park.

There also seems to be a boom in Southeast Asian cuisine — a hankering for the Vietnamese, Thai, Indonesian, and Malaysian, which I will write about soon enough. There also seems to be another hankering for Japanese food and Persian food. And brunch. And coffee. And cakes.

Overall, this culinary explosion does not seem to be a bad thing: what we have is an abundance of choices in dining out, and it seems to be a good problem to have. Now, one’s attempt to sample every new fare in town has become a minor kind of mind-boggling. Truth to tell, if sampling every new eating place is your thing, you will not have to repeat restaurants for a very long time.

But with a smorgasbord of dining choices comes a less desirable outcome: eventually there will be those somehow overlooked by many people in favor of venues with splashier atmosphere, with better locations, with more intensive marketing strategies. As far as I know, the casualty is the often superior culinary offerings many under-the-radar restaurants actually offer.

The beef tacos at Beth’s Kitchen.

I love, for example, Beth’s Kitchen along Sta. Catalina Street in Tinago. It’s easy to overlook, given that its location is not exactly known for having restaurants or cafes — and within its vicinity, Qyosko, which is a stone’s throw away, dominates. That’s how we discovered Beth’s Kitchen, actually: we were on our way to our usual dinner at Qyosko and we just happened to pass by a newly-opened Beth’s Kitchen and was struck by the newness of its lights. It felt promising.

“Is it a Mexican restaurant?” I asked Renz. “There’s a neon sign that says it’s a tacqueria. That means it offers tacos, right?”

“Let’s try it soon enough,” Renz replied.

Soon enough did not come sooner. We simply forgot it existed the minute it was out of our sight. We’d pass by it again and again on our way to Qyosko, and we’d always say, “Let’s really try that out soon.” We never did.

That is until a few days ago when, on our way once more to Qyosko and upon seeing the Beth’s Kitchen signage, Renz decided once and for all to park the car — and guided the both of us to the new restaurant’s interiors. We were the only ones inside — usually a bad sign for the intrepid foodie — but we soon liked the ambience of the place: it felt truly its own, a narrow space with three tables with a good view of the kitchen that was both intimate and roomy enough.

Renz had the beef tacos with tomato salsa and avocado cream, and I had the herbed pork chop. And we loved both dishes, even if they were a tad too pricey — but the taste was enough to make us want to return and have more.

The chicken wings at Ton Up Moto Café.

We also love Ton Up Moto Café, which is along Ramon Teves Pastor Street (colloquially, the South National Highway) in Banilad. We discovered it in one of our frequent OBTs around town during the pandemic — our locked down sense of adventure dictating a new variable in our search for the new: we’d look out for shiny, bright lights in places we’d never seen them before, and most likely, what those lights reveal is a new café. (We’d never been wrong in that regard.) During one such OBT, we decided to go as far as the borders of Bacong. Along the way, past Robinsonsplace, we found those bright lights — which led to Ton Up Moto Café.

The industrial aesthetic of the place was vastly appealing to us, plus a motorcycle-themed café felt different from our usual haunts in town. The ambience was relaxed, the wait staff was the most polite in the world, and the menu was stacked with everyone’s favorite dishes — from an array of all-day breakfast fares (like silogs and pancakes) to snacks (like crepes and chicken wings and burgers) to dining fare (like assorted pasta and chicken inasal and steak). And since it’s also a bar, all sorts of drinks you’d want. To be sure, it’s not a distinctive menu, but they make them with flare and the attitude reflective of the atmosphere they want to cultivate. We’ve been back at least four times, and we’ve never been disappointed.

“If this place was in downtown Dumaguete,” I told Renz, “I’d be a regular customer.”

“But I think that’s what makes this place special,” Renz said. “Out here in Banilad, it’s tuluyo-on, and that’s the appeal.”

He’s always right.

The hawker-style Hainanese chicken, kimchi rice, and seared fish in garlic oil at Smokingkong.

And then there’s our favorite of them all: Smokingkong, an alfresco grill house along Larena Drive, just past Bongo Junction going into Motong, and coming a few meters before Calvary Chapel — necessary directions because it has no lighted signage to mark the spot. But Smokingkong is beyond awesome: it has food so good — and so well plated and presented — they actually shame many local restaurants that have fine dining as their reason for being. The name, which recalls the famous cinematic giant ape with a dash of cigar-chomping signifier, is a bit unfortunate because it does sound like a dining place of comical significance.

On the contrary.

I find their menu eclectic and adventurous and deliciously made that I’m often moved to surprise in the dining. They have regular fares like the sizzling stuffed squid and the seafood pasta and the fish tinola and the grilled porkchop and the beef salpicao and the creamy garlic chicken — but they swing with the unexpected like the Hungarian beef goulash and the chicken biryani and the Vietnamese chicken and the satay and the hawker-style Hainanese chicken and the kimchi rice. (The Hainanese chicken! Which comes with clear soup so fresh, it’s amazing.) The honey crisp salad, with their apples, sunflower seeds, and ponkan over lettuce, is divine. They have an item that humbly presents itself as “the worst sisig” — but which is one of the best sisig in town, if you ask me. And for drinks? Not your usual at all. Four choices of mojitos. And blended specials that include coconut or strawberry cantaloupe shake, Thai iced coffee (my favorite), and Vietnamese egg coffee. The eclecticism is a delight — and they come in prices that are shockingly low for all the gustatory care that goes into their making.

Renz introduced me to Smokingkong last December after I recovered from COVID, a month after it opened in November. Reclaiming my taste buds and my post-quarantine sanity in Smokingkong proved a godsend, and I’ve been a fan since.

When Renz asks me these days, “Where do you want to have dinner?” he knows that half the time, I’ll answer back: “Take me to Smokingkong.”

Smokingkong. Ton Up Moto Café. Beth’s Kitchen. They’re lesser known to many Dumagueteños and they’re out of the way. But try them out and you’d be glad you have.

Interpreter of hamsters. Author of Beautiful Accidents: Stories and Heartbreak & Magic: Stories of Fantasy and Horror