Jill: Though we were determined to try as many places as we could in El Nido, there was one restaurant that continuously beckoned us back into her arms. The Alternative, a restaurant resembling a treehouse with “pods” for resting, snacking and drinking, caught my eye on our initial walk down Población’s beach.
Maya: I was initially skeptical. The tree thing seemed gimmicky, and a restaurant that depends on a gimmick isn’t always a great one. However. I was quickly converted, as you just may be able to tell from the picture above.
Jill: We ended up eating there four times and nearly exhausted the menu, which was made up of Filipino classics (such as pancit and adobo) as well as vegetarian and Western-style dishes. The restaurant offered a few creature comforts for traveling types, including relatively quick service (a rarity in the Philippines) and Coke Light.
Maya: Though the bean-bag seating was both adorable and comfortable, making us dangerously prone to extended bouts of post-meal lounging, my vote for best amenity was a toss-up between that elusive Coke Light and the giddy discovery that a request for extra spice would lead my waitress to a potted chile plant, from which she would pluck a few specimens just for me. My idea of heaven is one in which fresh hot peppers are available upon request.
Jill: Despite these tourist-attracting anomalies to Filipino culture, our frequent visits to The Alternative provided us several great dishes from the cuisine.
Maya: One that became an instant favorite was kinilaw. The Filipino version of ceviche and a beautifully refreshing antidote to the unyielding sun, the raw fish is “cooked” in vinegar and paired with onions, garlic, peppers, and kalamansi juice.
Jill: A portion of the menu was set up in such a way that we could choose a style of preparation and then the protein. When we tried to order kinilaw with squid, our server kindly told us that raw squid would give us diarrhea and that we would be much more appreciative of the version with Spanish mackerel.
Maya: (We were.)
Jill: One of the vegetarian dishes — a banana heart curry — graced our table several times.
Maya: Similar in texture to fennel and in flavor to heart of palm or artichoke, the banana heart proved to be an ideal partner to the strong curry. It’s no wonder we ordered it more than once.
Maya: The Alternative’s rendition of the ever-present pork adobo.
Maya: Though the name of this dish was slightly misleading with regard to the heat level, I loved the “spicy” coconut cream that accompanied the crustaceans. Crab-picking isn’t one of my strong suits, so I’m sure plenty of good meat went to waste, but to be honest, I didn’t mind. I had rice to sop up the sauce and couldn’t have been happier.
Maya: The mild bihon guisado, a variation of pancit, contained a bountiful array of meat, shrimp, and vegetables; with a few squeezes of kalamansi and an extra chile or two, it played nicely against the heavier cream- and curry-based plates.
Jill: We have a habit of making friends when we travel. We met another traveling pair (from the Mother Country) and invited them to join us for dinner at our favorite spot. Now, of course, we live in a world with Facebook, so it’s not as much work to keep up with fellow travelers around the world.
Maya: It was great to meet new friends (hi, girls!), but let’s be honest: We both were thinking the same thing. More people = more dishes to try. For this meal, we went all out, with four courses, a starter and more than one round of San Mig Light.
Maya: It may not have been fine dining, but as this was the first bread we’d had since we left home, it tasted a-mazing. Even though the Filipino predilection for adding sugar to pretty much everything gave my favorite carb a sweet tinge, I couldn’t stop eating it. The dips, tuna and hummus, respectively, were practically beside the point.
Maya: Another seemingly pedestrian yet immensely satisfying offering was the shrimp tempura. (You’ll notice the presence of rice on the plate, making this a bona fide meal.)
Jill: I’d venture to guess that this is a dish geared toward Westerners, which didn’t hinder our enjoyment in the slightest.
Jill: With this sliced pumpkin with coconut milk and cardamom, we opted for another vegetarian dish. I’ve never had pumpkin cooked in this way and filed a mental note to try it at home.
Maya: More sweet than savory, this would have been great for dessert, with a little bit of whipped cream on top.
Maya: Next up, shrimp with spicy coconut cream (the shrimp version of our crab meal from a few days earlier). Though infinitely easier to eat, I missed the depth of flavor that the crab provided.
Jill: To finish things off, we had another round of the banana heart curry and called it quits.
Maya: When Bethany arrived the following day, we naturally wanted to introduce her to our discovery. We settled into a beach-view pod after our sunset tour and proceeded to order some of the restaurant’s greatest hits; we reprised both the tempura and the shrimp with coconut cream. During previous visits, I’d eyed a braised green-papaya concoction, and this time around, I managed to convince Jill that the fruit’s cooked nature would circumvent her allergic reaction—a patently false assertion, as it turns out. Unfortunately, the bland, flavorless dish was one of the Alternative’s rare missteps, not worth the itchy lips it provoked.
Jill: We closed what would be our final meal with a young-coconut and banana flambé.