Menus of El Nido.

When we weren’t laying claim to a bay-view perch in our favorite El Nido establishment, we did manage to squeeze in a meal or two elsewhere.

We had our misgivings about the El Nido Artcafé. The customer service, as Jill mentioned, was hit or miss. They were the only shot in town for cash advances, as well as the go-to spot for booking tours; clearly, they had a lock on the town’s tourism trade. Despite all that—and against our better judgement—we gave them quite a bit of our business. Between the free internet, the convenience of a quick breakfast before our boats’ departures, and the shaded, breezy patio for post-tour drinks, we just couldn’t help ourselves.

A light breakfast or two notwithstanding, though, we only had one real meal there, and it didn’t inspire us to have many more. The squid adobo (above) was fresh, no complaints there, but lifelessly flavored.

Fresh lumpia, a crêpe-like wrapper encasing a vegetable filling, was much better. We ate a lot of fried food, a lot of meat, a lot of rice; it was unusual for us to have something so light and well-balanced. Truly a treat.

I mentioned that I’m not a huge fan of rice, but that changed with my first real Filipino breakfast. Forget the sweet-tasting nuclear-red sausage, the familiar scrambled eggs, the by-now-passé mangoes; that’s garlic rice, front and center. Garlic rice! Though traditionally eaten only for breakfast, I took to ordering it instead of the plain stuff with every meal. My jeans were too tight when I returned to the States, but it was worth every bite.

When Bethany joined us in El Nido, we went straight from her van’s drop-off point in search of lunch, finally settling on OG, a beach-front pension and restaurant. The main draw was the proximity to sand and water; the food was passable. Beth’s pick, squid with adobo, featured mild, green sili chiles and a liberal dose of coconut milk, while Jill’s pork stew (below) was hearty and robust.

I went with something simple for a change: grilled squid. (We ate a ton of squid, obviously. It was fresh, cheap, and nothing like the chewy stuff you might imagine.) It was supposedly marinated, which didn’t register at all; despite the nice char, it needed more than the bite of cucumber and tomato provided to give it character.

We did find a good meal at Balay Tubay, a restaurant slightly removed from the main drag. Built in 1931, it reputedly served as a secret meeting place for guerilla resistance against the Japanese occupation in 1943. There were no signs of freedom fighters the night we were there, just one other twosome and an acoustic-guitar player.

We started with nido, that egg-drop-type soup with what the menu billed as “real edible bird’s nest.” This was just a tiny portion of the full serving—it came in a massive tureen, that, guiltily, we were unable to finish. The fact that it tasted like your typical Chinese takeout didn’t help; we remained unenlightened as to the appeal of said delicacy.

The chicken adobo, on the other hand, was pleasantly vinegary, the tender, slow-cooked meat offset by strips of starchy potato. Serious comfort food.

The night’s winner, though, was the lechon kawali, deliciously fried chunks of pork belly with two dipping sauces, one sweet, and one composed of soy, vinegar, onion and chile. We took our leftovers home in a plastic bag and polished them off a few hours later—still immensely satisfying.

Though our El Nido dining experience was heavily squid- and adobo-oriented (with, of course, the exception of our multiple meals at the Alternative), we managed to try a fair array of the town’s offerings. Some were hit, some were miss, but all were quintessential Filipino dishes.

El Nido Artcafé
Serena Street, Buena Suerte
+63 92 0902 6317

OG Resto Bar
Beach Front, Brgy Masagana
+63 (0) 91 6707 0393

Balay Tubay
Calle Real Street, Buena Suerte
+63 (0) 91 6730 7266

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