Before the advent of major fast-food chains and all-you-can eat restaurants, Cebu already had a love affair with food! Here are restaurants and local delights that I grew up with during the 80’s and the 90’s. The fact that the restaurants are still running today is a testament to the quality of the food at each restaurant. Keep reading for a local’s insight on some of the best food in Cebu.
1. Cakes & Chinese goodies at La Fortuna Bakeshop
Special occasions such as graduations, birthdays and weddings meant a cake ordered from La Fortuna Bakeshop, one of the oldest bakeshop in Cebu. In those times when butter and sugar cake icing were the trends, the shop became a household name. Celebrants and guests delighted at the sight of the La Fortuna logo on cake boxes.
La Fortuna also has a lot of Chinese pastries, be sure to try their hopia & dice (mooncakes) and tikoy (sticky rice cake or nian gao in Hokkien). They come in different flavours: red beans, ube (purple yam), pork (yes, pork pie). If you’re a nut-fanatic, peanut brittles and masi are a must try. Masi is a soft chewy sticky rice cake in the outside with sweet chunky peanuts in the inside.
2. Dim Sum favourites at Ding How
Ask a full-bloodied Cebuano for the best dim sum and you will only hear one answer: Ding How! Opened originally in Colon Street in 1969, Ding How introduced the dim sum experience and became a part of Cebu’s local culture. It was a go-to place after a Sunday church service. The dining experience at Ding How was fantastic. Shaomai, hakao, spring roll, baked shaopao, dumplings, and chicken feet were just few items to select from their dim sum cart. Not to forget the star of the show, the ‘Steamed Rice’.
It is said that the ‘Steamed Rice’, that Cebuanos know very well, was originally created by its founder Mr. Henry Uytengsu. Probably true! I was once in a Chinese restaurant in Manila and ordered a ‘Steamed Rice’, and to my dismay I got only steamed plain rice. The Ding How ‘Steamed Rice’ is actually a bowl of fried rice topped with chicken or pork meat, loaded with shrimps and peas, smothered with a savoury sauce.
The chain opened Ding Qua Qua in 1987, Harbour City in 1993, and with the demand for a fast-food style joint, they have opened Dimsum Break in 2000. While the original Ding How location is now closed, the Harbour City and Dimsum Break chains continue to operate.
3. Chicken barbeque at McJoy
We all love a good barbecue! Who can resist the aroma of a char-grilled meat lavished with a sweet and sticky sauce, waiting to be married with warm rice and complemented with pickled papaya (locally known as ‘atchara’)? That is more than enough for locals to grow their fondness for McJoy.
Since 1987, McJoy, a Cebuano fast-food restaurant has been satisfying the cravings of hungry locals. They are now trading under the name MyJoy due to legal issues with McDonald’s. It has four branches to serve you in Cebu City.
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4. Fried chicken at Sunburst
The giant food chains Jollibee and McDonald’s arrived in Cebu in 1992 while Kentucky Fried Chicken landed in 1995. But long before that, since 1971, Cebu already has its own fried chicken: Sunburst Fried Chicken - The TASTE that STICKS!
Sunburst is probably the only surviving fried chicken restaurant in Cebu. Fried chicken in Sunburst is served in white platter and not in a styropack packaging typical to fast-food chains. Its original menu was mostly fried chicken with crunchy coating, chicken skins, vegetable stir fries, and noodles. Now, seafood and other meat dishes are also added to their expanding menu. But since this is the home of chicken, order a chicken! Never leave Cebu without stopping by.
5. Brute Burger at Orange Brutus
True to their brand slogan, ‘The Brute you love’, Orange Brutus is Cebu’s first favourite burger chain in the 80’s. They have a wide spread of burgers, sandwiches, fruit shakes, and other snack foods. It has 25 branches in Cebu.
6. Shamrock Otap (Pastry)
Otap is sweet puff pastry with a flaky, crunchy and brittle texture. Like the French palmier cookies, otap is made of flour, shortening and sugar. It is baked, cooled and sprinkled with more sugar. Otap is usually oval-shaped and wrapped in paper in two’s. Take it with you as a snack while wandering around Cebu or enjoy it with a cup of sikwate (a local hot chocolate drink) to have a more Cebuano experience.
7. Mongolian Feast at Kublai Khan
If you’re looking for a unique dining experience, have a go at Kublai Khan’s pick-your-own buffet feast. Don’t expect it to be overly easy though. Kublai Khan is not your average all-you-can-eat restaurant where you just pick from the hot and cold buffet spread. There is some element of work and creativity required at this restaurant.
First, fill your bowl from a selection of fresh raw meat, bean curd (tofu), vegetables, noodles, rice etc. Next, add to your bundle, the sauces and spices you wish to have it cooked with. Then, hand the bowl to the chef for cooking. The chef mixes your all the ingredients you selected and adds fire. It is a fantastic way to dine. It is fast, healthy, and with an element of fun as you make your choices and try to imagine how your food will taste.
Ngohiong is another dish that can only be found in Cebu. It is a snack wrapped in rice paper, dipped in a cornstarch batter, fried until golden and crispy. It is served piping hot with a spicy, sweet & sour sauce. The stuffings are usually singkamas (jicama/mexican turnip), ubod (heart of the coconut), garlic, spring onions, spices and ground pork or shrimps. With its ingredients, the way it’s prepared and cooked, non-Cebuanos often confuse it with lumpia (spring roll). Yes, it is a relative of the infamous lumpia (spring roll), but it is definitely not lumpia! It is one of Cebu’s many claims to fame but its origin has close affinity to Chinese cuisine because of the ngohiong powder (five-spice seasoning, ng heong fun/ ngohiong hun) added to it, giving its distinct flavour.
Ngohiong is a popular street food snack, available in barbecue places and in many restaurants in Cebu. It’s a handy student snack so you can also find ngohiong stalls near schools and universities.
Cebu’s lechon has a distinct taste and character that makes it stand out among the rest. What’s even unique is that you get to enjoy it on its own, no need for dipping sauces unlike Manila lechons which are usually paired with a liver-based sauce. It is probably due to the stuffing and the method of cooking. Cebu lechons are stuffed with spring onion, garlic, salt, seasonings and lemon soda. While roasting on a bamboo pole over a charcoal fire for three hours, the pig is alternatively brushed with oil and soya sauce and occasionally sprayed with water to give that crunchy popping texture. Because of Cebu lechons huge demand in Manila, some lechoneros even offer delivery service from Cebu to Manila airport which is an hour flight. The customer can then collect it at the airport.
The original lechon spots were used to be in General Maxilom Avenue, near the Redemptorist Church. Nowadays, the four most-favoured lechoneros in Cebu are: Rico’s, Zubuchon (‘Best pig, ever!’, according to celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain), CNT and Ayers.
10. Puso - Our Heart of Rice
They say you have not been to Cebu if you have not tried the iconic puso! Puso is rice that is wrapped and boiled in woven coconut leaves making it more flavourful and aromatic. It is a practical way to serve cooked rice because it’s eaten with bare hands. Simply cut into the coconut leaves in half to get the solidified rice. Puso is preferred by diners in Cebu because of its great taste. Whenever there is lechon or barbecue, Puso is always be there.
It is termed as puso, which literally means ‘heart’, because the wrapping is shaped like a heart.
Food are like gems. They are hidden where travellers hardly ever venture. The next time you visit Cebu, look beyond the fancy-cladded shopping malls. Go out of your way and maybe you can find instant treasure that is worth coming back for. Hope you fall in love with Cebu as much as I do!
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