Zamboanga City is one of the best and most underrated places in the Philippines for food-tripping. The cuisine here is just as festive, colorful and diverse as the culture of the region. Because of their location near the Sulu Sea, you get a variety of fresh seafood. With Zamboanga’s rich history as a former Spanish settlement, Hispanic flavors and food preparation have been infused into dishes. The presence of ethnic tribes from the Sulu archipelago and the Malay peninsula, known for their use of exotic spices, have also added a unique flair to the cuisine that you don’t get anywhere else in the country.
From traditional Filipino and seafood dishes, regional specialties with “a touch of Spanish, American and Asian influences,” to ethnic delicacies, visitors to Zamboanga City are really in for a culinary treat. Here’s my pick of what and where to eat in Zamboanga City from various visits to “Asia’s Latin City” over the years.
CURACHA AT ALAVAR SEAFOOD RESTAURANT
Curacha, a species of deep-sea crab found in the waters surrounding Zamboanga City, is the signature dish of the city. The best place to try it out is Alavar Seafood Restaurant, where it is served generously topped with a delicious sauce of coconut milk and spices. The best way to eat this is with your bare hands so you can pick out all the bits of meat hiding underneath the shell & savor every last bit of the sticky, sweet orange goodness from your fingers.
You need to be in a big group to enjoy this (and split the bill) as one order costs at least P850 (M) to P1,050.00/kilo (XL) at their main branch. As a huge fan of seafood, I have no complaints eating crabs just plain steamed, but there’s something about the sauce that makes this dish extra-special. Alavar also specializes in Spanish-inspired dishes including Paella Valenciana and Paella Negra. [MENU OF ALAVAR 01 | 02]
TIP: For solo travelers and those on a budget, a smaller branch of Alavar at Paseo del Mar serves combo meals where you can get smaller servings of curacha, grilled fish, baked clams, prawns with Alavar sauce and inasal/barbecue dishes.
Green mango is commonly served with seafood in most local restaurants, but what makes it special is the local version of bagoong. Bagon con gata combines the staple fermented condiment with coconut milk, giving it a slightly sweet flavor. This really adds a different dimension to all the the rich seafood dishes.
CURACHA & CHAMBA SALAD AT LA VISTA DEL MAR
Another restaurant that serves Deep-Fried Curacha is La Vista del Mar., a seaside resto that dishes out heritage recipes. Other must-tries include the crispy dinuguan (topped with lechon kawali), aromatic buko juice and Chamba Salad, a refreshing mix of eggplant, mango, and salted egg..
Another local specialty served in a lot of local restaurants is Baked Imbao, a type of mangrove clam, that’s usually topped with butter and garlic. The meat of the clam is naturally sweet. Great for an appetizer.
Aside from the usual sit-down restaurants, nothing beats enjoying seafood right at the beach. If you’re visiting the Greater Sta. Cruz Island, also known as the “Pink Sand Beach” because of its pinkish coralline sand, get ready for a seafood overload of specialties like curacha, grilled squid, shrimps, fish and freshly harvested lato (seaweed).
For a unique treat, try oko-oko, rice cooked in sea urchin, typically prepared by the Sama Banguingui tribe.
For the more adventurous, you can also try snails, locally called “chupa kulo” cooked in coconut milk and squash. The only way to get the meat from the snails is to suck it out of one side of the shell’s opening. Some locals were having a “chupa kulo” eating contest when we were on the island 🙂
If you’re just in the city, you can still get fresh seafood cooked the way you want in Hai San Seafood Market and Restaurant, a dampa-style restaurant specializing mostly in Chinese dishes. They have a wide selection of raw seafood like fish, crabs, shellfish, prawns, squid, shrimp, fish and shellfish that you can have cooked. They don’t have a fixed menu and prices vary according to the size of the dish and how it’s prepared.
Bistro at Paseo del Mar serves pasta dishes, fusion food and affordable platters suitable for big groups. Their barkada platter consisting of calamares, krispy kangkong, pancit, rice, meatballs, chicken, & green mango with bagoong with 2 pitchers of juice cost P500 and is good enough for about 7-8 people. Appetizers start at P50 and entrees are about P75-110 each. [MENU OF BISTRO]
Hacienda de Palmeras also serves seafood dishes.
The signature drink of Zamboanga City is called Zamboanga White, a creamy lychee-based shake that’s very sweet and refreshing. The drink is widely served in many restaurants and hotels including Garden Orchid Hotel, Haisan Seafood Restaurant and Alavar Seafood Restaurant and ranges in price from P60-P120/glass. The kamias-based Alavar Juice is also worth trying.
Zamboanga’s local version of the halo-halo is called the Knickerbocker (possibly inspired by the Knickerbocker Glory layered cream sundae), though made popular by Hacienda de Palmeras, a homegrown restaurant. It’s a dessert of sliced fruits and gelatin topped with strawberry ice cream. Palmeras also serves traditional Filipino and local specialties good for groups.
Smaller snack size servings of the Knickerbocker are available at Pinoy Patio (Palmeras) at Paseo del Mar for P60/glass.
Sati Ayam or Satti is a local favorite of barbecued meat similar to the Malaysian satay. You can find this in places like Johnny’s Morning Sun Satti and Jimmy’s Satti, humble roadside restaurants that deliver big on flavor.
It’s served with chunks of rice similar to those prepared in puso (rice wrapped in coconut leaves minus the leaves). The rice has very fine, chewy texture as if it’s been compacted, and you can’t distinguish between the individual rice kernels. A thick spicy sauce is poured over the whole dish like soup or gravy. This is a great meal if you’re on a budget since 3 sticks plus rice costs only P25.00. Be sure to order softdrinks or have lots of water ready since it’s pretty spicy.
Tausug cuisine of the Sulu Archipelago (which covers the provinces of Sulu, Basilan, Tawi-Tawi and the southern tip of the Zamboanga Peninsula and Palawan) is full of rich and exotic flavors. Dennis Coffee Garden, a restaurant originally from Jolo serves Authentic Sulu cuisine including excellent Chicken Pianggang (chicken marinated in choice spices), Beef Kulma (beef cubes in mild curry paste), and Tiula Itum (beef in broth of roasted coconut and spices).
The resto aims to Sulu Coffee culture alive, by serving quality coffee with a selection of native pastries on small plates collectively called Bangbang. Native pastries include Jualan (deep fried bananas served with a tasty dip), Daral (moisture-rich crepe with sweet coconut filling), Pulihmandi (purple rice balls rolled on coconut flakes) and apam (Sulu’s native pancake), to name a few.
We got to try some traditional Muslim delicacies that are typically served during special occasions. This included baulu mamon (2 variants of mini muffins; light colored ones are made from flour & white sugar while the darker one is made from browned rice flour & muscovado); pitis patani (glutinous rice cake with bucayo or caramelized coconut, and muscovado); kaling (deep-fried pretzel); panganan (deep-fried soft pretzel made with browned corn flour); panyam or panyalam (deep-fried rice flour pancake, with muscovado and coconut milk)
We also got to see how lokot-lokot, a native delicacy is made. These biscuit rolls made with fried strands of rice flour batter are usually served during special occasions such as the “Hariraya” or the feast of the Eid-il-Fitr, which celebrates the end of the fasting month of Ramadan.
For those looking for a homegrown coffee shop, Tsokolate Restaurant is a charming café that showcases some pop culture and vintage music memorabilia. The cafe serves very affordable food and has a cool vibe, making this place great to hang out for afternoon snacks, desserts and coffee and most importantly, Free Wifi! They have a few desktops and laptops for rent (P30/hour) for those who want to check mail but didn’t bring gadgets. Breakfast meals start at P50, brewed coffee is P28 and hot chocolate is P24. Lunch is served from 10am-2pm while grilled specialties are served from 4pm-6pm. Slices of cakes here are about P40-60 while cream puffs and eclairs are just P8.50 each! Great budget-friendly place.
BONUS: TAKE HOME PASALUBONG
A lot of visitors to Zamboanga City buy fresh seafood to take home as pasalubong. You can buy curacha at the wet market in Guiwan Flea market cost about P450/kilo during my visit. Another thing you can buy at the market – lobster! But the larger ones can set you back P1,000/kilo. You will need to buy a styrofoam cooler (available in markets) and have to check it during your flight to transport the seafood.
You can also buy frozen packs of the Alavar sauce for P150 for 1/2 kilo (P300 per kilo) and jars of Bagon con Gata for P90 per jar.
TIP: For those based in Manila who really want Alavar Sauce, the products (including cooked curacha in sauce) are sold in Alavar Products Manila in the Scout area. They also serve food at the Salcedo market every Saturday in Makati from 7am to 2pm and Sunday at the Legazpi market in Makati.
WHERE TO EAT IN ZAMBOANGA CITY:
- Alavar Seafood Restaurant. #173 Don Alfaro Street, Tetuan, Zamboanga City. Tel. #: (63)(62) 991-2483/991-3146. Alavar also has a smaller branch in Paseo del Mar.
- Hai San Seafood Market & Restaurant. #60 San Jose Road, Zamboanga City. Tel. (63) 991-5506, 991-1062
- Hacienda de Palmeras Hotel and Restaurant. Pasonanca Road, Barangay Sta. Maria, Zamboanga City. Tel: (062) 991 3284
- Garden Orchid Hotel. Governor Camins Avenue, Zamboanga City. Tel: (062) 991-0031 to 34
- Tsokolate by Linfood. #18 NS Valderosa St., Zamboanga City. Tel: (062) 992-5168
- Country Chicken and Mano-Mano, Barangay Pasonanca, Zamboanga City. Tel. No. (062) 991-1852
- La Vista del Mar Restaurant. Upper Calarian, Zamboanga City. Tel: (062) 991-1208
- Lantaka Hotel by the Sea. Ns Valderosa St., Zamboanga City. Tel: (062) 991-2033
- Chinito’s D Gathering Place. La Purisima, Zamboanga City. Tel: (062) 992-3236
- Bistro. Paseo del Mar.
- BarCode Grill and Bar. Paseo del Mar, Zamboanga City.
For more information on Zamboanga City, visit www.zamboanga.gov.ph