Tinula or Tinola or Tinowa or Fish Tinola of the most heartwarming kind… If you are in Cebu this weekend for the Sinulog celebrations, here is one local favorite you should check out… but only if your tolerance for dicey surroundings is HIGH, and you LOVE fish soup. :) It’s a Cebu dining institution that goes back decades, and though this roadside eatery, slash hole-in-the-wall, has tidied up a bit in recent years, it’s still an “adventure” for most tourists, I suspect. But with a fishead like the one above, can you resist its lure?
Located just a stone’s (strong) throw from the Shoemart (SM) mall in the reclamation area, it’s on a (now paved) side street and it has a large muddy parking lot in front of the restaurant. I have often been asked by folks who ask about eating here… what about the flies? The flies? Well for the squeamish amongst you, they now have an airconditioned room nearby, though there were still a couple of flies who made it through the doors the last time we ate there.:) And it costs 10% more or so to dine in there, I think. For the full A-ONE experience eat outside. Just wave your arms and hands like a maniac. Flies seem to be more plentiful at certain times of the year, though I haven’t figured out what the seasons are yet. And if you dine at night (making the adventure even dicier) at least the flies tend to sleep when it’s dark.
And get it right, okay? TINULA. Not TINOLA. In the Visayas, an “o” is a “u”. It’s also known as TINOWA/TINUWA… a totally smple soup of fish, a few veggies and water. The key to the tinula is the freshest fish, the proper intensity of the broth (both deeply flavored yet light on the palate) and a healthy appreciation for the simplest foods in life. My grandmother had a bowl of this every single day of her 90+ years. Hers had the addition of malunggay or moringa leaves, the soup her secret tonic for longevity perhaps.
Whole humongous fish heads (a talakitok or jack or trevally in this case) are the absolute pinnacle of the A-ONE tinula experience. But they do run out. So get there early. We were there at 11am for a recent lunch. We got one fish head, which came with enough broth for six folks…
The broth has some tomatoes, green onions and other ingredients in it. The pot smelled absolutely wonderful!
The heads aren’t weighed. They cost PHP500 per order, PHP550 in the airconditioned room, I think. The price struck my local companions as being a bit steep, up from the PHP400 they remembered not too long ago. I wanted to taste it first before I commented on the prices…
The server must have thought we were special (or suckers for ordering so many other things) and she gave us a bowl of broth with the bihud or fish egg sack of the fish… this is local delicacy and highly sought after by some diners.
The soup was delicious, real soul food. The broth was flavorful but not overcooked (yes, I think you can overcook a fish broth and it tastes foulish if you do). The fish was fresh, and meat plentiful on that ginormous head. Our group sought out their favorite parts, the cheeks, the eyes, the lips… Yum.
Each of us got a sawsawan (dipping sauce) plate with chopped onions, tomatoes and some kalamansi limes. There were red chilies elsewhere on the table, and some soy sauce and vinegar.
For a non-fish soup eater in the group, we ordered some grilled pork belly. It was so-so, and improved by the dipping sauce. I didn’t expect much from the grilled items and they didn’t disappoint.
The pork chopped up…
…some squid that was simply grilled, ink sacs and all included. This was a particularly poor value, at PHP400+ it was pricier than lechon sisig stuffed squid at Zubuchon, so I suggest you steer well clear of their grilled squid.
Instead of rice, real locals order “mais” or coarse cornmeal cooked like rice. I find it is delciious, but sits like a rock in your stomach, so I opted for white rice instead, while others had two plates of mais each!
And in one bowl, a whole floating iba, kamias or belimbi, which provided just a hint of sourness to the broth, perfect. Overall, I thought the soup was absolutely delicious, but the whole experience at PHP280 or $7 per person, was actually a bit pricey for the surroundings, the lack of receipts, service, etc. But never mind all that. Go for the soup, at least once in your visits to Cebu. :)
Vendors just outside the restaurant also had good mangosteen and lanzones for sale, so we had a kilo of each for dessert for a table of six people.
D’Original A-ONE Tinula, Cebu (don’t be fooled by wannabees nearby)
Road North 6
Mabolo, Cebu City
Note: This can be a rather questionable part of town, particularly if you aren’t familiar with the place, and would likely stick out like sore thumbs. So if you go, go in a group and know how you will get home, particularly if dining in the evening. This is not a place to look lost, hail gypsy cabs, or ask directions.