Heading to Davao City? Please enjoy this local foodie’s restaurant recommendations
Mimi Vergara-Tupas knows a thing or two about healthy eating and plant-based cuisine.
Born and raised in Davao and living in the city for the past 44 years, the founder of The Neighborhood Lifestyle Group—which includes 100 percent plant-based brands Clean Cafe and Fast Fresh, a flexitarian grab-and-go concept called Soul Kitchen Co., and the “vegetable-forward” wine-and-dine concept Made Simple—is probably the best person to ask when it comes to eating well and eating better in the crown city of Mindanao.
“Vegetables are the star of our plates,” she says about her food brands. “What used to be just sides, we now make into dishes of their own. There is something about vegetables that truly excites me and makes me my best creative self.”
However, it isn’t just the vegetables they serve that steal the show. The fact that their beloved food business is a family affair makes it an even more intriguing study.
“As cheesy as it sounds, I always have my husband and my children in mind when building up a dish,” Mimi says when asked about finding inspiration for their dishes. “If it’s something nourishing and heartwarming enough to let my family have, then to our menu and food brands they go.”
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Davao City and its culinary delights
Her son Uno who currently serves as their culinary director is inclined towards experiences. “He has this very popular and enchanting dish that he made after a weekend hike in a secluded waterfall. He coined it Forest Mushrooms, the lush forests of Mindanao are the main inspiration of this dish.”
Uno magnificently recreated the blooming earthy dish as part of their recent collaboration with a five-star Manila hotel—perhaps an attempt at dipping their toes into the bustling Philippine capital.
There is, however, one thing you might not see on Mimi’s menus. “I am not easily driven by what the market looks for. Instead, I tend to create dishes that people may not realize they would love until they’ve had a taste of our food.”
And a little scrutiny of this statement bears some semblance of what goes on inside Mimi’s head when probed about the Davao City food scene and a discussion on where she would take Davao City first-timers for a taste of the town.
Tell us a little bit about the Davao City food scene right now.
We have always been known for our pomelo, kinilaw, and grilled tuna. But the Davao City food scene has also remarkably changed over the past years. [The city] now [flourishes] with elevated dining places showcasing real culinary skills and innovative twists from chefs and cooks… some of whom have lived somewhere else but are now coming back to their roots and choosing Davao as their home base.
What makes a good restaurant?
It all must start with great food. But what threads that together is an experience that is only completed not only through exceptional service but a heart for it. While interiors, music, and service do matter, it is the core value of a dish that will make people want to come back for more.
And what makes a good meal?
A good meal is something you remember. A good meal is one that makes your eyes light up and makes your heart smile. Plus, a good meal challenges your expectations.
What do people usually get wrong about plant-based cuisine?
We were raised to believe that vegetables are only eaten to give us the nutrients we need. “Eat your vegetables to be strong. Have them so you won’t grow weak.” We don’t want that memory with our food. We grew up having them only as sides, and not much creativity has been given to them. When we say plant-based cuisine, it still gets frowned upon because it’s not something that was wired in us to give us an indulgent dining experience.
Outside your restaurants and home kitchen, can you share some spots where you would take a non-Davaoeño or a Filipino-American visiting the city for a food tour?
1. Hey Monday! Deli — Think New York deli vibe. This duo has truly embraced their New York food experiences by bringing them to Davao. Love their grilled cheese sandwich, arugula salad, and classic margaritas.
2. Pilgrim Restaurant — Worth the two-hour drive. Personal favorites are their hummus and grilled octopus salad. True Davaoeños who lived in Canada, Jeramie, and Kristine Go, are testimonies of why everyone comes back to Davao. The food here is just exceptional! Don’t forget your sweaters.
3. Mindanao Butchers & Co. — We love them for their paella, and the vibe that makes it feel like being in the owners’ (Carmina and Raffy) dining room is a charm in itself.
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4. Tiny Kitchen Creations — This husband-and-wife tandem is felt in the homey, comforting food that they serve. I love their fish dishes, classic gambas, and of course, their signature paella mariscos
5. Taste of Home Davao — Good cocktails here.
6. Misa Dining and Listening Room — Modern Japanese small plates plus excellent craft cocktails. A husband-and-wife tandem also managed the place.
7. Kitto Davao — Modern Japanese. Casual vibe. Love them for their ebi sando and mushroom don.
8. Kindred Café and The Vegan Dinosaur — Both are 100 percent vegan cafés.
9. ArtisAna — Come for the dulong and queso de bola cheesecake.
10. 1953 Kusina Leticia — Come for the Filipino/Davao food and their tablea cake.