Inside Tola, Davao's New Restaurant That Captures the Spirit of the South
Launched in late October, Tola is the latest addition to Davao’s emerging dining scene that pays homage to the city it calls home. Like the local clear fish soup it’s named after, Tola makes the best of Davao’s rich resources to create an establishment that proves what the city has to offer. Everything is sourced locally, from the hinterland farmers to the foothills of Mt. Apo.
Tola pays tribute to tradition with its array of classic Filipino dishes and rich Davao cuisine. Despite its grand exterior, Chris Pamintuan, one of Tola’s owners alongside four partners, clarified that this is not the case.
“We’re not fancy at all. We’re not fine dining, we’re not fusion, we don’t make our own recipes, and we don’t make it Spanish. We just want it to be local food—Bisaya food. Davao food,” said Pamintuan. “That why we chose [Tola]. We’re just fresh, straightforward, and simple.”
It’s simplicity is rooted in the local dish its named after. Tola is a fisherman’s soup that takes whatever fish was caught on the day and mixes it with scallions, ginger, and any other vegetables that are available.
Baby Squid Adobo
“There’s a term called sutokil in Bisaya, which is basically [a combination of] sugba, tola, and kinilaw. So let’s say, they get a big fish. They’ll divide it into three: the head will be for the tola, the middle part will be for sugba (ihaw), and the tail will be kilaw,” explained Pamintuan. “It’s simple Bisaya fishermen food.”
To the team behind Tola, “It’s necessary to cook and eat like a local.” About 70 percent of the menu is classic Filipino dishes, while 30 percent is reserved for Davaoeño cuisine. You’ve got your national staples like sinigang and kare-kare, but what sets Tola apart is its take on unique local dishes you’d find in turo-turo style karinderias around Davao, like Tola’s imbao soup, bagaybay, and pakfry.
The traditional dishes complement the place Tola calls home: Balay Oboza, one of Davao’s most famous heritage houses built in 1929 that has hosted the likes of Manuel Quezon and Manuel Roxas in its illustrious past. Going on almost a hundred years, the house’s interiors were restored as much as possible to create a homey, relaxed dining experience for Tola’s customers. The old world ambiance is complete with chandeliers, velvet upholstery, and old photos of the house’s former owners, creating the impression you stepped into the abode of your well-to-do grandparents.
The powerhouse team behind Tola includes chef Rob Pengson of The Goose Station, a Miele Guide-listed restaurant in Metro Manila; Enzo Lim, bartender and restaurateur of New York City’s Maharlika and Jeepney; Isabel Lonzano, interior designer, curator, and service consultant from Antonio’s Group of Restuarants; and Big Hero 5, the owners of the restaurants comprised of Chris Pamintuan, Kim Pamintuan, Vince and Tricie Arcenas, and Kenneth Villaluz.
This isn’t Big Hero’s first venture into Davao’s food scene. Their first was Huckleberry Southern Kitchen and Bar, the go-to drinking hole in the city that’s gained a loyal following throughout the years. It’s located on the first floor of Balay Oboza, making it the after-dinner location of diners in Tola.
Tola, as well as Huckleberry, are just some of the notable local establishments that are contributing to the booming food scene down in Davao.
“If you compare the dining scene today to five years, ago, it’s very different. It’s sort of progressive, but not quite there yet. But it’s getting there,” said Pamintuan.
And Tola is now part of that.