Great balls of fish: Jo-Ann's Fishballs pull in the crowd at Molo Plaza
Food & Drink Features

From Ilawod’s batchoy to Mohon’s bibingka: These Iloilo street food joints have a cult following

From fishballs you might call “so extra,” to bibingka made from a secret heirloom recipe, here are what the locals treat themselves to in the “City of Love.”
Rhick Lars Vladimer Albay | Aug 18 2019

Ilonggos are downright serious about street food. To the point that a handful of unassuming local hawkers here have amassed cult-like followings and hordes of loyal patrons, merely by word-of-mouth —proving without a doubt that the best advertising is done by satisfied customers.

From crowd-pleasing tusok-tusok fare, to the quintessentially Ilonggo batchoy, to rich desserts that could put its counterparts in other regions to shame —you name it, Ilonggos can serve it, by the side of the road, on flimsy paper plates, on charming mismatched bowls and saucers.

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In my flights of fancy, I may or may not have compiled an Iloilo street food itinerary in the hopes that one day I’ll have the rare privilege to tour No Reservations legend Anthony Bourdain around my vibrant city. Of course that can’t happen anymore—Rest in peace, my hero, I know you're up there at that big pho place in the sky—just like Iloilo’s culinary families revealing their generations-kept secret recipes. 

So in lieu of an appearance on a syndicated TV series, I’m offering here instead a rundown of a few of Iloilo’s cult street food favorites. We don’t have our own divisive Netflix Street Food episode just yet (beaten to the punch by Cebu), but Iloilo’s wayside cuisine spots too deserve their time under the limelight. 

 

Not your ordinary balls: Jo Ann’s Fishball

Have your barbeque sticks at the ready, there is no other street food in Iloilo City as worshipped and well-loved as Jo-Ann’s Fishball in scenic Molo Plaza. Owner Virginia Camandero tells us her mother, the namesake of the business, started with a lone pushcart in the 1980s, selling her fishballs at 25 centavos apiece. 

Nearly four decades later, the Jo-Ann’s still comes alive at 4 in the afternoon, with the delicacy now selling for Php5 per stick. There’s a Jo-Ann’s along each corner of the bustling plaza, to cater to the high demand. Palanca winner and University of the Philippine Visayas professor Dulce Maria Deriada is among the devotees. A long-time resident of Molo district, Deriada attests to her habit of capping off long days with a few sticks of Jo-Ann’s fishballs and sitting on a park bench facing the St. Anne Parish Church —a gothic marvel constricted in 1831.

Selling at P5 per stick, Jo-Ann's fishballs are famous for its real fresh fish flakes.

The disciples of this famous fishbolanfawn over its bountiful use of real fresh fish flakes, as well as its unparalleled taste and crunchy exterior. For me though, Jo-Ann’s main draw is its signature sauces — labelled 1 to 4, ranging from the traditional sweet flavor to a spiciness that could leave you teary-eyed and gasping for air.

Getting its heat from crushed kutitot (siling labuyo in the local Hiligaynon), Jo-Ann’s sauce No. 4 comes off as benign at first taste, until it reveals its insidious fieriness, building up to a burning hotness that will leave your lips quivering. 

 

The new batchoy favorite: Batchoyan ni Jasmin

Now here’s a hot-button issue among Ilonggos: Where can you eat the best batchoy in the city? Most will probably prattle about naming the older establishments: Netong’s, Deco’s, or Popoy’s — each of which actually have their own claim to be the real “original” La Paz batchoy. However, a new challenger for the title has come to the fore — and weirdly enough, it’s not even found in the La Paz district.

Some 20 kilometers or so outside of the city, in Ilawod, Santa Barbara, Iloilo Province, Batchoyan ni Jasmin is giving its older competitors a run for their money.

Ambeth's choice: the hearty batchoy at Batchoyan ni Jasmin

First started by Jasmin Sobredo in 2015, the batchoyan is a five-minute tricycle ride from the Santa Barbara town square, open daily from 8:30am until ingredients and supplies last — which is usually till around 3pm after the batchoyan’s lunchtime peak hours. 

No less than famed historian and gourmand Ambeth Ocampo has raved about the fairly new street-side spot which has grown popular due to online recommendations. “Sobredo started [her] batchoy stall in a hut, with five kilos of ingredients to make a deep pot of the iconic noodle dish. [It was] was sold out by 10am,” Ocampo related in a Facebook post. “Today, she cooks 50 to 80 kilos depending on demand. It may not be the original from La Paz, but it’s one of the best I’ve tasted.”

What makes it a cut above the rest? Topped with a generous helping of chicharon and chives, Batchoyan ni Jasmin’s thick miki noodles and freshly-sliced pork innards are complemented by a rich pork broth that veers more toward the savory-sweet side. The dish is best paired with puto, and if you can’t get enough of the tasty soup stock, you can always ask for more — free of charge.

 

The bibingka from a secret recipe: Bingkahan sa Mohon

The bibingka is often seen as a seasonal dessert, a beloved Filipino kakanin synonymous with Christmas and Simbang Gabi. But why limit your craving for the sweet course to just the yuletide season, when Bingkahan sa Mohon makes them fresh off their wood oven the whole year round.

Mohon is 10 kilometers from Iloilo City Proper, the boundary of Villa Arevalo District and Oton — which is also where matriarch Felicidad Animas began her bibingka business nearly 70 years ago, in the early 1950s.

Smooth and milky, comparing the bibingkas of Bingkahan sa Mohon to the half-burnt frisbees sold in front of most churches would be sacrilege. Made from generous portions of grated coconut and only the best ingredients, the bibingkas are baked in pans lined with banana leaf.

At only P50 each, the bibingkas sell like hotcakes four days a week.

Its silky texture and subtle sweetness makes it a sought-after dessert, beckoning customers to buy whole plates at only Php 50 each. This bibingka is sold only four days a week (Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday.)

With Animas’ product quickly growing in popularity, her earnings from the store proved enough to provide her livelihood and send all of her children to school. Since Felicidad’s passing, her offspring have taken the reins of Bingkahan sa Mohon, now an indelible local icon.

Karly Animas, who will rep the third generation when she eventually takes over the family business, says her grandmother’s recipe is kept under lock and key and is known only by select personnel.

Apart from these three, Iloilo street food has definitely more to offer. With the city’s busy streets and ever-changing landscape, the next cult street-side grub hub may just be around the corner.