Google “best restaurants in Iloilo” and chances are you will find Tatoy’s Manokan and Seafoods among the highly recommended by food and travel websites.
The founder of this 45-year-old restaurant is Honorato “Tatoy” Espinosa who just turned 90 this year. The man, whose education didn’t go beyond grade school, also has a convention center and a resort to his name. Because of his success in business, Mang Tatoy has become an inspiration and source of pride to Ilonggos.
Senator Dick Gordon recently posted about Mang Tatoy on his Facebook account, lauding the man’s humility and hard work. The two gentlemen first met when the senator was still secretary of the Department of Tourism in the early 2000s. The senator also went to Iloilo to do relief efforts with Tatoy after the disastrous typhoon Frank in 2008. The two had since become good friends such that the senator even flew to Iloilo City last month to attend the old man’s 90th birthday celebration.
“Tinuturing ko siyang modelo at inspirasyon sa lahat ng Pilipinong negosyante na hindi naging hadlang ang kahirapan upang maging matagumpay sa larangan ng paglikha ng kabuhayan sa kanyang pamilya at komunidad,” Gordon wrote on his Facebook page.
The senator admires Mang Tatoy’s fearlessness. “There are no borders in his mind. There are no fences,” Gordon said during the birthday event. “He cast away doubt in everything that he does. He has made fear his friend.”
To hear the Senator say it, Tatoy had a formula for success. “I always say this when I speak to others, ang policy ni Tatoy are—work, save, invest, prosper,” he said.
Born and raised in the coastal town of Villa de Arevalo (or Villa) in Iloilo, Tatoy grew up to become a fisherman. He was still very young when his father died so the boy had to help his mother, a fish vendor, put food on the table and support his eight siblings.
Tatoy had a big family himself, having nine children. To augment the Espinosa household’s income, he and his wife set up a small store by the beach where they sold chicken barbecue and soft drinks.
Despite the fact that in their early days, they had but three tables to accommodate customers, Tatoy and wife were eventually able to make the chicken barbecue business profitable and send their children to school. By the 1980s, all the Espinosa children had finished different degrees—engineering, marine transportation, business, radiologic technology, hotel and restaurant management, and nursing.
To cater to more diners, Tatoy’s children eventually bought the lot in front of what was previously their father’s small kiosk and started open-air dining service. They called it Tatoy’s Manokan and Seafoods. In the 90s, they began offering indoor dining and eventually expanded to what it is now—a restaurant than can seat 3,000 people. The casual dining restaurant now also has branches in the town of Cabatuan and at Atria, Ayala Malls.
On top of these, there’s the previously mentioned convention center called the Concejo Hall, which can accommodate about a thousand people, and a resort, also called Tatoy’s.
What’s in the chicken?
John Lex Bayombong, grandchild of Tatoy, who now serves as the restaurant’s operations manager, says their native litsong manok is served inasal style and grilled over charcoal. “It’s stuffed with lemongrass and sampaloc leaves,” he says, careful not to reveal any trade secrets. His lolo formulated the recipe and it’s the same chicken taste and flavor that Ilonggos have loved thru the years. The restaurant also serves lechon and a variety of seafood such as scallops, oysters, and crabs.
Lex, who finished HRM and Culinary Arts in college, is already the third generation Espinosa running the family business. He describes his lolo as “masayahin,” but also strict and meticulous with work, with hygiene, when it comes to making sure ingredients are clean before they are used. The old man also taught them not to skimp on quality ingredients.
Echoing Gordon’s observation, the apo says his lolo has remained very simple and humble despite his achievements. “Whenever he goes around the restaurants, you’ll just see him wearing a white t-shirt, shorts, and tsinelas,” the grandson says.
One of the things Lex learned from his lolo is the value of sharing one’s blessings. “Hindi lang kabig ng kabig. Galing din siya sa hirap kaya alam paano maging mahirap,” he says.
For the past few decades, Mang Tatoy, has stayed on the sidelines, leaving the management and operations of the restaurant to his children and more recently to his apos. In a way, he’s already given his investment of time, hard work and dedication—now he’s just reaping the rewards. “I think Lolo did a good job,” says Lex, “because Tatoy’s won’t be what it is now without the values he taught us.”
Photos courtesy of John Lex Bayombong