Tola, Kan-anan sa Balay Oboza in Davao: Ancestral Home, Heritage Cuisine
Walking into Tola, a traditional Filipino restaurant set in an ancestral Davao home, transports one to an idle time in the history of the province. The imposing 90-year-old wooden structure known as Balay Oboza is a familiar sight to locals, and the low-key VIP that comes to town. Built in the 1930s by Alfonso Oboza, the first municipal mayor of Davao, its framed windows peer out to a polished garden that evokes simpler afternoons spent with family and friends, the porch (now enclosed in an air-conditioned room) giving prime view of the comings and goings along Rizal Street below.
Tola perfectly exudes a blend of comfort and refinement. Of course, its intricate ipil arches and fine yakal staircase lend enduring warmth to the ambiance, but there’s a touch of sophistication in its interiors, too, that yet stand out in the laidback southern aesthetic.
Owner Chris Pamintuan reveals that it is none other than design curator Isabel Lozano’s style that comes through in this modern arrangement. In the lush indoor foliage and luxurious velvet pillows on hard wood throughout the restaurant, Isabel has exacted an organic feel that makes the ancestral home come alive. Chris and his partners have stolen the Director of Hospitality of the Antonio’s Group for almost a month now, leading up to the soft opening of Tola on September 19. Aside from interiors, Isabel has been working with the kitchen and staff to ensure excellent guest service.
Not to worry, though, Davaoenos, Tola is not a fine dining restaurant. It’s no secret that the residents of this easy-going city are creatures of habit. Chris iterates the region’s specialities – tuna panga, or the fatty jaw of the region’s plentiful fish, for example – can still be found in the decades-old Luz Kinilaw, a streetside institution that old-timers remain loyal to and continue to frequent. This didn’t deter him – nor his partners at Big Hero 5 Corporation: his cousin, Kim Pamintuan; entrepreneur couple Vince and Tricie Arcenas; and chef Kenneth Villaluz – from engaging the bidding war to acquire the old Balay Oboza. They had, after all, already set up shop in the first floor of the ancestral home with their five-year-old Huckleberry Southern Kitchen and Bar drawing a foodie (though still more boozy) crowd that is learning to eat fresh oysters at the bar.
Their concept was classic Davaoeno: simple, straightforward, and delicious. With the success of Huck paired with each of the Big Hero 5 Corp.’s industry repertoire – Chris is the CEO & President of The Apo View Hotel, and investor-partner at San Francisco’s Hog & Rocks, which is among the Top 100 Bay Area Restaurants list of Michael Bauer; Vince and Tricie are seasoned restaurateurs with Salutti, Cellar de Oboza, and Cellar de Boca under their belt; Kim, alongside Chris, owns Siargao’s Cantina Luna and is currently setting up for the opening of his boutique hotel, Kaza, on the island; and, Kenneth also owned and created the innovative dishes of progressive Filipino restaurant Tiago in Quezon City before moving to Davao – an elegant venue for a well-executed idea seemed par for the course.
While the company has Kenneth, the chef-owner has put his focus on product development for both Huck and Tola. This makes way for Tricie’s brother, Rob Pengson of The Goose Station fame, to take on his first venture in Davao as Tola’s executive chef. As a result, Tola features an extensive menu of over 60 classic Filipino dishes from sinuglaw (grilled pork belly and raw tuna in vinegar and spices) and pomelo salad, to inasal na bagaybay (grilled tuna sacs in a signature Visayan marinade) and pakfry (a meaty fried tuna buntot, or fish tail). Of course, the clear fish soup, tola, which the restaurant is named after, sits at the top of the soup offerings, alongside imbao (clams) and even kansi (a sinigang and bulalo hybrid from the Visayas).
Tola serves comfort that is reminiscent of Davao as a land of promise, its bountiful sea and fruitscape the guaranteed welcome to myriad visitors from the past. Today, as the city accelerates in development, charming pockets like Balay Oboza present this feeling that only Davaoenos can offer. In a satisfying menu and a beautiful setting, Tola provides nostalgia, but also an invitation to create new memories over good food with family and friends in Davao.
Tola is located at Oboza Compound 143 Rizal Street, Poblacion District, Davao City. Tola is open between 11:00AM and 10:00PM For reservations, call +63.961.108.1724.
- Photography Isabel Lozano