Meet the People Making La Union the New Food Destination

This rebel gang of chefs, baristas, and nomads are making the Surfing Capital of the North the new culinary epicenter

by JJ Yulo, photo by Ralph Mendoza

Cosio and son; a burger from Mad Monkeys

My friend Denny, a certified city boy, wants to move to a cornfield in La Union, and I need to know why.

Why take a perfectly good leap from our bustling city, full of life, and restaurants, bookstores, theaters, bars, parks (well, some parks!) and move to a sleepy seaside town known primarily for surfing? I didn’t want to judge so quickly, so I packed a bag and headed for the town of San Juan in LU.

As a kid, La Union for me was a place you could only drive to from Baguio City. I went there ONCE, and only because a friend of mine had a house there and we went to visit. The beach was just meh, to be honest. But nowadays, thanks to the people behind the TPLEX, it’s now become a destination because of the scene and because getting there takes a mere four hours. Another hour and a half or so and we’d be in the City of (Some) Pines. Unreal.

San Juan has that little town feel like most other towns you drive by on road trips. I mean, hey, they have a Jollibee. But at some point, if you’re sensitive enough, you pick up all this energy. Keep your eyes peeled for a couple of hipster (I say this loosely) establishments here, a hostel there, amidst spaces built from a distant time. The business context stemmed from the rise of local surf culture and (pardon the pun) the wave it rode on.

Ground zero of all this energy was the little hostel that could: the much ballyhooed Flotsam & Jetsam. What started as a few thatched huts for surfing-obsessed backpackers to sleep in is now just a wee bit grander with a multi-story structure of rooms with hotel-like privacy (read: you get your own john) behind the original grounds. The two captains of this ship, Joncy Sumulong and Mia Sebastian, steer it with deft hands and know exactly what they want. I think this is largely because of the experienced backpacker Sumulong. Sebastian adds a lot of culture and flavor, but it’s in Sumulong’s tales that you will begin to understand what they’re all about.

The feast at Angel and Marie’s; grilled cheese from El Union

Sumulong is the wild card of the LU scene. A certified Gen X baby, he left the corporate world where he worked as a stockbroker, and immersed himself in the world of backpacking, from the rivers of Cambodia to the tiny back alleys of Europe. Before you start judging this Peter Pan of the backpacker set as a hedonist, the truth is he’s taken all the decades of knowledge he’s picked up over the years—both worldly and otherwise—and put it to good use. Not only is he is the one implementing all the green initiatives of the hostel, he’s also plotting out its mini music festivals, luring some of the country’s best musicians and DJs to play and chill.

Flots—as it’s called—is a world unto itself. It’s a trap—a time suck—as you can while away hours at its bar/cafe/restaurant, drink in hand, letting the piped-in music lull you (hip-hop is a no no!) as you literally chat with the rest of the world. And therein lies the ace up its sleeve. This small corner attracts people from everywhere—not just Filipinos, but an assortment of foreigners all passing through to discover lures of the PI. An actual conversation (remember those?) can be had here, with complete strangers at that, all of them chasing the essence of the country—or at least chasing the next party. Sumulong reckons this is the best way to lure people here as tourists: by playing nice with the backpacker brigade circling Southeast Asia, or as he calls it, the banana pancake trail. Someone set this man up with the Department of Tourism.

To keep them awake after nights of downing cheap libations is the responsibility of El Union Coffee, located just a few minutes down from Flots. A few years ago, it was unheard of to sip a cuppa from a specialty coffee joint in La Union, but here it is, with all the serious kit it needs, pulling shots as good as you’ll get anywhere else. Two-time Philippine Barista Champ Silvester “Sly” Samonte ain’t there for nothing. But what makes it really special is at the center of what it’s trying to achieve—it is hedging its bets on Philippine coffee and bringing it up to superstar levels. Founder Kiddo Cosio puts it best—“If everyone knows about Kenyan coffee, why can’t there be the same for Philippine coffee?”

Drinks at The Hungry Nomad; the El Union Facade

Samonte, Cosio’s secret weapon, is a coffee savant of sorts—his taste buds for the beverage are sharpened and heightened by his penchant for travel and research. If there is anyone who knows his coffee, it’s Samonte. Celebrated Chef Nicco Santos, who also happens to be a coffee fan, puts it succinctly: “I would say, right now, Sly is the best we have in coffee.” But Sly is a little quiet, maybe a little moody, definitely introspective at times. Cosio is the perfect foil to Sly, and together they form a formidable duo.

Cosio, a former social media manager, and his wife Amy, a former teacher, opened El Union because they needed a reason to keep staying in La Union. It was the wife’s idea. “Let’s just serve coffee!” And the rest is history. Although he knows how to pull an espresso shot, Cosio is really more of the mouthpiece of both his coffee shack and the invigorated LU. Naturally hospitable, he can be found flitting about his HQ, or sipping some rum at the bar of Flots, or on the beach, enjoying the water. His boundless energy and demeanor actually encapsulate what this once sleepy town is now all about: hatching ideas. Progress.

It’s this prevalent attitude—one that embraces dreaming, creativity, and the chutzpah to just go for the dream (one can surmise escaping Manila is one of those dreams)—that gives it its allure and mystique. It’s so free. And open. There is so much room to take chances on your ideas and run with them. Right behind El Union is a tight array of miniscule shops being built. When this is all done, it will easily be the coolest place in town. Among those turning concept to reality is Craft Point Brewery, one of the country’s growing number of craft brew artisans.

Sly Samonte of El Union; Denny Antonino of Papa Bear

Simone Mastrota, of Tigre y Olivia Chocolate, is an Italian chocolatier who has also made San Juan his home and place of work. His chocolate lab and retail shop will go up behind El Union too. All tatted out and sporting a beard that could easily mistake him for American singer/songwriter William Fitzsimmons (quick—I’ll wait a minute while you Google!), or at the very least a younger version of ZZ Top, this man is on a mission, producing local cacao beans and wrapping them in beautiful Italian printed paper, and taking concrete steps to bring his product to a bigger audience. On the day we left, he was testing chocolate bars from cacao sourced mere minutes from where we were standing—the true farm-to-table experience. Surfer Mikkie Eduardo is setting up a sandwich shack that will sell fresh seafood rolls by the beach. He’s calling it The Great Gamble—because he knows it most definitely is one. Eduardo’s personal advocacy is to make a mark with regional business, instead of relying solely on big cities. He is certainly in the right place for it.

This is also where my aforementioned pal, Denny Antonino, formerly a chef of the still very hot restaurants Your Local and Hey Handsome, and a guy who has had his fill of Manila chaos, is setting up a restaurant called Papa Bear—where he will smoke and cure meats to serve and supply others in the general area.You can see and feel the same kind of humming energy from this man, who is clearly just happy to be there. He showed me his future home: a three-bedroom affair in a cornfield, no more than 10 minutes from his place of business. He will never (at least not in the near future) get caught in a traffic jam to get to work. He will breathe clean seaside air. And he can apply his skills in fresh surroundings.

Across the street from coffee central is a cheap eatery called Nak-Nak that serves a mean and filling fried chicken and rice (or for you veg heads—an “omelet” loaded with a lot of veggies) for an unreal price of less than a hundred pesos. Nearby, Mateo Fabregas has a burger stand called Mad Monkeys that serves pretty good quality cosmopolitan burgers with a signature beer and cheese sauce. Around the corner, Tagpuan, a little window of a restaurant where one might usually find a sari-sari store, does a mean Filipino veggie bibimbap and other rice bowls for below a hundred bucks. And these are only places we had room to try. Them surfers are certainly well fed.

Tokwa’t baboy from Tagpuan; making horchata at El Union

Just as I was unraveling bits about this community, I kept hearing insistent whispers in my ear: “You have to visit Tito Toby’s farm. It will blow your mind.” Sumulong must have said it out loud at least 10 times. “Don’t just find the hipster stuff—he’s actually the real story.”

So off we went to the property of retired military man Toby Tamayo. His posture, upright and sure, reflected his years of training, but his demeanor revealed an entirely different personality, one you wouldn’t expect from a man of his background. He came off as knowledgeable (an understatement) and soft spoken…one might say even gentle, as he regaled us with tales of how his farm came to be. It is not one of those beautifully landscaped and manicured tracts of land—but it is most definitely lush, and he grew it in a mind-boggling five years. You wouldn’t think it was possible, but there it was. And he did so in the simplest of ways—he studied the land, and researched what would grow best there. Using teachings he picked up from indigenous tribes, the same ones he immersed himself with during his military days as a peacekeeper dealing with insurgents, he planted specimens that were meant to be there—and they flourished. Due to health reasons, he threw himself at this project, and as he likes to tell everyone, “I needed to live here. This place healed me.”

It’s easy to see why one can live well here—the flora and fauna he’s managed to grow on this little plot is so abundant and palpably alive (his foray into bamboo is amazing!), and there are sources for clean spring water. It’s a few degrees cooler in here than outside his gate, and the air is certainly fresher too. His lifestyle is clearly aligned with Buddhism, respecting the land and everything growing in it. At some point, he will do workshops for tai chi and qigong and other wellness pursuits, and for this city slicker living in this toxic society, breathing all this filthy air, is—as predicted—mind-blowing.

Tamayo, with his green thumb, practicality, ingenuity, and his stance on the environment, is the beating heart of the flow of life in this surf town. He’s making the hostel Flotsam as environmentally friendly as can be, using black and gray water systems for reuse. He’s tapped a natural water source and provides free water to a large number of the poorer families in the community. He’s helping grow coffee for El Union, and vegetables and herbs for Papa Bear and many other food entrepreneurs in the area. It is no wonder that people speak his name with such reference.

A beach fixture; a smoothie bowl from Makai Bowls inside Flotsam and Jestam

This man, once branded as a cult leader by those who couldn’t catch his drift, is a big reason why these businesses are hitting it out of the park. The interesting thing is you hardly hear of him anywhere. You would think that a man of his talents would be splashed over all our channels, but it seems his practicality is not quite aligned with the way the powers that be want things to work. Honestly, though, take a walk into his five-year proof of concept and you will know deep down that this is one person who may just have the keys to our future—one of true sustainability.

The scenes that really stuck to our heads on this quick sojourn were simple ones: that of Cosio and his wife Amy and their little ones, of Mastrota and his children, all basking in the glow of a beautiful sunset, their dogs running free around them. This happens daily, while the rest of us slog through traffic, clock in overtime, or deal with a stressful commute. It’s their “us” time, their family bonding, their time for just slowing down and allowing these blissful moments to happen. Talk about idyllic days in a seaside town. Only time will tell how they will preserve this feel-good paradise.

There are certainly good business opportunities here—one can only hope that restraint is exercised as more people decide to plant their flags here (learn from Boracay, folks). But in the meantime, dream big, kick back with a cold one, and take in that slow and easy LU vibe. Don’t be surprised if, like myself, you’ll suddenly find ways to get yourself back here. Hasta luego!