San Juan, La Union has become one of the most popular places to visit in the Philippines. On top of surfing, the local food scene has also been garnering rave reviews--- a scene fueled by an infusion of creativity and talent drawn to the surf town lifestyle.
A veritable deluge of social media posts, online articles, and mainstream media features lay testament to its ever growing “place to be” reputation. With a smorgasbord of offerings labeled artisanal, locally-sourced, and vegan; the Surfing Capital of the North is also coming into its own as a red hot food destination.
However, it should be said that a majority of these hip haunts field upmarket prices. But c’mon, is it really that surprising?
We certainly do not discourage you from enjoying the best cuisine that surf town has to offer, but constantly frequenting the hippest spots can quickly burn your vacation budget.
So we’ve come up with a guide based on advice from San Juan, La Union residents on how you can eat like a local to save money during your surf town sojourn.
A Trip to the Capital
Ironically, cutting down on expenses entails a trip to San Fernando, La Union, the provincial capital. Here you’ll be inundated with generic, low-cost goods such as cell phones, sim cards, clothing, flip-flops, and so on. Inquire about the “Old Market” in particular.
Looking to have your money converted to the local currency? San Fernando City has plenty of money changers and wire-transfer outlets, oftentimes bundled with pawn shops.
A one-way jeepney ride from Urbiztondo (surf town’s barangay name) to San Fernando is 11 pesos per person. You can also contract a tricycle for a “special trip” on the same route for 100 pesos. More on this special tricycle rate later.
FYI: The main road is the MacArthur Highway, aka the Manila North Road.
South leads to San Fernando, while North takes you back to surf town. For the sake of convenience, try to hop off the San Fernando City Plaza --- the approximate central hub surrounded by shops and transportation terminals.
Quick and Convenient
Let’s begin with the middle-of-the-road approach which is fast food. And standing in the middle of the town plaza gives you proximity to a bunch of atypical fast food joints.
Interestingly, the classic Filipino icon Jollibee has two branches a short distance apart; Starbucks style. If you’re craving for fast food burgers fried chicken, chinese, or pizza; San Fernando City’s where it’s at.
In contrast to the abundance of fast food chains are a smattering of family-owned restaurants and hole-in-the-wall cafes.
Shoutouts to Kawbin’s Restaurant and Cafe Esperanza. You can also buy bread, buns, and pastries at Danish Baker; a La Union local favorite for “merienda” (light meal, especially one taken in the afternoon).
Going back to the town plaza, be on the lookout for a particular street across it. At night, this street is closed off to make way for food stalls.
Hence it’s eponymously referred to as the “night market”; a place where you’ll find end-to-end affordable food options such as grilled meat and fish, regional filipino dishes, noodles and rice meals, and a whole lot more shortly after sunset.
Not all stalls provide tables and chairs for their customers. There are a few communal dining areas around, but these can fill-out rather quickly.
The DIY Approach
Now that you’re familiar where the night market is, you may have seen National Bazaar flanking the eastern end of the street.
FYI: That’s a supermarket --- which brings us to the cheapest option when it comes to budget eating in San Juan, La Union: cooking your own meals.
Don’t expect anything too fancy. In general though, San Fernando City supermarkets keep their shelves stocked with ubiquitous name brand grocery options and other common household items.
The San Fernando wet market; located a few blocks away from the “old market”, sells fresh produce, grains, meat and fish, on a daily basis.
Without a doubt, this marketplace is as “regional” and “locally sourced” as it gets... if you’re into that sort of thing.
FYI: “Market Days” in San Fernando are Wednesday and Saturday. Simply put, there’s a LOT more things available during market days.
All these come with a caveat however. Most hotels and resorts don’t allow guests to cook on their premises. The good news is a quick search online will show smaller establishments that do.
In fact, a big part of the charm from these homelier, mom-and-pop accommodations is being able to provide a kitchen as well as cooking gear. On this note, we highly recommend Veronica’s Lodge in barangay Urbiztondo if you’re planning to cook your own food during your visit.
Sweet Little Hacks
Filipino hospitality is an inexorable national trait,. Treating guests and strangers with nothing less than a warm and generous reception is a source of pride in this country. With that being said, here are a few interesting La Union local life hacks you can try out:
Worried that you might not be able to carry everything you shopped for with you? This is where the “special tricycle rate” at the beginning comes in. For the low, low price of 100 pesos, you’ve got yourself an instant chauffeur and porter (a little extra tip won’t hurt ) all rolled into one!
Even better, the tricycle manong (Ilokano term of respect for an “elder male”) will be more than willing to wait for as you get your shopping done. Being able to haul heavier items on the tricycle, such as a sack or rice, is definitely a godsend.
Repeat customers, much like anywhere else in the world, are the lifeblood of any business. In the Philippines the term for this connection between merchant and customer is called “suki”. It’s used as a greeting, and is applicable to both parties, to convey amenability.
Especially in the marketplace, being a “suki” has its perks; chief among which are discounted rates. If you ask nicely enough, you can even leave your shopping in their stall while you go about the market without having too much to carry.
Why yes, we do deliver...
This hack entails a cellphone. You’ll also need to write down the address of the place you’re staying and the phone number from someone who works there.
There are a lot of marketplace vendors who deliver wares to the many restaurants in San Juan, La Union. If one or more of your suki’s do a daily delivery, a simple text is all it takes to include your stuff on the supply run. Your “suki” might even go as far as buying items from other stores upon your request (ask nicely!).
Depending on how you play your hand, you can stagger deliveries for the duration of your stay to ensure freshness.
Having difficulties with the language barrier? Just ask the person from where you’re staying for assistance.
FYI: Don’t know how to cook? Ilocanos are famed for being adept in the kitchen. Odds are you can easily make friends with someone who’ll happily whip up the perfect Filipino feast. #itsmorefuninthephilippines
We saved these options for last on the assumption that these places sell food leaning towards takeaways (colloquially, “take out” in the Philippines). Keep your eyes peeled when riding a jeepney.
FYI: Calling “para” out loud is how Filipinos get the jeepney driver to stop.
Lechon Manok Stalls
Along the main highway once again; if you look across the other side of the Coca Cola plant in Carlatan, you’ll see stalls selling lechon manok and liempo (spit-roast chicken and pork belly). Priced at around 200 pesos, La Union locals typically grab either one or both lechons on the way home for Sunday dinners and other such gatherings.
Finally, we get to a quintessential Filipino dining experience: the carinderia (small food stalls). Also known as “turo-turo” (to point), these stalls are for customers with a more “on-the-go” pace; namely students, employees, drivers, etc.
Called as such because one simply needs to literally point at their orders; these carinderias can get pretty busy, especially during mealtime rushes.
A useful tip when it comes to choosing a reputable carinderia is to observe the number of patrons.