Every city worth its salt prides itself with a place where a resident or visitor can have a heavenly meal for an earthly price. These are most often carenderias (or carinderia, if you must), small hole-in-the-wall food stalls selling simple meals for the man-on-the-street.
Z.C. Eatery along Pabayo street was once Cagayan de Oro’s garbo (pride) for such a place.
Set up by Zita “Z.C.” Cosare-Vequilla at the ground floor of her mother Victoria Mabalos‘ residence in 1988, it’s a simple, no-frills carenderia you can hardly tell apart from the row of sari-sari stores and a tailoring shop which keeps it company in relative anonymity.
“I stared by just selling viands for my neighbors, but soon my customers began asking me to put up a table where they could eat the foods fresh and hot, so I put up a table with some benches and soon we already occupied the entire ground floor of my mother’s house,” Manang Zita said back in a 2007 interview.
It’s a place the high and mighty have no qualms coming to for a first-hand culinary nirvana of Manang Zita’s simple fare.
“One time, Misamis Oriental Gov. Oscar Moreno brought along Bukidnon Rep. Migz Zubiri and Lanao del Sur Rep. Benasing Macarambon,” recalled the owner-cook with a smile. “We’ve also had other celebrities come here like PBA commentator Ed Picson, pro basketball stars Nelson Asaytono and Gilbert Demape, the late comedian Yoyoy Villame and his colleague Max Surban, and ABS-CBN reporter Paul Henson, to name a few.”
Manang Zita’s menu is simple as it is savory: paksiw na isda (or inun-on in Bisaya, with no more than 18 pieces of fish a day cooked), two vegetable dishes (rotated daily, that day it was kamote salad and ginataang nangka), humba, kinilaw, sinugba, nilagang baka and tinolang lauya are available daily from Monday to Saturday. An additional special dish (spicy chicken curry for today) reinforces the standard menu, but that’s it.
All viands are uniformly priced at P50 per serving and the only available beverage is Coke (P11 for 8oz., P13 for 12oz. and P25 for litro).
“We price our servings at P50 but our customers get a substantial serving with larger than usual portions,” Manang Zita explained.
The household was up early around two o’clock dawn to catch the choice vegetables delivered to the Cogon public market around this time.
Cooking starts around three a.m. and sukis (patrons) are already inside having early morning sup of scalding hot tinola.
“We have many who have had one drink too many and believe drinking our hot tinola can make them sober,” Manang Zita noted. “Even if our store is still closed, they know they can come in for a bowl of hot tinola if they knock.”
Business picks up as early as ten o’clock when people from all economic strata start coming in droves, many of them taking home their favorite dishes in cellophane bags that’s the staple of carenderias all over the country. But an almost equal number also drop in and make themselves at home in one of the eatery’s nine formica-topped tables and wooden benches.
“I often take out tinola la-uya with fish heads when I’m in a hurry,” said businessman Joe Epon as he greeted Manang Zita on his way out. “But nothing beats sipping it hot, straight from the pot, it’s almost like taking a meal at home.”
DXIF Bombo Radyo Anchor Michael “M.I.B.” Bustamante, who frequented the place along with reporters Joel Jacobo and the late Mark Martirez, concurs.
“My favorite is the tinola lau-ya with fish heads and ‘halang-halang manok’ (spicy chicken) which are really delicious because its ‘inato gyud‘ (a Bisayan expression which roughly translates to ‘our very own’ or home cooking),” Mr. Bustamante said enthusiastically.
Z.C. Eatery’s allure is so enduring it even evokes vivid memories from Kagay-anons who’ve been living abroad for decades like the late journalist Ben Emata.
“Yeah, I remember that small carinderia. When I picked up my kids from school on my dilapidated motorcycle, I passed by the place because I found the food fresh, warm and clean and the taste terrific. My family had a feast everyday with the foods from that place. The owner was there all the time smiling and very accommodating. I wish I could visit the place and eat once more the sampayna, lauyang baka and adobo.”
Manang Zita only prepared enough food for breakfast and lunch to avoid leftovers. By two or three in the afternoon, most of the food is gone and the store closes down to give everyone a much-deserved rest.
As a lumad Kagay-anon (native resident) Manang Zita opens the doors of her eatery for all to enjoy lechon and kinilaw, served free in the tradition of the legendary Kagay-anon hospitality every city fiesta on August 28, the feast of St. Augustine.
“I want to share the blessings God has showered on us all these years with our neighbors and my customers who have been a big part of our success,” she explained.
Manang Zita passed on in Davao City on September 15, 2009 at the relatively young age of 64. While her sisters Teofila and Isidra later opened competing stores along Pabayo street, neither quite compares with the enduring culinary legacy of Manang Zita and her immortal Z.C. Eatery.