“Hinahanap hanap kita, Manila, ang ingay mong kay sarap sa tenga. Mga jeepney mong nagliliparan…” (I keep looking for you Manila. Your noise is melody to my ears. Your jeepneys are flying) says the 1984 Filipino song “Manila” by (now-defunct group) Hotdog. Truly, every Filipino (and Filipinos by heart) living abroad can surely relate that wherever you go, you will always find a place in your heart missing Manila or the Philippines in general.
Having been based in Qatar for nearly 8 years now, I do miss bits and pieces of my beloved home country. Apart from my friends and family, another thing I miss the most is food. I would always crave for some authentic Filipino food that I grew up with. When I first arrived in Doha, there are only a few Filipino restaurants (Puerto Galera and Royale Restaurant among those that I remember) and truth be told, food items in the menu are rather limited.
In recent years, as the Filipino community continues to grow, the number of Filipino (and Asian in general) restaurants increased too. From fast food (Jollibee, Chowking) to casual dining (Max’s, Gerry’s Grill), popular Filipino franchises are now making their presence felt in this part of the world.
Adding to this list is Barrio Fiesta, a Filipino casual dining restaurant (originally founded in 1948), which recently opened their first branch in Doha.
The restaurant had their soft opening two weeks ago and as expected, the place was packed. It took me a week before I went to visit hoping the craze will simmer down a bit and thankfully, it did. I went for dinner with friends and checked how this newbie will fare in the growing competitive market of Filipino restaurants in Doha.
Barrio Fiesta is located in Al Muthanna Complex, near Ramada Intersection. In real Doha fashion (where we associate the place to their landmarks rather than their real addresses), it is along Salwa Road opposite Jarir Bookstore and on the same complex where Sushiminto and Shiraz restaurants are located. Yes, the local franchise is owned by the same businessman behind the said restaurants.
It won’t be hard trying to find it as it is very visible if you are driving along Salwa road and approaching Ramada signal. There are few parking spaces available in front of the establishment but I think it will be a tricky situation come dinner or lunch time. Valet parking is not available at the time of writing.
True to its name, the place offers a rather festive atmosphere with the choice of colour palette and interior design compared to its contemporaries. Visitors will be greeted with shades of green and yellow and a large wall installation of the restaurant’s history. There are plenty of tables and chairs to accommodate every guest and the second floor has even more ample space to host gatherings and events perhaps in the coming months. Filipinos are known to be fans of festivities, hence, we have a lot of fiestas back home.
Overall first impression is great as it is relatively spacious and easy on the eyes. There might be a lot of details here and there which for some might be too busy to look at but I liked that they paid attention to details.
I think the star of the entire ensemble is the Jeepney and tricycle display. Yes, they house a real jeepney and tricycle (rickshaw) which were shipped straight from the Philippines. For those who are not familiar, jeepney is the most popular means of public transportation in the Philippines and its history traces back to early American occupation. It has been modified to accommodate more passengers and has been the king of the road not only in Manila but all over the Philippines.
Tricycle on the other hand, like most other Asian countries, is the Philippines’ version of a rickshaw similar to Tuk-tuks in Thailand.
I personally went for this visit not really to try the food but to see these installations in person. Being away from home for quite a long time, I have been a fan of any novelty that would remind me or at least make me feel a bit at home even if it is superficial. The mere presence of these two absolutely reminded me of rich and vibrant Filipino culture is.
The menu offers quite an extensive array of Filipino dishes ranging from meat, fish, and chicken main courses, noodles and rice, desserts and even beverages that are uniquely Filipino. Items are written in Filipino but English and Arabic translations are also available for non-Filipino food connoisseurs who would like to embark on this gastronomic adventure.
Unfortunately, they were still on “soft opening” when I visited (it has been a week since they opened) so most of the items are not (yet) available. Instead, we were given a separate list of items that are available that night. Why were we given the menu when everything that is in there is not yet available? I don’t know why. Perhaps they just want to show that they have a proper menu (aside from the photocopied one). Pun intended.
They are offering both buffet and ala carte items although compared to other Filipino buffets in Doha, theirs is on the limited side. I will have to check back if this improves once the “soft-opening” phase (
err excuse) is over.
Since the items on the buffet spread is quite disappointing, I’ve decided to order ala carte and go for the more traditional items such as Kare-Kare (Ox tripe in savory peanut sauce), Tokwa’t twalya (Tofu and Tripe) and Bagoong Rice (Rice with shrimp paste) and Lemon Grass Iced Tea and Sago’t Gulaman (Gelatin and Tapioca Pearls in Sweetened Pandan tea).
Service was commendable and orders didn’t take that long to arrive. The staff was attentive and proactive which is a plus.
The presentation was pleasant surprise as food were served in authentic Filipino way: palayok (clay pot), kawali (steel pan) and even kaldero (steel pot) which I have fond childhood memories with. They really have an eye for fine details.
Taste would always be a tricky game as it is very subjective. Kare-kare was alright but a bit too thick and sweet for my liking. Perhaps I have just got accustomed to how my late Lolo (grandfather) will cook our family recipe of kare-kare and it is more on the savory side. I enjoyed the Bagoong Rice and I think I can finish it as it is, on my own. Note: it has slivered pieces of real green mangoes! Amazing.
Lemongrass tea is something I would highly recommend to those who are looking for something refreshing and unique. Lemongrass might not be popularly known in this region let alone, making it into a beverage, but it just works. When mixed with sugar syrup and heaps of ice, it tasted more like lychee.
Prices of the ala-carte menu are on the mid-range. While serving size is reasonable, I think that the price needs a little tweaking to be called reasonable. While there are items that are justifiable (Bagoong rice at 35QAR), the Tokwa at Twalya (25QAR) is an absolute not. I felt I was ripped. I look forward to see some improvement either with the price (going down) or the serving size (getting bigger) in the coming months.
I believe that the soft-opening stage is a great opportunity for the management to test the Qatar market as they are apparently open to suggestions. A week ago, the buffet was priced at 99QAR per person but since everybody was vocal to express that it is too steep, a week later, the price has gone down to 79 QAR.
If I were to be asked, the sweet spot for Filipino buffet is 50QAR to 60QAR as other Filipino buffet offers are priced even less, but since they are offering a far better ambiance, this price range is very reasonable.
Over-all, Barrio Fiesta looks very promising. More than just the food, the place offers a unique experience authentically Filipino. I think they will be more attractive to non-Filipino customers who are looking for the most (or at least closest) to the authentic Filipino dining experience that they can have without flying to the Philippines.
I’m sure most Filipinos (especially those who are on a tight budget) would say that there are always better and cheaper alternatives around town. While I agree on that, I would highlight that what Barrio Fiesta offers is not just food but the experience. We eat not only with our mouth but with all our other senses especially the eyes. The food and price might need some tweaking but for now, the visual appeal of this restaurant is one valid reason enough to try and feast your eyes with the Filipino vibe it is offering.
Is it worth giving a try? Yes, definitely. But I would note that it is better to give it a few more weeks or a month more before you give it a go as it is still on the process of adjusting to how the current market is.
As they say, first impression last and I think the present state (incomplete menu, high/fluctuating price) might give you a sour first impression which is quite unfair as I see a lot of potential with this restaurant to be one of the go-to places for Filipino food in Doha.
If you find yourself humming to Manila song with that line “Jeepney mong nagliliparan“, perhaps Barrio Fiesta’s real jeep can do the fix (for now).