After four years and a pandemic, chef Rob opens his new restaurant on the island’s most famous beach.
On a balmy night in EL Nido, Palawan at the end of November last year, chef Rob Goco brought out from the kitchen dish after dish for our Thanksgiving dinner. There were fresh and baked oysters, squash soup, turkey and stuffing, sashimi of different fish caught fresh around Bacuit Bay, paella, foie gras in tiny waffle cones, and many more.
He fed us like we hadn’t eaten for days. In reality, we had just eaten a few hours before when he gave us a taste of his new beachfront restaurant’s menu and some off-the-menu dishes. I got the feeling that every time Rob feeds his friends, he does so like he wouldn’t see them for another 10 years. Or ever.
In a year that saw the highest number of people returning to restaurants and beaches since the pandemic, on a day when the waters of El Nido were perfectly calm, and his kitchen staff was working like an orchestra that had practiced every note to the bone, Rob had a lot to be thankful for.
He and his business partners Kristine Singson-Meehan and Lord Allan Velasco were finally opening their new restaurant Tanaw on Maremegmeg Beach in El Nido. “This was a pre-pandemic restaurant that never opened and it’s been causing me headaches for the past three years. I’m happy and thankful that we’re finally open,” he says, starting off the table’s “What are you thankful for?”
Rob continues, “There’s actually more things to do in 2024 and I’m thankful that everything I was praying for during the pandemic is happening. I’m also thankful that I’m spending more time with my wife Chinky and the kids, and that’s the most important thing for me.”
Located on Maremegmeg Beach, which was named after the barangay, Tanaw is the anchor restaurant of a new strip mall being developed by the Discovery Hospitality Group. Dubbed Vanilla Beach, most of the strip mall is still closed with construction interrupted by the pandemic but in a few years, everyone says, it’ll grow and get as busy as Boracay’s D’Mall.
The name Tanaw is a play on its location (it means “view” in Filipino). Located at the highest rated beach on the island, Vanilla Beach, and only tricycle ride away from the main town, Tanaw gives you a full view of the limestone cliffs that El Nido is famous for.
Tanaw also gives you a front row view (and taste) of Rob Goco’s mastery in the kitchen and how he practices sustainability. One way that he reduces waste and lower the cost of his food is that he goes straight to the slaughterhouse to buy meats, to the fishermen to buy seafood, and the palengke to buy produce. He tries to avoid “importing” ingredients from Manila to help the local vendors and to push his inventiveness in the kitchen.
“We try to impart the principles of nose-to-tail cooking. It’s the only way to survive here,” he says. “It’s really making use of every part of the animal and every ingredient—you don’t throw anything away.”
At one of our lunches, we had Crispy Pig Ears with salsa verde, Beef Cheek Croquettas with garlic aioli, and Unicorn Fish Tacos (the whole fish is fried to a crisp!) with cassava masa tortilla. Those were just some of the appetizers.
It’s a principle that he reiterates when he takes us to the local market on a Saturday morning with just a few hours to prepare for Tanaw’s formal opening. Dressed in a green T-shirt, gray slacks and sneakers (the rest of us were in shorts and tsinelas), Rob takes us through the wet section and points to the fish he likes, the parts of a pig and cow that he loves cooking, and the produce.
Crispy pig earsTaco salad Octopus and ox tail paella
Not much vegetable is sourced from Manila (which itself imports from the north), but there’s still a few, and most of the produce is sourced from El Nido or nearby provinces.
“You have to be inventive and challenge yourself in a place like El Nido—it’s not as developed as the other islands and flights are limited,” he says. He uses kaffir lime as an example. He doesn’t bother to hide his disdain for chefs who insist on importing kaffir lime Nido when there are market substitutes.
Straight from the fishermen of Palawan, Rob cooked for us what instantly became favorites: Boquerones or marinated anchovies in garlic and olive oil; Pulpo de Gallega or octopus cooked in paprika oil; and fried, crispy dilis-like fish but bigger.
The menu of Tanaw also includes easy choices like sandwiches and pasta. Rob says, “Eighty-five percent of tourists in Maremegmeg Beach are foreigners and they order things they know. Foreigners are easy to please, they have simple tastes. Give them a burger they’re happy.” He adds that it’s also because they try to avoid food that could potentially upset their stomach.
Vanilla Beach ceviche
In fact, when Rob first saw the space for Tanaw in 2018, he was hosted by Melanie and Sonny Alvarez, owners of one of the island’s most beautiful resorts, Maremegmeg Beach Club and Maremegmeg Beach Bar, located next door.
“Melanie said, ‘You need to open a restaurant here, we cannot accommodate everyone anymore.’ It started raining and there were about a hundred girls in bikinis trying to shelter in a small shack and they were all handing their credit cards to order food and drinks. I said, ‘We do have to open here.’”
For such island visitors, Rob included on his menu sandwiches everyone is familiar with—and he does make a mean sandwich. His Shrimp Roll is bursting at the top with kewpie-drenched shrimps enveloped in the softest buns (the bread tasted almost like brioche to me); his Roast Beef Monte Cristo is a winning combination of a French toast and a roast beef sandwich; and his Croque Monsieur/Madame is topped with bechamel sauce and gruyere cheese. To accompany these, order the Hot Garlic Root Vegetable Chips made from potato, sweet potato, taro and cassava.
As for his masa and tortilla tacos, they come in seven varieties (vegetarian, sisig, chicken, shrimp, beef, and cheese).
From his yaya’s kitchen to Tequila Joe’s and Cyma
Chilling at Tanaw
If you’re not familiar with his name, you’re probably familiar with his food anyway. Anyone who partied after school or work on a Friday night in the mid-1990s and early 2000s must have at one point had drinks at Tequila Joe’s, and lunch or dinner at Cyma.
Rob helmed those kitchens and were his entry into the restaurant scene in Manila. In the last 10 years, he opened Green Pastures, Souv by Cyma, Hotel le Monet, and in 2023, Robs! Ribs Oysters Bourbon.
Rob’s first foray into the kitchen was when he was a young boy growing up in New Manila. “My lola on the Goco side was an excellent cook. This was a time when the lolas were the cooks and the lolos were the professionals who went to the office. My dad, feeling entitled to good food always, never really learned how to cook. He can literally boil and burn water—he’s that bad; he can’t even do toast,” Rob says with a chuckle.
His mom loves the finer side of food like wine and cheese. She was a Cabinet secretary during the term of President Fidel Ramos while his dad was the ambassador to Canada, so Rob was exposed to the diplomatic corps in his teenage years.
Chef Rob goes to mrket. Photos by Tanya LaraShellfish caught by local fishermen.
“Being very busy parents, they left us in the care of our very capable Bicolana major doma. She arrived in the house three days before I was born. We called her Yaya Choleng and she was a very efficient and passionate cook. That’s why I never tasted Purefoods corned beef or hot dogs because she would make it from scratch. She’d make meringue, Spanish sardines, burger patties and all.”
Her influence on Rob and his siblings was very strong, he says. “We would go home to a house where there was an abundance of food. A typical meal would have four dishes—soup, seafood, meat and vegetables. Every morning the setup for breakfast was consistent: rice, bread, jams and whatever she would make.”
Yaya Choleng stayed with the Gocos for 36 years. He called her “mama.” “She had the care and love of a mom. She helped raise us five siblings who all loved to eat.”
Rob had begun to cook and one day he made a big batch of lemon bars and his mom said, “You want to sell them to me? How much is your cost?” Rob made his calculations, sold her the lemon bars, and got his funds for the next batch.
And that’s the story of how Rob Goco became an entrepreneur before he was 10 years old.
Culinary school, life in San Francisco
Tanaw partners Kristine Singson-Meehan, Rob Goco, and Lord Allan Velasco Photo by Tanya Lara Seafood delight
Rob says, “My parents were stingy and so I began to cook so I could buy my own bike.”
By the time he was 12 years old, his brothers “were making kupit from me. By then I was already making and selling pasta sauces. I liked that I was able to buy new rubber shoes and other things, and to give my yaya balato.”
When it was time to decide what he wanted to do for the rest of his life, it was a no-brainer for the young Rob. He entered San Francisco’s California Culinary Academy in 1992. At the time his dad was the ambassador to Canada and he got to know the Filipino community in his SF neighborhood. He would make longganisa to sell to them and eventually in Filipino grocery stores.
They asked him if he could teach them and Rob would hold cooking lessons for a hundred dollars a day. He taught them to make longganisa from scratch, pasta and canapes. He was only 22.
One day, a friend asked him if he wanted to cook for 500 people on five hours’ notice. Three planes were grounded at San Francisco Airport and the passengers were to be given a meal in an airport hotel.
Rob Goco and wife Aliza “Chinky” Apostol. Photo by Tanya Lara The restaurant has air-conditioned seating and al fresco. Photo by Tanya Lara
“I said yes. There were three of us cooks with a team to peel and cut vegetables. I had to make it work. Literally my fingers were all burned that day.”
When he came back to Manila in 1996, he saw American franchises being imported. “People were all going to TGI Friday’s; Starz was here, Planet Hollywood. Basta imported, people liked it. I said, ‘Putcha, baduy!’ I thought, nobody would pay attention if I did California cuisine. So I opened Tequila Joe’s with five friends who didn’t know what they wanted to do in life. Then a friend bought the franchise for CPK and I did their R&D. I just kept going and going.”
Rob hasn’t stopped for 28 years.
He’s run the gamut of world cuisines (and picked up awards along the way)—from traditional Greek to modern Mediterranean, American BBQ, coastal Mexican, Spanish—and now sustainable beach food.
Tanaw at night
How does he do it? Well, we go back to his principle of sustainability because it extends to people he employs too.
“You hire people who want sustainable jobs, and you make sure that they can feed their families. You fight for their rights and opportunity for a better life. At Cyma, all my managers rose from the ranks, they were all former dishwashers. We demand a lot from them, but we also train and take care of them.”
Just like his Yaya Choleng trained and took care of him.
Located at Vanilla Beach in El Nido, Tanaw restaurant is open daily from 9 am to 9 pm.