Quaint. Rustic. Modest. Honest. These are just some ways in which Filipinos in the UAE describe Barako Grill, a restaurant in the northern emirate of Umm Al Quwain, nearly 90km from Dubai and a little more than 200km from Abu Dhabi.
It's quite the drive for a single meal and yet, five years since it first opened its doors, Barako is nearly always full, especially during the weekends when reservations come highly recommended.
“There aren't many Filipinos in Umm Al Quwain, so we knew we would have to get the Dubai crowd when we did our feasibility study at the onset, in 2018,” admits operations manager Florie Robertson, who also lives in Dubai and commutes to and from the restaurant six days a week.
The obvious challenge, then, was its location. “At that time, it was like a ghost town, even the hotel itself,” she recalls, but quickly adds how there was a certain charm to it. “The area where Barako Grill is right now, it was literally a dirt road, but it was huge and there's a beach nearby.”
The solution? The all-Filipino team decided to create a venue that would be well worth the drive.
What followed was the gruelling task of marketing the restaurant with little-to-no budget. The team had to rely on word of mouth to get people to drive all the way to an emirate that had not yet sealed its reputation as a tourist hotspot.
Robertson and her team saw this as an opportunity to play into what she observes is quite the “Filipino thing” – road trips.
“We love going on road trips. Typically, in a group of friends, only one person drives and has a car, so we all use that car. We play music throughout the trip, sing and chat,” she says.
“Since Barako Grill is attached to a hotel and a liquor shop, we also package it that way,” Robertson explains, adding that dining at the restaurant is “an opportunity to escape the busy city life, even just for a short period”.
Staycations, too, are a big draw among the Filipino diaspora in the UAE, who can't necessarily travel on a whim because of visa limitations.
Before moving to the UAE, Robertson was managing a mess hall for American troops in Zamboanga, a city in the south of the Philippines. She was transferred to Kabul in 2004 where she was an administrator for army camps, arranging the accommodation and food of soldiers. Her life on the field was “good training” for what came after, she jokes – family life. She had three children and moved between the Philippines and Australia, before settling in Dubai in 2013.
In the UAE, she joined Truebell, the group that owns Barako Grill. After two years of working in the company's logistics arm, Robertson was given an exciting brief: build a Filipino restaurant at Pearl Hotel in Umm Al Quwain. Being an overseas Filipino worker since 2004, Robertson knows a thing or two about being homesick, and she used that as a premise to build up Barako Grill.
Head chef Jimmy Gerna, meanwhile, moved to the UAE “just for this gig”, he says.
Gerna previously worked on the popular tourist island of Boracay, known for its energetic nightlife. The chef says it is paramount for him to preserve the authenticity of Filipino cuisine, especially in a country like the UAE where competition is rife.
A major reason for Barako Grill's success – the restaurant has 4.5 stars on Google reviews – boils down to its dishes.
“More than the actual cooking, it's all about the ingredients,” says chef Gerna. This is where being backed by Truebell works to Barako's advantage. The company has an import and export business making it easy for the restaurant to get its ingredients straight from the Philippines.
The menu is an authentic feast of traditional Filipino dishes. While pork is one of the cuisine's main ingredients, Barako also serves an array of chicken, beef and vegetable dishes that hit the mark when it comes to serving up nostalgia.
Dishes include sinigang, a tangy stew made with tamarind as the souring agent; kare kare, or beef and ox tripe simmered in a thick peanut sauce served with a shrimp paste; and the famous sisig, a sizzling dish made of crispy pork bits doused in mayonnaise.
“These are usually the cravings of Filipinos living abroad, and we try to deliver because we know many of them drove a long way to try these dishes,” says Robertson.
The name, which translates to “stud” in English, is emblematic of Robertson's experience working in a male-dominated space. “I was one of the boys,” she says.
Barako also refers to a strong variant of coffee that is native to the Philippines, and so is a word that encompasses her roots, experiences and ambitions.
When the idea of a Filipino restaurant was proposed to her, Robertson says she took up the challenge because: “I had been in the UAE at the time for about five years, but I hadn't really been into a Filipino restaurant that really felt like home.”
Accordingly, Barako Grill is inspired by Manila's vibrant nightlife and bar culture, in which food is as much of a main event as drinks. Robertson says she was inspired by famous local bars such as Padi's Point and Gerry's Grill.
“I used to go to a lot of bars in the Philippines when I was younger,” she recalls, adding she used her experience to create an inspired hangout place that has all the elements of Filipino bar culture – good food, live music and a happy vibe.
Filipinos are also fond of their “pulutan”, which in essence means finger food, but is far from just being snacks. Pulutan can serve as full-blown meals, sometimes even accompanied with white rice, and Barako serves this to its homesick and hungry diners.
This has worked well so far, says Robertson, with all manner of diners thronging to the restaurant, from small groups of friends to big family gatherings.
Five years on, plans for expansion are also under way. “We are excited about the future and looking to open another location. I can't wait to announce it soon,” says Robertson, without giving further information.