TEXT & PHOTO: Kaycie Gayle
In a travel-related conversation with a friend, she has told me about how she has indulged in a unique dining experience in one of the restaurants in Palawan. She has even told me she would take us there and reserve one of our social nights just to experience it. The restaurant might have been really special for her to remember and make it part of our itinerary. It seems that it is at par as a tourist destination to consider it as a must visit when in Puerto Princesa. And so, on our first night in the city, I found myself on my way to it.
The restaurant is popular enough that every time I would ask a local, they would share a story about it, which I can’t gauge which is true or a rumor for being a tourist. The moment they hear we would go to Kalui, they would instantly tell us it’s a seafood restaurant and then would continue to share something about the owner whom I supposed they have just probably seen once, or have heard about elsewhere. Some would say he is not really from Palawan but has just decided to stay in the province due to the opportunity he has envisioned to establish a business. Moreover, it has been told that he is meticulous with cleanliness. It seems that as the restaurant is popular, the owner himself is also well known. I have learned eventually that the restaurant’s name is spelled as one word but has been derived from ‘Ka’ being short for ‘kapatid’ meaning sibling’ and Lui which is the nickname of the owner. It is owned by former Masbatean Mr. Luzerino Oliva who is more commonly called as Louie. His friends and guests called him Ka Lui and thus the name of the restaurant.
For a couple of decades now, the restaurant has been around and serving locals and tourists. It had even several expansions later but remains as the locals’ restaurant of choice when they have a visiting guest in the city. It is also a long-time favorite among tourists who still keep coming back whenever they are in Puerto Princesa. Ergo, this place gets visited with both returning locals and curious tourists may it be lunch or dinner time. Currently, they even have added a restaurant named as Kajoel which is named after Joel Oliva, the brother of Louie. With the popularity of KaLui and for being probably one of the first of its kind it has been much copied. Names of restaurants in the city have been cloned after it, having ‘Ka’ on it.
Local and tourists diner
On our way to Kalui, we were told by the locals and tricycle drivers that we need reservations. I also have read online that they advise interested diners to make some reservation first. Unable to do it, we still went and hope we can have our chance of dining. When we got there the reception area was full for having some walk-in guests who also seeks a chance to dine as well without a reservation. They can’t accommodate us yet since the restaurant was in full capacity for the night. The place really packs, even it has a lot of tables which clearly proved me how popular this restaurant is. For a moment I have thought it must be really that exceptional. Most often, when you go to a restaurant on an ordinary day there will always be an available seat and seldom gets full booked unless there are celebrations, holiday, however, it was different here. Hence, us being walk-in customers were guided to sit on the reception bench and was promised to be accommodated when there are already some vacancies. Since there are also other waiting customers who came before us, and we are trying to save time, we just decided to make a reservation for the following night. We were told that the only available time for a reservation is 8:30pm. Evening reservations here are per batch, the first batch is at 6:30pm and second batch is at 8:30pm. This restaurant is organized enough that it’s diners follow without complaining to have that unique KaLui experience.
The following night we were warmly welcomed by the male receptionist and told us our table is ready even we were thirty minutes ahead of the reservation schedule. Having reservation is really better since we were treated like a VIP the moment we came. Each guest gets serviced well and has a guaranteed table on preferred dining set up. The restaurant embraces the native Filipino home which depicts the old tradition of how Filipinos accommodate their guests and in return the courtesy of guests when visiting a humble abode. Warm and hospitality are guaranteed when you visit a Filipino home, hence it is ensured the same thing in this restaurant. Meanwhile, as a courtesy, it is customary in some provinces to leave one’s footwear at the doorstep before going inside the house especially if you are visiting someone else’s home to avoid having the house flooring dirty with their soles. On the receiving area, there’s signage that says “We’re barefootin” and that’s what both diners and staff exactly do here. This has actually become a tourist trap due to its appeal of a unique dining experience. The system here is like being invited to a local home; shoes are kept outside and guests go in barefoot. Hence the male receptionist politely asked us to remove our shoes and assured us that our footwear won’t be misplaced. He instructed us to choose a native basket bin to ensure our shoes are safely stored. I was hoping to choose a basket number that is the same as our table number to make sure that our footwear won’t be mistaken by others to be theirs. But anyway regardless of what basket number we get is it is still safe if we leave them. In a couple of seconds, we excitingly found ourselves obligingly follow the no shoe policy tradition in the restaurant.
‘We’re barefootin’ signage at the reception area
Baskets with numbers as shoe bins
While their service is showing Filipino hospitality and has Filipino custom-inspired policy the restaurant structure is also patterned after Filipino traditional structure. From the wooden gates of Kalui one would give you a sneak peek that the place is traditionally and artistically themed. Upon stepping down to its two-steps stair, it will lead you to portal found at the right side which will usher you a garden that is well-lit at night with a bevy of interesting pieces. It is surrounded with bamboo walls that make the surrounding feel like provincial. It has a gravel patio where a yellow bench is placed and on top of it is the iconic ‘Palawanderer’ signage that is hanged between the trees which is one of the most photographed spots in the restaurant for selfies and groupies. Walking on its wooden pathway led me to the reception area where a framed notice says ‘Please wait to be seated’ and ‘We’re barefootin’. Across it is the waiting area, where people can sit on the benches while waiting for their turn to dine while placed under the seat are baskets with number.
Iconic Palawanderer signage with the yellow bench
The structure of the restaurant is modeled after the iconic house of the Philippines ‘Bahay Kubo’ or Nipa hut which was reminiscent of an architectural style of the indigenous Filipino house since the pre-colonial days, hence making the Filipino culture evident in the restaurant. Although, Ka-lui is a stretched-out, stylized and upscale version of the native house. It has a thatched roof with walls made up of ‘sawali’ or woven split bamboo mats. While is floor made up of solid wood that is clean, shiny and well-polished. It is also raised from the ground like a true nipa hut. KaLui has no air-conditioning but has a relaxing open-air dining area. Natural fresh breeze passes through it since nipa hut is cleverly designed to beat the tropical heat. Meanwhile, it is best to come here at night when the place has an intimate feel because of its dim warm lighting.
Nipa hut inspired
Consistent with a touch Filipino inspiration, its interior is also Filipino themed. Inside the place is a festive tropical atmosphere. It is colorful, artful and lively. Each corner is filled with art, hence I haven’t found any dull corner. They say this used to be a small crude shack that has lots of books but now it is beautifully adorned with Philippine handicrafts such as tribal masks, paintings, interesting sculptures, wooden fixtures, and other kitschy knick-knacks while there are also fresh local fruits on display. On the far end of the restaurant, there is still a lot of decors. On my way looking for the loo I have realized that the restaurant is relatively big. I was pleasantly distracted by the beautiful nooks at the rear part. There’s a wooden walkway that leads to an old tree which instead of being cut, they incorporated it with what seemed to be a small stage set up that is adorned with dangling pieces which complement to the native setting. Also, silently tucked on the far end is the art gallery which has a nice set of art collection and decorations making art connoisseurs see the painting collection of featured local artists where some of which are available for purchase. Next to it is the souvenir shop with quality artisanal crafts and products made of textiles from handloom weaving. Interestingly, even their female washroom is well thought of with its impressive design. It is as comfortable with those luxury hotels although it has a native artistic twist. It is air-conditioned and has a lounge area that looks like a living room. Walking inside it is also in barefoot but it’s neat and tidy. Its powder area is also artfully done with large mirror and clay basin to hold the water when washing. Meanwhile, a couple of wooden stairs leads to a balcony like structure where three toilet cubicles are placed.
Old tree with theater-like setup
More artworks displayed in Gentlemen’s restroom
Art gallery displayed on the way to the ladies restroom
Powder area with clay basin
Restroom lounge area
As we’re ushered to our table, we have passed the different kinds of available tables in the restaurant. Guests can opt to dine sitting on cushions on the floor, in secluded alcoves or in regular dining wooden tables. However, since we were there for the unique experience, we choose to reserve a table with seats almost like sitting on the floor. It was made to be comfortable by having its floor covered with ‘banig’ which is a Filipino traditional handwoven mat and floor cushions to serve as a seat for the diners. Meanwhile, tables are adorned with Birds of Paradise flower arrangement as a centerpiece that makes the table setting aesthetically appealing.
Table with cushions on the floor
Regular dining tables
Upon being seated I have chosen to have a visual feast for a moment in the surroundings. I have noticed that most of the diner population are foreigners, although there are some Filipino locals dining also. Moreover, staying consistent with the Filipino theme, even the waiters of KaLui are dressed accordingly. All the staff here seemed to be all males. They are wearing a casual uniform of light teal polo shirt and a black short with the embellishment that seemed to be an indigenous woven art necklace. Despite the number of diners, they consistently maintain their composure while providing quick-but-quiet service.
Diners at 8:30pm reservation batch
Diners after the second batch reservation
With the impression KaLui has given me I was also expecting that the food would match the exceptional ambiance. In a while, we were handed with a hardcover booklet which serves as the two-page menu of the restaurant. In it is the list of their regular variety of choices that is mostly seafood and vegetable dishes. Their menu repertoire is quite limited compared to other restaurants that I haven’t even seen a dessert listed on it. Included in their offering is a special menu which is called KaLui Special of the Day Set. It was said that the menu changes every day based on what’s available in the market and the fresh catch of the day but certainly, it is seafood and vegetables.
Vegetable dish – Pinakbet
As we’re done with apprising our orders to the waiter, we were then first served with complimentary soup. It’s thin and almost watery with a lot of flavor to it having a gingery aftertaste. Eventually, one by one the waiters brought out our dishes. Since we were still full we chose light dishes which are both cooked simply and impeccably. We chose Pinakbet which is tasty and Calamares that perfectly complements the vegetable dish. Though I do not remember ordering steamed rice, it was also served on us. Their serving is good for two to three person depending on your appetite. So for a solitary diner, it is something to consider on how to consume it all by yourself. For refreshments, I chose a tropical cooler which is Mango Papaya Shake that was blended very finely. Once we’re done eating and waiting for our fullness to settle before we leave the restaurant, we were surprised for their generosity to give us even a free treat after. We were served with mixed fruits for dessert. It consisted diced fresh fruits of papaya and watermelon with sprinkled muscovado sugar and served in two halves of coconut shell. This gesture has even made me appreciate the service in the restaurant. It is a sweet and elegantly simple note to end our dinner with them.
Mango Papaya Shake
Mixed fruits, the free treat for dessert
No wonder a KaLui experience marks on every customer it had. It never fails to surprise and wow it’s diners. Each detail from the barefooting, dining tables, service, ambiance, and even its washrooms surely attest to the restaurant’s unique dining experience. It is truly one of the rare nicely bizarre restaurants that have become memorable to me. Truly it’s an experience I would never forget. It is definitely a tourist must.
Diners on the rear part of the restaurant
KaLui is a moderately priced restaurant and perfect for casual dining. Should you want to try for yourself their unique dining experience you may visit them at 369 Rizal Avenue, Puerto Princesa City. It is open from Monday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 6 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. For reservations, call (48) 433-2580
Disclaimer: This post is not sponsored. All expenses were shouldered by the author. All photos are from Kaycie Gayle