Through the years, motorists travelling to and from the north via McArthur Highway have always converged at popular stopovers to grab a quick bite to eat and stretch their weary limbs. These stopovers were usually located in Tarlac Province, which really makes sense because the province is pretty much the halfway point between Metro Manila and Baguio.
Back in the early 80s, when I wasn’t quite a teenager yet (I’m giving my age away, I know), my family always took a break at Vilmar’s restaurant in Tarlac City, the “in” stopover at the time for no reason other than it was the best restaurant you could find in that neck of the woods. The food was good but not great and basically consisted on your standard fare, but motorists were somehow drawn to the place like ants to a candy bar.
Today Vilmar’s is still around with an expanded hotel to boot, but the ongoing construction of SM Tarlac a mere 500 meters away casts a huge shadow – literally and figuratively – on Vilmar’s, and its future is a little uncertain.
Fast forward 20 years later, and another Tarlac restaurant is fast becoming the new “in” stopover along McArthur Highway. Isdaan The Halfway to The North Resto-Park (yup, that’s its full name) is located in Gerona, a town in between Tarlac City and Paniqui. It sits on a 1.5-hectare strip of land, if not right in then very close to the middle of nowhere, completely surrounded by rice fields.
Farmland in Tarlac is probably the last place you’d look if you’re searching for a good meal. It’s also the last place you’d expect to find huge stone statues of monkeys, dinosaurs, carp and even human hands. But Isdaan has all these and more. After a while you begin to understand why it’s called a resto-park.
Isdaan is owned and operated by the same group that runs Barrio Fiesta, Singing Cooks & Waiters, Atbp. and Bakahan at Manukan. So naturally, their menu is dominated by native dishes, and just like in their sister establishments, waiters entertain guests with songs. Semi-large signs advertise their specialties: there’s lechon tinupig, tender liempo and juicy spareribs.
Customers dine in open-air bamboo huts surrounded by water. Fish abound in this miniature lake, and you can feed them with some fish food while waiting for your own meal. Isdaan has expanded since opening in 2004, and to date there are over 100 huts in the complex. A lagoon is being constructed at the back, which when completed will be something like a miniature Burnham Park lake with boats.
We ordered kare-kare, isda (tuna) sisig, and pancit canton, plus a kiddie meal consisting of a piece of fried chicken and spaghetti for my little girl. The tuna sisig was very tasty, one of the best I’ve experienced. The kare-kare and pancit canton were pretty okay and typical for a restaurant like this; nothing spectacular but not too shabby either. My daughter, one of the pickiest eaters ever, took a few bites of the spaghetti and appeared to like it.
The menu featured many Filipino favorites: fish, bulalo, shrimps, and chicken cooked in almost every way imaginable. You also had a wide choice of fresh fruit drinks and merienda meals, all of which were reasonably priced.
Isdaan, though, is more than just good food and a unique ambience. There’s a long list of amusing and entertaining things to do once you’re done eating, stuff that explains the “park” in resto-park.
With a sign worthy of inclusion in an amusement park, patrons are enticed with “one kilo of free fish” if they can “survive the spitting, urinating monkeys.” Now, before you start calling PETA to report some monkeys gone wild in Tarlac, these aren’t real animals but rather a bunch of huge statues posing in the see-no-evil-hear-no-evil-speak-no-evil stance. Water comes out of the statues’ mouths and pelvic areas as part of a rather complicated game. A waiter tried explaining the mechanics, but for the life of me I couldn’t understand it. Apparently the main objective was not to get hit by the water.
Meanwhile, kids can ride around the complex for free in a cart pulled by a sheep, while early-morning patrons are encouraged to jog inside the premises.
The biggest attraction at Isdaan, though, is the famous Tacsiyapo Wall, where you for a fee you can get to vent your anger by smashing an assortment of objects against a wall.
Ordinary dinner plates go for P16, bowls for P18, colorful dinner plates for P30, and vases for P350. The most expensive piece, a television set, can be hurled for P1,600. Strangely enough, for that amount, you can actually buy a second-hand TV.
We dropped by Isdaan early on a Friday afternoon, and the place was around half-filled. A waiter told me that after sunset is the best time to visit, when the lake is illuminated and the air is cool. Not surprisingly, this is also their peak hour of business.
All in all, it’s a fun place to bring the family and break the monotony of a long road trip. Since we were in a bit of a hurry, I wasn’t able to sample all of Isdaan’s offerings. Next time we go back, though, I’m going to take on those spitting monkeys and unleash my frustrations on the Tacsiyapo Wall. Travelling north has never been this fun.