The Visa Collector

A blog about travelling with a Filipino passport, and life overseas

Author Archives: admin

Clarita’s Filipino Cuisine


Part of this post can also be found on

Clarita’s is a Filipino’s Filipino restaurant. A place that Filipinos themselves frequent.

It’s not much to look at. But for a first-generation Filipino immigrant, it’s just what you look for because it’s reminiscent of the kinds of restaurants that you frequented when you were still back home — albeit nicer. No frills, spartan, let’s it’s dishes speak for themselves. When my older brother, by then a 12-year New Jersey resident, visited the other year, I first took him to my other favorite restaurants to include Patio Filipino up north in San Mateo. But when I took him to Clarita’s, he said “This is more like it!!! Everyday food”.

The restaurant offers a pre-defined selection of Filipino favorites. It also shows why a fair number of us have cholesterol issues. But heck, we expire happy.

The food is laid out in serving trays for ease of selection. Even a stranger to Filipino cuisine can assemble his/her lunch tray by simply pointing to what looks good. Although quite a few patrons are non-Filipinos, the bulk are still from the restaurant’s country of origin.

My personal artery-clogging favorites in the restaurant are: Pork Adobo, Grilled Pork, and Beef steak. A meat-lover can’t go wrong with these dishes.

Pork Adobo is a slow-cooked stew that takes a few hours to prepare. Typically the pork is marinated in a mix of soy sauce and vinegar, but practically every region in the Philippines has its own way of preparing this dish. Clarita’s is arguably a Central Luzon variant with additional ingredients that are characteristic of the region — as evidenced by its appetizing color.

Grilled pork (Inihaw na Baboy) is another popular Filipino dish. But sadly, this is not available every day. If you visit on a day that doesn’t have it, ask for the month’s schedule so that you can time your next visit better.

Beef steak is another soy sauce heavy stew. Thin cuts of beef immersed in a chocolate-brown colored sauce. Don’t forget to mix the sauce with your rice to transform it into a mouth watering congee.

The above three are my mainstays that form at least one of the two dishes that I usually get when I’m there. The second is reserved for periodic specials . . . that I will leave for you to discover on your own.

How to get here

You can find the restaurant at the Fair Oaks Mall along E Duane Ave.

View Larger Map

Filed under Filipino Food
Jul 8, 2010

House of Kabobs


Part of this article was also posted on under the name Visa C.

It wasn’t the first Persian/Iranian restaurant to which I went; that title goes to Chellokabbabi in Sunnyvale. It’s not the fanciest either; those adjectives go to Arya in Cupertino and another place in Campbell, whose name I’ve forgotten. But House of Kabobs (HoK) in downtown Sunnyvale remains one of my favorite places to eat — Iranian/Persian or otherwise.

It’s run as a fast-food place. Line up, take a number, sit down, and ponder the uses of Pomegranate seasoning during your short wait. But the quality of dishes would give more formal sit-down places a run for their money. Nothing like a place run by the owner himself.

As with many Filipinos, a meal for me isn’t a meal without rice. So I gravitate towards the offerings that come with this grain. Perhaps I gravitate too much because each time I come in these days, the typical greeting is “Hello my friend! No. 19?”

The number above refers to Combo #19, a mouth watering assortment composed of:

1. Rice (all important)
2. Koobideh (a ground beef dish that looks like a skinless sausage)
3. Lamb kabob
4. Grilled tomato
5. Slice of Lemon

I don’t know how to prepare lamb (yet), so I usually order it whenever it’s available. But this place’s Koobideh was what really won me over. Koobideh is my get-to-know dish for Persian restaurants, the one I use as a basis for comparison. Most versions of the dish I’ve tried typically . . . need contrast . . . half way through. HoK’s doesn’t, and is good throughout the meal. It’s already good all by itself, but drizilling it with Lemon — to paraphrase Emeril Lagasse — “kicks it up a notch”.

Two other options that are ideal for the rice lover: #17 with Chicken kabob instead of Lamb, and #18 with Beef kabob. A Pinoy can’t go wrong with these.

I must admit to procrastination when it comes to trying out their other dishes. But given how the three options listed above are already enough to keep me coming back . . .

. . . will blog about it once I’ve tried.

How to get here

You can find it along Sunnyvale-Saratoga road. The parking lot tends to get full at lunch, but the Macy’s parking lot is only a short walk away.

View Larger Map

Jul 4, 2010

A Taiwanese question about Jollibee in the US


Late last year, a friend from our Taipei office emailed me a question about Jollibee. He was working on his MBA and for some reason, he was working on a case study that involved this Filipino food chain. He asked about its popularity on the US west coast, if their target market was more Filipino that American, and whether or not the chain made changes to adapt to the local market.

His questions were interesting for a number of reasons. First, I’m still getting over Jollibee-deprivation. It’s easy to take Jollibee for granted when your in the Philippines, where practically every mall has one. But spend three and a half years in Taiwan, where it doesn’t exist despite the legions of OFWs on the island, and you learn to appreciate it really fast. I’d already been in the US 5 years by then, and I visit a Jollibee at least once a month . . . but I’m still getting over the prolonged separation from the crispy greaseless chicken and palabok.

Second, was the timing of the email. As I started writing my reply, I realized that it had been a while since I wrote just for fun. After weeks of poring over debug logs and flowcharts, it was time for a break.

That email, and the resulting response, planted the seeds for this blog.

My response is shown below (tweeked slightly to eliminate typos and improve the flow). Happy reading.

Here in Northern California, Jollibee is definitely popular. In the past two years alone, they opened two new branches. One in the largest mall in the region, the “Great Mall of the Bay Area” in Milpitas, and another in San Francisco. I have not been to a Jollibee in Southern California, but given that the concentration of Filipinos there is actually greater than up here, I would imagine that it is a big hit there as well.

It has the exact same look, feel, and offerings as a regular Jollibee that you would find anywhere in the Philippines – perhaps with the exception of the following:

• Accepts credit cards for payment (I called this an American adaptation in the original email. Only to find that this had become true in the Philippines as well, thanks to Banco De Oro and their card machines)
• Self-service for drinks (another common practice in American fast food chains)
• Clean-as-you-go for the tables instead of having a server clean up tables for you

It is definitely targeted at Filipinos, and arguably capitalizes on the fact that food is a well established cure for homesickness (heck, my wife ended up learning to cook while we were in Taiwan because of it). Close your eyes and the sounds and smells in a Jollibee restaurant will transport you back to the Philippines.

Unlike other minority-inspired chains like Baja Fresh, El Polo Loco (Mexican), and Panda Express (Chinese), which deliberately cater to what Westerners think are Mexican and Chinese food, Jollibee remained true to the food that generations of my countrymen grew up with and have come to love. The menu remains unchanged, and has not been adjusted to suit the local palette. There is, however, a caveat to that fidelity to the chain’s Filipino roots.

One important Filipino quality that Jollibee captures is the Filipino’s underlying aspiration to be anything else other than Filipino. Its default look and feel in the Philippines has always been Western. The founders of Jollibee reportedly sought to emulate McDonald’s in their restaurants. When the first Jollibee opened in my hometown in the late 80s, the line to the restaurant went around a reasonably sized city block. People lined up for almost an hour just to experience my hometown’s first western-inspired fastfood restaurant: organized, hygienic, very well lit, and colorful.

Most of us think of Jollibee as McDonalds with better tasting food. We like strong flavors. Jollibee delivers; McDonald’s doesn’t in most of our minds. But we appreciated that it had a McDonald’s-like ambiance.

Although Jollibee is a Filipino icon, it’s really a restaurant that pre-embraced a Western — particularly American — way of doing things. So it’s a chain that really doesn’t need to adapt to America, because it was already designed to bring America to the common Filipino from the start.

Filed under Filipino Food
Jun 24, 2010

Philippine Embassy: Vatican


This was one of many surprises in our trip to Italy this year: The Philippine embassy to the Vatican. Its situated where a lot of organized Vatican tours start (at least the ones organized by Trafalgar), so you can’t miss it.

Jun 20, 2010

Taipei taxi language laboratory


Taipei taxis weren’t just a means of getting around. They were also an interesting way to work on my Mandarin.

All the foreigners I knew that managed to get over the hump between between language classes and actual conversation all told me the same thing: “Just do it”. I had to find as many opportunities to speak Mandarin as I could, and just try to be understood.

Being surrounded by Taiwanese in the office, you’d think practice would be easy. But I really wasn’t getting much practice at work. My vocabulary was so limited, my Taiwanese co-workers simply found it easier just to use English. So I had to find other ways.

Enter . . . the Taipei taxi.

Taxis were as ubiquitous as chopsticks. There never seemed to be a shortage of them, regardless of the time of day. Although the bus and rail systems were pretty good at getting people to key points of interest, some destinations just required the flexibilty of these bright yellow cars. Rarely did a week go by without a cab ride.

Most folks liked to ride in the rear seat. Right or wrong, my intuition told me that riding in front somehow humanized me to the driver, hopefully making him less inclined to drive me around in circles. This configuration also facilitated my “lessons”.

At the bare minimum, the taxi presented a very simple language test whose results were immediately available and easy to understand: “if I didn’t get to where I want to go, I failed”.

The basic taxi vocabulary was easy enough: “Hello“, “I want to go ____“, “intersection“, “at the corner“, “turn left“, “turn right“, “make a u-turn“, and “stop here“. In my early taxi rides always I brought written instructions to my apartment so that I could always find my way home. I also asked my friends to write down destinations on slips of paper that I could show the driver. With the destination out of the way I focused, and gained confidence with, the limited vocabulary mentioned earlier.

After watching how my friends gave instructions to drivers on a number of shared rides, I started giving instructions myself. Mandarin is all about the tones. Use the wrong tone and you end up saying something you didn’t intend (more about that in a future post). Some destinations were easy enough to pronounce. Other streets sounded dangerously like others, and were therefore vulnerable to butchery by unpracticed foreign tongues. Sometimes I got to where I needed to go, other times . . . lets just say it was an interesting way to discover new and interesting places.

The vast majority of taxi drivers I met were courteous and mindful of the fact that I was trying to learn their language. Upon detecting the awkwardness in my delivery, they would invariably ask (in Mandarin of course) “Where are you from?”. Small talk and polite probes would follow, until my vocabulary ran out and I said “sorry, I don’t understand, I know very little Chinese”. The probes would then end with polite smiles.

One day, I didn’t have to end the conversation prematurely. By then I had been engaged in a language exchange arrangement with a couple of Taiwanese friends. They were helping me with my Mandarin, and I was helping them with their English. Because of the latter, English was always a readily available safety net. That was not the case with taxi drivers, and this one was no exception.

The usual small talk ensued, and I was even able to ask a few questions myself. It wasn’t until the ride ended that I realized: “I had just completed my first Mandarin-only conversation!!!!” It was a fantastic realization comparable to riding a bike, unassisted, for the first time.

The fondness with which I recall that moment, is only matched by the regret in not having written down the time and day it happened. That milestone is lost to me forever. Hopefully with blogs like this, I won’t let moments like that pass me by again.

Filed under Slices of life, Taiwan
Jun 15, 2010

Number One


The first visa was undoubtedly the most unexpected. The destination was Taiwan, a country to which I had never dreamed of going.

I grew up with a world map above my bed, so it wasn’t a geographic mystery. But beyond being a source of affordable, albeit not-so-durable goods, all that Taiwan was for me was a place to which one hoped typhoons during typhoon season went directly. A Taiwan-bound typhoon was one that would cause the Philippines no harm. Little did I know that I would eventually be where I hoped the deluge would end up.

It was the year 2000. Tough times for a banking industry that was still clawing its way out of the 1997 Asian financial crisis, and a bad time to be working in the credit department of a medium-sized commercial bank. It was time to get out. “Out” came in the form of a technical writing job at a Taiwanese software company. I applied, passed the entrance exam, and thereafter joined the ranks of Overseas Filipino Workers (OFW).

Check out the immigration stamp in the photo below. I became a migrant worker on September 11, 2000. Ring a bell?

Filed under Visa collection
Jun 13, 2010

Throwdowns, Drive-ins, Diners, & Dives


My wife and I like to travel, and we love food. Naturally, this has an effect on our TV entertainment choices and the Food Network was very welcome discovery when we moved to California six years ago.

Food Network shows, in general, score high in the “food” department. But shows that blend food with travel are on the top of our favorites list. We’re fans of Drive-ins, Diners, & Dives for the treasure-hunt appeal of its format. The travellers inside us are just dying to go out and look for the restaurants that Guy Fieri features on the show. Same goes for the places featured in Throwdown with Bobby Flay.

We’re not saying we intend to go to all of them . . . but we do intend to make a dent on our growing list of places to visit. We’ll chronicle the resto-hunt here.

Filed under Food Trips
Jun 10, 2010

Visa wait-times


Travel shows give viewers the impression that the world is borderless. Every place . . . accessible with a simple call to a travel agent. The only thing holding you back procrastination or the “newness” of the travel destination. Alas, such care-free flexibility is not assured for the visa-collector. We have the visa application process to think about.

When thinking about travel, keep in mind that we are on our own when it comes to visas. We are ultimately responsible for finding out if we need travel documents to go to, or even just pass through, a country or not. A travel agent — depending on his or her experience — may be able to help, but cannot guarantee anything. Given the unpredictability of changes to visa requirements that may be imposed on the different visa-collecting nationalities, it would be unreasonable to expect the agent to be up-to-date on all possible developments. Online travel sites offer even less help. If you want immigration-hassle free travel, take charge and do you own homework.

As you match prime-travel dates with vacation time, consider how long it would take to find out if we are actually granted entry or not. I learned this the hard way when I started processing a European vacation between two other overseas business trips that were only two weeks apart. It was a really bad move, since I had to leave my passport with the embassy throughout the application process. Although things eventually worked out, having to choose between a trip that had already been booked and ensuring continued employment was not pleasant.

Visa wait-times vary greatly. They depend on the country, and even upon the specific embassy. The type of visa also has a bearing on this as well. Tourism is an encouraged activity, so these visas are comparatively easier to come by. Business visas require your company to vouch for you, but otherwise proceed like most Tourist visas. Immigrant visas . . . are complicated, take much longer, and deserve their own discussion. Here, lets focus on less-than-30-day travel.

Embassy work-schedules also have to be factored into the equation. Different embassies only accept visa applications at certain times of the day. In some cases, on specific days in the week. The photo on the left shows a sample.

Embassy Websites are a god-send. You no longer need to wait in a phone cue, or worse a physical cue at the embassy, to get a list of travel requirements. Just look for the Website of the consulate that has jurisdiction over your location (if there are multiple consulates in your country of residence), and look for the Visa section. Voila!!!

These sites often give information about visa processing lead times. The US embassy is particularly good about this. Others, on the other hand, do not. This is not necessarily a bad thing, and may actually indicate very short wait times. When I processed a multiple-entry Mexican business visa earlier this year, I needed to come in once to have my papers checked, and then set a later appointment for the actual attachment of the visa — while I waited, and watched. Combined time for both visits: less than an hour.

Regardless of what’s posted on the site, giving yourself more than 30-days of processing time can’t hurt. Otherwise, when internal processing issues — that are not related to you — happen, guess who has to live with the consequences?

Jun 8, 2010

How this site came about


A Filipino, a Chinese mainlander, and an Australian found themselves in an idle moment during a training session at their company’s technical support center in Libis, Quezon City, Philippines. All three had flown in for the training, including the Pinoy who was a US-based expat. As the conversation wound through the arsenal of icebreakers that erstwhile strangers with a common employer typically share, the discussion eventually shifted to their travel experiences.

Enter a discussion about visas. The Filipino, accustomed to his own visa difficulties when traveling overseas, was surprised to hear that his Chinese colleague required a visa to enter the Philippines. Chinese nationals apparently needed a visa to go anywhere — and the Philippines was no exception.

This started a pleasant comparison of visas in their respective passports. The same way that different countries had different currencies, visas apparently came in a fascinating variety of shapes and colors. European visas, for the most part, all look the same: predominantly green. The Indian visa was a tasteful blend of light shades of orange, blue and violet. Mexican visas had a washed out look but used heavy colors. The Canadian visa was in a category all its own, with the Canadian maple leaf cut into the visa itself creating a unique outline, and only part covered by a plastic security strip with holographic mounties ensuring its integrity.

Their Australian colleague, however, was hard pressed to contribute to the discussion. He had no visas on his passport. This wasn’t really because he was not well travelled. His citizenship simply exempted him from the travel requirements that Chinese, Filipinos, and other 3rd World nationals faced. While it offered him the convenience of easy travel . . .

. . . it also prevented him from forming his own visa collection. Apparently, having a third-world country passport has it’s upsides. 🙂

Needing to go through the visa application process to go anywhere is not something to which people aspire. But as the cliche goes, when given lemons . . . might as well make Lemon Marangue Pie.

Jun 6, 2010