For Mark Guatelara, the chef-owner of a new Filipino rice bowl restaurant in Fort Worth called Ober herethe pandemic has been an unexpected boon.
His one-year furlough from a head chef job at Live! by Loews Hotel in Arlington allowed her to spend time planting a garden and meeting her neighbors in the Southside neighborhood of Fort Worth. As he puts it, “COVID kept me from everything. It made me feel refreshed.”
The most dramatic refresh came when he used nearly two decades of hotel restaurant experience, which began with a student exchange program at Marriott hotels. The corporate catering training helped him develop his own five-year business plan.
The first step was to launch Ober Here with a food truck in the parking lot of the new food court, a practice he observed at Fort Worth fan favorite Coco Shrimp. In the first few months, he had to do a lot of “education,” he says, because many approached the truck expecting tacos.
About a year later, on April 14, he opened his first brick-and-mortar, fast-casual version of Ober Here off Fort Worth’s row of crowded restaurants on West Magnolia Avenue — an area he says , reminds him of his native Dumaguete in the Philippines. . The bulk of the menu consists of large bowls of brightly colored rice that contain multi-layered flavors of salty and sweet with hints of vinegar and spicy heat – a trait of Filipino cuisine, which also resembles cuisine a bit Mexican, he said.
Rice bowls are not Filipino though. There’s nothing like it in the Philippines, as people generally like to keep their food separate, says Guatelara. With Ober Here, his goal is to promote Filipino flavors rather than traditional, authentic dishes, which is why he calls it “differently Filipino.”
According to Guatelara, Filipinos are abundant in food, but too often in the United States, Filipino chefs fail to market it successfully.
“We like to meet the needs of Filipinos, and that’s great. It’s what it’s supposed to be. But we are not in the Philippines. We’re in the United States, where it’s a diverse country, so you can’t just focus on 3% of the population.
While he avoids the descriptors “authentic” and “traditional”, Guatelara does not use the term “modern” either. He’s not looking to do “crazy things, led by a super chef,” he says, because those who do forget that Filipino cuisine is all about convenience. Instead, it wants to be different, bridging the market from traditional to modern.
The item customers order the most from the iPad affixed to the order counter is the Pork Bbq for $12.75, a bowl of rice full of belly topped with a spoonful of tender pork with a barbecue sauce made with Jufran banana sauce, a popular Filipino condiment. A fried egg sprinkled with annatto fried garlic adds creaminess and crunch, and a marinated papaya salad adds zest.
Customers also love the Honey Shrimp Bowl topped with 16/20 shrimp, tossed in a sauce of sweetened condensed milk, mayonnaise and Filipino spices. It’s the most expensive item on the menu at $14.75. Additionally, Guatelara has created a homemade Spam bowl. He enjoyed the spam-filled care packages his grandfather sent when he came to the US, but now that he’s out of college, he says he’ll never open a box again . It will always be close to his heart, but it’s too salty.
Meatless eaters stop in for a vegetarian or vegan picadillo with Beyond seasoned meat, peas, and carrots, especially from 10 p.m. to 11:45 p.m., when Ober Here is always open with healthy options late into the night.
Guatelara saw Ten Ramen introduce an iPad-based ordering system at the start of the pandemic, and now at Ober Here he says it helps solve labor issues while allowing customers to order exactly what they want. they want.
Once it finds its groove with the new restaurant, Guatelara will add a rotating display of promotions, similar to the Crumbl Cookies model. There will be sisig, crispy pork belly, adobo and longganisa rice bowls. He is also currently looking for an ice cream maker to be able to sell The scoops of the AJAE‘vegan soft drink. In the meantime, he offers ube biscuits stuffed with flan de leche by hungry pandaowned by a classmate who also moved to Dallas-Fort Worth after attending the Philippine School of Culinary Arts.
In year #3 of Guatelara’s business plan, it will open a second restaurant in Keller or Arlington with a kitchen large enough to support production for the ultimate goal in year #5: a direct-to-consumer program. Year #4 will be dedicated to quality control and defining the final stage.
Guatelara is committed to his plan. He said “no” to collaborative offers from Klyde Warren Park, the City of Fort Worth and even Bobby Flay. He was also invited to join Filipino pop-ups in Dallas. Guatelara’s response is: “Why don’t you come here? Fort Worth has nothing.
Guatelara hopes to inspire other Filipino chefs. “Having Ober Here creates a doorway for all those people who didn’t have the confidence to open businesses – especially Filipino businesses – to see that, oh, it’s actually possible.”
He admits that Fort Worth has been a tough market to break into. They “aren’t quite there yet” when it comes to trying new foods, he says. “But I rolled the dice and it paid off.”
Ober Here is located at 1229 8th Ave., Fort Worth. oberhere.com.