For Mark Guatelara, the chef-owner of a new Filipino rice bowl restaurant in Fort Worth called Ober Here, the pandemic was an unexpected boon.
His year-long furlough from a chef de cuisine position at Live! by Loews Hotel in Arlington allowed him to spend time planting a garden and meeting his neighbors in Fort Worth’s Southside district. As he says, “COVID stopped me from everything. It refreshed me.”
The most dramatic refresh came when he utilized nearly two decades of hotel restaurant experience that began with a student exchange program at Marriott Hotels. The corporate restaurant training helped him develop his own five-year business plan.
The first step was launching Ober Here with a food truck in the parking lot of the new food hall space, a practice he observed from Fort Worth fan favorite, Coco Shrimp. During the first few months, he had to do a lot of “educating,” he says, as many approached the truck expecting tacos.
Approximately a year later on April 14, he opened his first brick-and-mortar, a fast-casual version of Ober Here off Fort Worth’s hopping restaurant row, West Magnolia Avenue — an area he says reminds him of his native Dumaguete in the Philippines . The bulk of the menu consists of large, vibrantly colored rice bowls that pack multilayered flavors of salty and sweet with touches of vinegar and spicy heat — a trait of Filipino cooking, which is also a bit like Mexican cuisine, he says.
Rice bowls are not Filipino, however. There’s no such thing in the Philippines, since people generally like to keep their food separate, Guatelara says. With Ober Here, his goal is to promote Filipino flavors over traditional, authentic dishes, which is why he calls it “differently Filipino.”
According to Guatelara, Filipinos are abundant in food, but too often in the US, Filipino chefs aren’t marketing it successfully.
“We like to cater to Filipinos, and that’s fine. That’s what it’s supposed to be. But we are not in the Philippines. We are in the United States, where it’s a diverse country, so you can’t just focus on 3% of the population.”
While he shuns “authentic” and “traditional” descriptors, Guatelara doesn’t use the term “modern” either. He isn’t looking to do “crazy, super chef-driven things,” he says, because those who do are forgetting that Filipino food is primarily about comfort. Instead, he wants to be different, bridging the market from the traditional to the modern.
The item customers are most ordering from the iPad fixed upon the order counter is the Pork Bbq for $12.75, a belly-filling bowl of rice crowned with spoon-tender pork butt with barbecue sauce made with Jufran Banana Sauce, a popular Filipino condiment. A fried egg sprinkled with annatto fried garlic brings creaminess and crunch, and pickled papaya salad lends tang.
Customers are also loving 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. In addition, Guatemala created a homemade Spam bowl. I have appreciated the Spam-filled care packages sent by his grandfather when he came to the US, but now that he is out of college, he says he’s never opening a can again. It will always be close to his heart, but it’s too salty.
Meatless eaters are pulling up for vegetarian or vegan picadillo with seasoned Beyond meat, peas, and carrots, especially from 10 to 11:45 pm, when Ober Here is still open with healthy late night options.
Guatelara saw Ten Ramen introduce an iPad ordering system in the beginning of the pandemic, and now at Ober Here, he says it’s helping with labor issues while empowering customers to order exactly what they want.
Once he finds his flow with the new restaurant, Guatelara will add a rotating specials screen, similar to the Crumbl Cookies model. There’ll be sisig, crispy pork belly, adobo, and longganisa rice bowls. He’s also currently looking for an ice cream machine so he can sell AJAE’s Scoops’ vegan ube soft serve. In the meantime, he’s offering leche flan-stuffed ube cookies by Hungry Panda, owned by a classmate who also moved to Dallas-Fort Worth after attending the Philippine School of Culinary Arts.
During Year No. 3 of Guatelara’s business plan, he’ll open a second restaurant in Keller or Arlington with a kitchen large enough to sustain production for the ultimate goal in Year No. 5: a direct-to-consumer shipping program. Year No. 4 will be dedicated to quality control and figuring out the final step.
Guatemala is dedicated to his plan. He’s said “no” to collaborative offers from Klyde Warren Park, the City of Fort Worth, and even Bobby Flay. He’s also been invited to join Filipino pop-ups in Dallas. Guatelara’s response is, “Why don’t you guys come over here? Fort Worth has nothing.”
Guatelara hopes to inspire other Filipino chefs. “By having Ober Here, it creates a doorway to all these people that did not have the confidence to open businesses — especially Filipino businesses — to see that, oh, it’s actually possible.”
He admits Fort Worth has been a hard market to penetrate. They’re “not there yet” when it comes to trying new foods, he says. “But I took a roll of the dice, and it paid off.”
Ober Here is located at 1229 8th Ave., Fort Worth. oberhere.com.