Pampanga on a Platter
A one-day food trip to Pampanga showcases the Culinary Capital’s many flavors.
TravelBook.ph's Kristy Texon joins Travel Factor's Pampanga Food Tour and samples the many offerings of the Culinary Capital of the Philippines.
As a child, I never was a fan of food with salitre (saltpeter). No, that was an understatement; I hated longganisa, tocino, and ham--most especially Christmas ham. So when part of the TravelBook.ph team (Keisha, Bianca, and I) went to Pampanga for Travel Factor's Pampanga Food Tour, I knew it was going to be an interesting experience, considering that the food I loathed were among Pampanga's specialties.
The tour was scheduled on a Sunday morning, and we had to be at McDonald's El Pueblo by 6AM. Waking up early on a lazy weekend can be a challenge, but (salitre-spiked food aside) a promise to sample treats from the Culinary Capital of the Philippines got me up to meet the calltime. Our group was comprised of nine participants, one guide from Travel Factor, and our driver. By 6:30AM, we were all in the van, ready to set off.
Breakfast at Everybody's Cafe
I assume traffic was light (I slept through most of the trip), because by 7:30AM, we were already at our first stop, Everybody's Café in San Fernando. It was still pretty early by Everybody's Café's standards--the place was mostly empty, save for a family of three enjoying their weekend breakfast.
The first item served came in a cup: the tsokolate batirol. The drink, made of ground peanuts, warmed our tummies as we got ready for the day ahead. Keisha performed the teaspoon test, which was meant to check if the tsokolate was thick enough. She put the bowl of the spoon on the surface of the drink, and let the handle rest on the cup's rim--and the spoon took its time before it disappeared under the liquid, so yes, the tsokolate was rich. Our tastebuds also confirmed the teaspoon test's results.
The rest of the breakfast fare was served immediately after, and it was a mélange of tastes and textures. We had tapang kalabaw (P200/order), which had a tougher texture compared to beef, and was vinegary and slightly salty. We also had paksiw na bangus (P120/order)--I'm not a huge fan of paksiw in general, but the one we had was refreshingly mild, and the vinegar wasn't overpowering at all. Travel Factor also ordered the usual omelet with tomatoes and onions. That wasn't included in the establishment's regular menu, but Everybody's Café entertained the special request.
Oddly enough, the food I enjoyed most from breakfast was the one I was supposed to hate: longganisa hamonado (P50/order). Since I had vowed that on that trip, I would try anything that was served in front of me, I meant to sample a small slice of the Pampanga treat--and I ended up having more. I usually pass on sweet viands, but that longganisa was something else. Its brown, slightly sticky crust told me that it had sugar; however, the longganisa still had the right amount of brine to balance the sweetness.
We also found out that the restaurant sold morcon (P350/order), and we vowed to sample or buy that to take home the next time we were in Pampanga. Much to our delight, we found out that Everybody's Café also participated in the Saturday Market at Salcedo Park, so that meant we didn't have to travel all the way to Pampanga again just to sample their specialty.
Our team wanted to find a useful strategy for the food trip (read: sample everything and not get sick), and so most of us ate less than we usually would. We still had a lot of leftovers, which we asked to be wrapped up to take home.
After breakfast, we welcomed the idea of a side trip to Betis Church. We stopped there for 15 minutes to take photos of the façade (there was an ongoing mass when we arrived), and headed for the next establishment.
Morning snacks at Kabigting's Halo-halo
We still hadn't digested breakfast when, less than two hours later, we found ourselves in Arayat at Kabigting's Halo-halo. By that time, I was already feeling much like a hobbit with "What about second breakfast?" echoing in my head--I wouldn't have be surprised if the rest of the team felt the same. Having halo-halo in the morning (and right after breakfast at that) wasn't the norm, but then when I finally tasted the halo-halo, my concept of that norm was immediately forgotten.
Kabigting's Halo-halo features a modest snacking station, but it is understandable how the establishment has found its way to food connoisseurs' blogs and articles. Their halo-halo is a simpler version of the well-loved snack as it only has a few main ingredients: corn kernels, mashed white kidney beans, carabao's milk jalea, and a generous helping of evaporated milk poured over finely crushed ice. The ultimate weapon of the halo-halo is really the jalea, which is a sticky and sweet concoction similar to pastillas. So even if it was a cloudy and cool Sunday morning--supposedly not the ideal atmosphere for halo-halo--we finished our cups with much gusto. And when we learned that Kabigting's also sold pastillas (P55/box) in the shop, we didn't hesitate to whip out our wallets to buy pasalubong.
San Nicolas Cookies demo and buffet lunch at Cucina ng Atching Lilian Borromeo
A dirt road led us to a compound with a blue Spanish house at the front. As we passed by the gates, a sign told us that we were visiting a doctor's house.
The feeling that I was visiting a relative's house came over me as we got off the van at Cucina ng Atching Lilian Borromeo. We were met by Ms. Lilian Borromeo, who, after exchanging pleasantries with us, had us convinced immediately that it would be more appropriate to call her tita. Much like a relative anticipating the homecoming of family members, she already had the dishes laid out on a table. Tita Lilian asked us if we were hungry, to which we replied that honestly, we weren't yet. So she led us to a kitchen behind the main house, where she had prepared the ingredients for making San Nicolas cookies.
In the kitchen, she showed us her prized possessions: a wooden ladle, a wooden work table, and a rolling pin over a hundred years old, and centuries-old wooden pastry molds, which featured amazingly intricate carvings. The wooden molds were passed down from one generation to another, and Tita Lilian got her precious molds (some dating back to the 1750s) from her great grandmother. There was some wistfulness in Tita Lilian's voice as she told us that she might not be able to pass on the molds (and the craft of making San Nicolas cookies) to any of her kids, since one is male (molds are traditionally handed down to females), and the other is female but chose to pursue a career in medicine. She also had a daughter who was interested in the culinary arts, but she passed away at a young age, so now Tita Lilian is thinking of bequeathing the molds to a granddaughter instead.
Tita Lilian also gave us a quick history lesson and told us that the recipe for the cookies came from Spain. During Spanish times, the locals built churches by binding the stones with egg whites, and that meant that they had a surplus of egg yolks. They finally put the yolks to good use when they discovered the recipe for the cookies.
Tita Lilian then showed us how to make the San Nicolas cookies (named after Saint Nicholas, the patron saint of bakers). She mixed third-class flour, margarine, egg yolks, coconut milk, baking powder, and cornstarch (locals used arrowroot flour back in the day) to make dough, which she then sprinkled with small bits of lemon rind. She covered the dough in flour, broke the dough into parts, and pressed a small lump into a mold. Tita Lilian showed us the flattened piece of dough bearing the design of the carving, and after hearing our oohs and ahs, she asked for a volunteer to try the molding process.
I figured I wasn't entirely useless in the kitchen, so I took a shot at molding the cookies. The process, I found out, was harder than it looked. After several attempts, I finally managed to pull the dough in one piece out of the mold. Tita Lilian asked for another volunteer, and Bianca stepped up. After Bianca pulled the dough off the mold, Tita Lilian gave us a wooden ladle each as a reward.
All the time in the kitchen finally got us hungry, so we went back to the dining area for lunch. The dining area was surrounded by plants that created a charming atmosphere. The buffet table was laden with kilayin (their version of kilawin), a vinegary pork dish; morcon, rolled meat with egg at the center; paksing demonyo, vegetables cooked in vinaigrette; pako salad, a medley of ferns and tomatoes; pritong hito and tilapia, seafood fried to a crisp; biringyi, yellow sticky rice with meat and boiled eggs; and ampalaya and talong with buro, which is a local sauce made of fermented shrimps and rice.
They also served a famous delicacy in Pampanga: frogs stuffed with vegetables and herbs. While I've balked at the idea of eating frogs on previous occasions, I enjoyed the stuffed frogs at Cucina ng Atching Lilian Borromeo as they were quite flavorful because of the herbs. The other Pampanga favorite they served, sisig, was one of the best I've had--the spicy bits had a mix of chewy and crunchy textures, and the dish wasn't too oily.
Since all of the dishes in the buffet were remarkable, controlling the portions we put on our plates was extra challenging. The combination of good food and the pleasant ambiance reminded me of family reunions.
We finally had to leave, but not before buying a box of San Nicolas cookies (P150/box) as pasalubong. As we bade Tita Lilian goodbye (most of us even made beso), I was already thinking of how to locate the dirt road if ever I was to come back to the homey restaurant.
Afternoon snacks at Camalig Restaurant
We headed for Angeles City, where we were to dine at the Historic Camalig Restaurant, home of Armando's Pizza & Pasta. By that time, the vision of a hobbit asking "What about second luncheon?" was swimming in my head--I was stuffed, but I wasn't about to pass up an opportunity to eat what the restaurant hailed as the "pambansang pizza."
The restaurant is housed in a 150-year old structure owned by the Nepomucenos, and the place exuded an old-world charm. Sepia and black and white photos, wooden chairs, ceramic bottles, and old sewing machines were displayed throughout the restaurant. The interiors were notable, and--more importantly--so were the pizzas they served.
We ordered the bestseller--Armando's Best--ground beef, bacon, green peppers, and mushrooms on a thin crust. The great thing about the pizza was that it had generous toppings, so even a slice was already filling. We weren't supposed to be hungry, but in less than 10 minutes another pizza was served, and we wolfed that one down, too. The second pizza was Doy's Kapampangan, which was very interesting. Its toppings--longganisa and salted egg--made the pizza very Pinoy. After my encounter with longganisa that morning, I was able to finish my slice without much effort.
Pasalubong shopping at Susie's
We wanted to give ourselves time to digest everything we'd had, and so on our next stop, we took a break from eating and instead went shopping for food. We headed to Susie's Cuisine, where honey, San Nicolas cookies, cane vinegar, and other Kapampangan specialties were sold. On the way there, Bianca told us about how her family enjoyed tibok-tibok, which was a kakanin made of coconut milk.
Susie's Cuisine was busy when we got there--a lot of diners were taking their merienda, plus there was also quite a crowd buying pasalubong. It seems Bianca sold us on the tibok-tibok (P100/Styrofoam container, P400/bilao), because a number of people on our team wanted to try out the sweet dessert at home. After loading the van, bags of tibok-tibok in hand, we finally set off for our last stop.
Dinner at Aling Lucing's Sisig
It was twilight when we arrived at Aling Lucing's Sisig, and the establishment--which is usually packed in the late evening--only had a few diners during that time. It was just as well--having the place almost all to ourselves meant that our orders would be served fast.
Aling Lucing's Sisig has been serving the famous dish since 1974, and up to now, the restaurant (currently being managed by Zeny Cunanan, daughter of the late Aling Lucing) still follows the same recipe from the time it was established. The resto is popular among diners and tourists, and testament to that are the 50 kilos of pork and one to two sacks of onions they cook each day.
The sisig came in sizzling plates, and unlike the sisig usually sold in Manila, theirs was more chewy than crunchy. Combining a squeeze of calamansi, vinegar, and soy sauce was the customary ritual for preparing the sisig's sauce, which we tried. The flavors of the caramelized onions went well with the tasty pork, and it was even better with the sauce we prepared. While beer is the common match for sisig, we washed down our last meal on the trip with ice-cold softdrinks.
It was a little past 7:00PM when we finished with dinner. We had been eating for twelve hours, and we were beat. I was too full and sluggish, but I couldn't complain; I was able to sample Pampanga's various flavors, learn some history, meet friends and (almost) family, and challenge myself to go out of my comfort zone and sample what I initially disliked. Not bad for a day's work.
Travel Factor offers local and international tours, and holds office at 5/F Bloomingdale Plaza, 200 Shaw Boulevard, Barangay Kapitolyo, Pasig. You may reach them at (+632) 359-2434.
Rates: P2,400 for the Pampanga Food Tour, which includes transportation fees, three full meals and morning and afternoon snacks.
Go to list of Pampanga resorts and hotels