My Ilocano find in Quezon CityBy Clinton Palanca
“Poqui-Poqui orgasmic,” read the text message recommending the place to us, so off we trundled through weekend traffic, to a part of Quezon City where there are still leafy green trees forming a canopy over the road, and townhouses and condominiums are still a minority among houses that are shaped like actual houses rather than futuristic spas. It’s a place replete with old-fashioned verdant lawns and back gardens.
One of these old mansions, a particularly well-maintained and handsome example with wrought iron grill windows, has been converted into an Ilocano restaurant named Victorino’s.
If Casa Roces, the mansion-turned-restaurant that’s a stone’s throw away from Malacañang Palace, is majestic and imperial, Victorino’s is homey and cozy, though by no means provincial or rustic.
It’s a bit tourist-y with displays of brooms and garlands of garlic, Ilocano folk music on the CD, but nothing too distracting or tatty.
The menu is country-in-the-city, like a proud Ilocano who can wear hipster glasses and drink craft beer like a Manileño, but who hasn’t forgotten his roots. It is an Ilocano not averse to jazzing things up a bit with cosmopolitan know-how.
I know next to nothing about Ilocano food, aside from pinapaitan, the goat bile stew I try to have by the slaughterhouse whenever I’m in Baguio and which I’ve tried to recreate unsuccessfully many times.
My father-in-law makes a great one and we eat great vats of it when I visit, our knuckles stiffening from gout as we go. But then he lives 10 time zones away.
Pinapaitan is not on the Victorino’s menu, for some reason, but many other non-goat-based but equally gout-inducing dishes are.
There’s a great deal of bagnet, which you can order in thin slices as appetizer (recommended). It also finds its way into the excellent fern salad, and you can order this as main, which we didn’t do.
The famed poqui-poqui, a dish which often fails to live up to the salacious allure of its name, is indeed excellent, if not earth-moving. I’ve never had kinilaw quite the way it’s served here, with a lashing of coconut milk, which again, I am not sure if it is native to the region or just an embellishment of the chef. But it does work.
The two stars of the meal are the baby squid in ink and the kare-kare. The latter I’m pretty sure is not a native Ilocano dish, but I don’t begrudge the Ilocanos for having it. I certainly have nothing against having it on the menu, especially if it’s this good. Like a runner-up, it comes close to being the best commercial variant in town—a distinction held by Café Juanita.
That of Victorino’s is slightly more chewy, the wobbly bits not yet melting like jelly in peanut butter. And the red rice I could easily have every day: sticky and squishy, almost like a glutinous rice-based kakanin or dessert.
Speaking of desserts, this is where the restaurant gets slightly puzzling.
After a repast full of the goodness of the north but tempered and tweaked for the city, one is jerked to another reality by what seems like an entirely different menu.
There are sandwiches, pasta, pizza and cakes by Heny Sison, who I understand is one of the executive chefs. I love Ms Sison’s cakes as much as everyone else, but where is the linapet or the tupig?
And the portions of the cakes are intimidating. From across the room we wonder why the waiters bringing the cakes over seem like hobbits, but when they get to the table, you realize the waiters are, in fact, of normal height; it is the cake slices that are gigantic.
Although we ordered three different desserts, they turn out to be the same meringue-based layered cakes, but with different icings.
Even if we end the night on an overly rich and regionally askance note, this is nonetheless some of the best cooking I’ve had for some time.
I especially like the fact that the menu plays fast and loose with the whole idea of “authenticity,” which can become twee and precious and restrictive.
As with any restaurant, I hope they continue tweaking the menu and keeping it fresh. If only they had real goat pinapaitan, really, really bitter, I’d be there far more often than my cardiologist would be happy with.
Throw in a leafy garden for a post-dinner cigarette and a rare view of the stars from the garden chairs and you have one as close to an instant classic as one could hope to find.
Victorino’s is at 11th Jamboree cor. Scout Rallos, Quezon City