Pinakbet pizza is old news. So is bagnet (deep-fried pork) and dinardaraan (dinuguan, blood stew) pizza. Those are served in many Ilocano eateries today, possibly confusing foreign tourists who may think that they landed in a lost town of Italy.
Nic Rodriguez of Bistro Candon in Ilocos Norte decided to offer new ways with the Ilocos pizza at his new place, Rufino’s at Paoay, Ilocos Norte. The restaurant is tucked at the corner of Luna Art Gallery, where one can view Paoay Church, newly cleaned so that it gleams in the afternoon sun. It made one Japanese guest comment at how the builder of the church must have been a genius to let it face that way because it makes the viewer gasp at its beauty at that time of day.
Rufino’s has its version of pinakbet pizza, the Ilocano vegetables strewn on top arranged without the symmetry expected of pizza toppings. But Nic’s veggie pizza is much neater with the greens forming a circle. A few meters away, Herencia Café, the originator of the pizza still stands, more known to the many tourists who crowd the Paoay Church vicinity.
But Chef Nic didn’t stop there. To the bagnet pizza, he added blue cheese for a richer taste dimension. That is, if you like blue cheese. The combination, creamy cheese with crisp pork, can induce you to close your eyes to savor and remember every bite. The other cholesterol-heaven pizza has longanisa pieces with eggs broken on top just before being served hot from the oven. Just looking at the glorious sunny-side-up eggs can make you feel your arteries being blocked and your weight going up.
Rufino’s serves Ilocano food as well like fresh malaga (samaral, gold-lined spinefoot) cooked as sinigang.
Carrot cake is a bestseller at La Preciosa in Laoag. We were there in time for Mother’s Day and the line for ordering the cake as well as other pastries was so long. But La Preciosa is known for serving great Ilocano cooking as well. According to Claude and Mary Ann Tayag in “Linamnam” (Anvil Publishing, 2012), the dishes are from recipes of Pam Aragoza’s grandmother, Severa Ablan Ventura, and her mother, Preciosa Ventura Palma.
A different take from her Laoag restaurant is Spam, not the canned processed meat but a play on her name for her new outlet in Paoay. With that she hopes to appeal to the younger generation and there were many of them taking selfies with the church in the background the day we visited. There are a lot of her cakes and fast-food orders, such as sandwiches, to attract that crowd.
Pasta with mangoes, ‘bagoong’
Always part of our itinerary when visiting Ilocos Norte is Saramsam Ylocano Bar and Restaurant of Sam Blas. His café has moved to his hotel, Balay de Blas, in Laoag. Instead of Ilocos pizzas and traditional food, we went for his creations like the pasta with greens and half-ripe mangoes and a sauce of bagoong isda (fish paste). I was glad to see he still had the incalti, a fondue dessert where cooked pieces of banana, kamote (sweet potato) and bilo-bilo (rice-flour balls) are skewered then dipped into heated panocha.
Our guide, Rene Guatlo, said that sometimes bocayo (sweetened shredded young coconut meat) is used as well as the interior of the male papaya, an ingredient that’s new to me. Guatlo said the papaya pith is bitter so that it has to be treated with chemical lime (calcium carbonate) after which it is cooked in sugarcane juice.
Authentic Ilocano cooking
A stay at Hotel Luna in Vigan, Ilocos Sur, showed how busy it was most mealtimes because of the buffet at Comedor. Guests need not venture out to look for authentic Ilocano cooking because the chef, Raymond Quitilen, is from the place and studied at the local Candon Culinary Academy. There is the dinendeng/pinakbet station and then a whole array of appetizers that feature poqui-poqui (eggplant omelet) and a generous amount of ipon (Sycyopterus lachrymosus), the small prized fish of the Ilocos, both of which one can mash on top of bread.
The lechon had a stuffing of karimbuwaya, the leaf of a cactus plant that has a citrusy aroma though not as heady as lemongrass. Also served is pipian, the chicken specialty found only in Vigan, that has ground rice in the sauce, colored with achuete and flavored with a leaf called pasotes, or Mexican epazote.
One needn’t go out to sample sinanglaw, soured beef innards with bile soup, which is Vigan’s breakfast food. At Comedor, it is invigorating, clean-tasting and flavorful.
But because Hotel Luna’s chef consultant is Robbie Goco (of Cyma and Green Pastures), the food is also updated and other cuisines are presented on its buffet and a la carte menu. The pakbet is neatly presented with layers of vegetable, bagnet and shrimp.
Hotel Luna, named after Juan Luna of Ilocos, has Filipino art pieces all over the place. Its sister hotel is Vitalis Resort and Spa in Santiago, Ilocos Sur. It’s named after the painter Macario Vitalis who was born in Ilocos Sur but settled and painted in Britanny, France.
One of his seascapes hangs at the reception area, alarmingly exposed to the sea air and the bright Ilocos sunlight. The resort-spa is where beach-loving tourists should go. The architecture and blue and white colors remind one of Greek resorts.
The menu at Vitalis has food for sharing with family and friends. Included are Filipino grilled favorites on a bed of rice, laing (taro leaf in coconut milk), salad of cucumber and tomatoes, and sweetened kamote for dessert. Filling comfort food from kitchen artists.