I never eat half as well as when I’m visiting Pampanga. It’s my second time to do a food story in the region, yet my taste buds were still wowed with the myriad culinary delights Pampanga offered.
Two years ago we got to talk to the queen of Kapampangan heirloom recipes, Atching Lillian Borromeo.
Atching Lillian showed us how to prepare the traditional San Nicolas cookies, butter biscuits decorated with the image of St. Nicholas, patron saint of some Pampanga towns.
Atching Lillian’s Kusinang Matua (literally translated as “old kitchen”) is a veritable museum of traditional Kapampangan culinary tools. Her knowledge of the Kapampangan cooking world was extensive, and it is comforting to know that Atching Lillian teaches and propagates the old ways of Kapampangan cooking.
With the old ways of Kapampangan cuisine in safe hands with Atching Lillian, we now look to the future, and the number of foodie places you can discover in Pampanga is daunting. We highlight the best in our second Pampanga Food Tour.
The cafe is located in the newly updated SM City Clark. The interiors are decidedly cool, white and rustic moderne. The cafe’s off-white interiors remind you of a wedding cake, and not by accident, since proprietor-chef Judy Uson is a master of cake decorating and baking. Chef Judy herself made the wedding cake of Heart Evangelista, when she wed Sen. Francis “Chiz” Escudero in Balesin.
The food served in the cafe is all comfort food and, according to Chef Judy, are recipes that came from their family.
The cakes in Café Noelle are undoubtedly the highlights. Try their Chiffonelle Cake, an old Uson family recipe, classic chiffon cake with yema custard filling and pure butter icing. The bestseller is indulgent, but does not have an overpoweringly sweet flavor—perfect with tea or coffee.
Their Chocolate Decadent Cake is a must-try, bitter dark chocolate cake coated with ganache and caramel sauce. Their Impossible Cake is a unique one, chocolate cake and leche flan baked together in one pan.
Next, we went to Abe’s Farm in Magalang, Pampanga, for some traditionally cooked Kapampangan food. The resort-farm is located at the foothills of the dormant volcano Mt. Arayat. The resort was originally a retreat for the late Larry J. Cruz, who created the LJC Restaurant Group. The resort offers rooms for a quick staycation, has spa facilities and a swimming pool, and is big enough to host a wedding party. The grounds are picturesque, and the interiors are decidedly Filipiniana in theme.
We tried out the food in Abe’s Farm, and of course it was the best in quality and flavor, as to be expected from the LJC Group.
We had Sinigang na Baboy sa Bayabas; guava is the preferred flavoring of Kapampangan sinigang, more so than the tamarind. We tried their famous Arobung Kamaru or Adobong Kamaro, rice field crickets sautéd in onions and tomatoes. A must-try is their Knockout Knuckles Krispy Pata and their Kare-Kare. We also tried an iconic LJC Group dish, their Binukadkad na Pla-Pla. For dessert, we had their best-selling Sikreto ni Maria, carabao milk ice cream with mango and suman inside.
Chef Laudico’s Feast
Another new restaurant in SM City Clark is Chef Laudico’s Feast. The restaurant features classic Filipino dishes, along with some international cuisine options. The restaurant serves lunch and dinner buffets. “We only serve home-cooked dishes here, all made from scratch. Nothing is prepared the easy or quick way. We don’t use powders for sauces, no MSG, just good, old-fashioned cooking,” says chef Rolando Laudico.
Notable dishes include Lechon Belly or “bellychon,” Dinuguan, Roasted Angus Beef, Angus Tapa, Kare-Kare and Steamed Seafood.
SM City Clark Pyro Fest
After feasting in Chef Laudico’s restaurant, we waited until evening to watch one of the most awaited events in the calendar year of the Kapampangans, the fifth year of the SM Clark fireworks festival. The “Pyrofest 5: Christmas Around the World” event was attended by thousands of Kapampangans, the huge SM Clark mall filled to the brim with guests from all over the region. Six countries participated in the event: Netherlands, Singapore, Philippines, Australia, the US and Brazil.
After the beautiful fireworks festival, we had dinner at Roberto’s Coffee & Tea inside SM City Clark. The restaurant had excellent steaks, and baby back ribs that fall right off the bone. Most notable of their dishes is their Crispy Pata, so crunchy and chewy that you can’t help but eat it with your hands, pinching and tearing at the meat while dipping it in spiced soy-vinegar sauce.
After the night’s feast, we went around the mall for some much-needed cardio. We were surprised to see global brands in SM Clark; no need for Kapampangans to go to Makati to shop for some Onitsuka sneakers, for example, and clothes from Uniqlo, Forever 21 and F&F.
Before leaving the mall, we went to the Toll House, a culinary institution in their own right in Pampanga. The restaurant is known for its excellent home-cooked food, most notably their baked mac dish. Initially too sweet for my taste, the dish grows on you after every bite, and I found myself finishing the dish, despite having had dinner already.
The restaurant has been in business now for 28 years, and chef and proprietor Josephine Concepcion Mendoza has an intimate knowledge of Kapampangan taste buds. “We opened our first restaurant in 1988 and, since then, we’ve never stopped serving our famous beefy baked macaroni,” says Mendoza. The macaroni is made with ground beef, long macaroni pasta, and topped with melted cheese and heavy white sauce. Try their other dishes: arroz caldo, roast beef, palabok, fried chicken and roast beef. For dessert, try their Black Forest Cake, Pistachio Cake and Apple Pie.
Midori Hotel and Casino Clark
We ended the day treating ourselves at the posh accommodations of Midori Hotel in Clark. The five-star hotel is one of the new highlights of Clark, what with its booming tourism and gaming industry. Every room is equipped with bathtubs; the beds are huge and comfy.
After a restful night at Midori, we did some pasalubong shopping at Susie’s Cuisine, also in SM City Clark. The restaurant is a one-stop shop for every Kapampangan delicacy; even a variant of Atching Lillian’s famed San Nicolas cookies can be bought in the shop. Try their famed Tocino Del Cielo, small, bite-size servings of leche flan.
The tibok-tibok, the Kapampangan version of the maja blanca, is also a must-try. The dish is made with carabao milk, glutinous rice powder, cornstarch and sugar. They also sell cassava cakes, sapin-sapin, ube macapuno and ube rice cake.
After leaving SM City Clark, we ventured back to Magalang, Pampanga, to visit Riza Lim’s Orissa Garden of Wellness. The resort is a wellness spa where seminars on holistic health are held. The place serves healthy vegetarian food, with all the ingredients coming from the resort’s gardens.
After a relaxing stay at the Orissa Garden of Wellness, we finally made our way home, but not before visiting the Clark International Airport and the nearby Clark Museum. The airport is as modern and expansive as when I last saw it in the ’90s. Hopefully, the new administration will use the airport to its fullest, especially with the crippling air traffic in Naia. The Clark Museum is a treasure trove of Kapampangan history, a perfect way to end our Pampanga trip. —CONTRIBUTED