There is Filipino cuisine. And then there’s Pampango cuisine. Where what you love about Tagalog cooking is done with twice as much gusto and fervor. In the distribution of wealth, God gave Aklan white sands, Laguna received hot springs and Pampanga received the talent for cooking delicious delicacies.
The drive wouldn’t show it. Exiting the North Luzon Expressway, the roads only show cafeteria-style restos swarming with flies or the kind that doubles as a karaoke bar. Places that seem to offer nothing beyond pancit and San Miguel beer. It’s very rural, although further into town, there are franchised restaurant chains.
But you don’t travel all the way to Pampanga for a Chickenjoy or Burger McDo. What you would travel for is tapa. Tapang kalabaw. (Dried or cured carabao meat).There’s something about Pampanga and meats – whether pig, cow, carabao. Tocino, lechon and tapa are some of their best delicacies. Carabao meat, especially, can be a tricky thing. How do you tenderize something that was used to hard labor? How do you squeeze fat out of a muscle man? But the Pampangos have achieved it.
At Holiday Land, you can order the special Tapang Damulag, which is served a la carte, or have the Bistig Damulag (Carabao Meat Beefsteak) served at the buffet. Both are a delight to chew and not tough at all. The tapa borders on flavors of tocino, though, and is on the sweet side. If you cannot reconcile sweet with meat, this is not for you. Have instead the beefsteak damulag, which was bathed in soy sauce, beautifully marinated, instead.
Non-meat eaters need not fall into distress. Pampanga capitalizes on pork and beef but its talents are not limited to pleasing carnivores. The buro (fermented rice), a salty, sticky and savory rice delicacy (which uses rice and not glutinous rice a.k.a. malagkit) that has garlic sprinkled over it is a delight when wrapped in mustard leaves and, optionally, appreciated with fried catfish. It’s a delightful starter for the meat eaters that can serve as a main dish for those who have shyer appetites.
Daring eaters can dive into the balut a la pobre or fermented duck egg cooked adobo style. This is a stroke waiting to happen, but if you feel like you are healthy enough to escape death by balut, this would be perfect with an ice-cold bottle of Pale Pilsen. The best thing about this creation is that the white section of the balut, which is usually impossible to eat unless you are willing to have your teeth come off with it, is made especially soft, almost like the white part of a hard-boiled egg. Appreciating the balut with a fork and spoon becomes reality.
Other items on the buffet and sit-down menu are more common, such as adobong pusit (stewed squid) and kare-kare. They are good, too, but not exceptional enough to be considered a journey’s goal. The journey’s goal here would be the carabao. Balanced off by the mustasa and buro. Oh yeah.
Holiday Land is a simple place, with monobloc chairs. More like a pitstop. But you don’t journey to this side of Pampanga for a holiday. You journey to this side of the Philippines for the food. And in Pampanga, that’s always something to celebrate! •
Holiday Land. Olongapo-Gapan Road, San Fernando, Pampanga. Tel. (045) 961-3667. Major credit cards accepted. Open daily from 6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Wheelchair accessible.