Pampanga has such a rich culinary tradition that it’s a daunting task to write about its cuisine.
For hundreds of years, the province, with natural resources for farming and fishing, has fed Manila. Pampanga grew prosperous in the Spanish colonial period, famous for its avant-garde culinary creations. With their newfound wealth, the Pampangueños experimented with food, even going as far as importing foreign chefs.
We remember our interview with the queen of heirloom Kapampangan cuisine, Atching Lillian Borromeo. Bronze pans, clay pots and other Spanish colonial cooking implements are strewn all over her kusinang matua (old kitchen). Her kitchen has special molds used to create her empanada and San Nicolas cookies, that delicious delicacy stamped with images of saints and other emblems.
Popular Kapampangan dishes include boneless bobotong asan, stuffed milkfish cooked in alagaw leaves; adobong puti, an adobo dish where salt is used instead of soy sauce, giving the dish its distinctive light color; and bringhe, the Kapampangan version of arroz Valenciana, which is a Spanish dish similar to paella.
The go-to place for great Pampango food is Everybody’s Café, an institution in Pampanga. The restaurant has been around since the 1940s. Filipinos, Americans, and even the Japanese would eat there, hence the name “Everybody’s.”
Owner Poch Jorolan says the original café was “neutral ground,” where anyone could eat and enjoy good food.
“After the war, the restaurant became the favorite meeting places of politicians from different parties. Whatever their allegiance was, they all met and congregated here, so even now, the tradition of Everybody’s Café lives on,” Jorolan points out.
While Everybody’s Café goes back to the postwar era, its now-famous branch in San Fernando officially opened only in 1967. Aside from its staples like pancit luglug and pancit palabok, you should try the seasonal kamaru (fried crickets) and the betute (stuffed fried frogs).
The betute is a favorite, perhaps among non-daring folk who can’t imagine themselves eating fried crickets. The fried frogs taste like chicken, and the pork stuffing is sweet-savory.
Everybody’s Café is also known for its morcón, an heirloom recipe, according to Jorolan.
The embutido is made with chorizo, quezo de bola and duck eggs. The meat roll comes with a sauce made with the drippings. A most indulgent dish, indeed.
Also worth the visit is the pako salad, paksiw na bangus, and tapang kalabaw called pindang damulag by the Pampagueños. The beef is tender, sweet, with a tinge of sourness.
Another place where one can find excellent Kapampangan cuisine is Imang Nene at the new Orchid Gardens in San Fernando. Its interiors are a mix of modern with rustic Filipiniana accents.
Go for the pinakbet, crispy pata, sinigang na salmon sa miso, and kare kare.
Its kinimatisang baboy is particularly good, a unique dish for us first-timers. It’s a sour pork stew made with tomatoes, instead of tamarinds or batuan.
For dessert, there’s tibok-tibok, a Kapampangan delicacy—sweet pudding made with carabao milk and glutinous rice powder.
Also a popular draw is halayang ube and hot chocolate. The tsokolate batirol is made the traditional way, with ground tablea mixed with crushed peanuts. The drink is sweet, with a strong nutty flavor. The peanuts also give the drink a chewy texture, truly unique for many hot choco drink lovers.
When in Pampanga, the place to buy pasalubong is Susie’s Cuisine. The retail chain is found all over the province, a byword for excellent Kapampangan delicacies.
The business has been around since 1972. Today, Susie’s Cuisine has more than 14 branches in Luzon.
Its tocino del cielo are bite-size servings of leche flan. Also available are various cassava cakes, sapin-sapin, ube macapuno, pichi-pichi, and tibok-tibok.
Likewise there’s kalame duman, green sticky rice cake, a variant of the kalamay ng pinipig (pinipig rice cake).
Jun Jun’s Bibingka & Barbecue is a favorite pit stop as well. The restaurant has been serving barbecue and bibingka since the ’60s. Both dishes are char-grilled in big, open ovens, giving the dishes a distinctive smoky flavor.
You can’t say you’ve been to Pampanga without sampling its signature dish, sisig, —pig’s ears and snout, mixed with a lot of onions and other garnishes—which is a hit at Jun Jun’s.
Bale Capampangan offers traditional Pampango cuisine, buffet-style. Dishes are homemade, created traditionally in clay jars. Its spread includes adobong balot, kare-kare, fried tawilis, tinolang susu (snail), and lechon kawali replenished with fresh servings every half hour.
The restaurant is also worth going to for its homey atmosphere.