I had been to Paoay four times, but it was only last week that I learned to pronounce the name correctly. The accent should be in the first syllable: “Pá-way.”
Maybe the routine mispronunciation of their hometown’s name was grating on the ears of the members of the Paoay Hotel and Restaurant Association, who were our hosts. It’s always good to start with the proper way to call a place.
Welcoming us at the airport were two members I had met previously. Pam Arragoza has hosted us twice at her restaurant, La Preciosa in Laoag, where she serves authentic Ilocano cuisine and one of the best carrot cakes in the country. Sam Blas educated us on Ilocano cooking at his Saramsam Cafe, before we moved to his pension house, Balay de Blas, also in Laoag.
Both have restaurants in Paoay—Arragoza’s SPAM, and Blas’ Kamarinn Cafe, which he says is still a work in progress.
Expecting the cold January winds from China to blow through Paoay, we were greeted instead by the glaring, piercing Ilocos summer sun. It didn’t help that Philippine Airlines, the only airline currently servicing Ilocos Norte, parked its plane some distance from the arrival area. But the heat was just for that day, the cool breeze returning for the rest of our stay.
Paoay has must-see sites. There is the lake, a large body of water surrounded by five barangays, with a presidential residence called the Malacañan Ti Amianan (of the North) overlooking its waters. The lake is the venue of an annual regatta.
Another highlight is St. Augustine Church, which everyone refers to as Paoay Church. A World Heritage site, it’s one of the country’s baroque churches, known for its giant buttresses, a structural protection against destructive earthquakes.
We were reminded that Paoay also has its sand dunes, a bit of desert for people who like active pleasures like bouncing around in 4 x 4 vehicles. For some of us, however, it’s enough to see the undulating landscape of mini-mountains of sand.
Our first stop was Vista del Lago on the Paoay-Laoag Road. It calls itself a Mexican-inspired restaurant, much apparent in the appetizers of chicken quesadilla and beef nachos. But there was likewise a saraka roll, a lumpia version of the Ilocano dinengdeng. Saraka is from the first letters of the vegetables it contains—saluyot (jute), rabong (bamboo shoot) and karabasa (squash).
The owners are Eric Asuncion (chef) and Blas, friends who used to live and work in California, and had a restaurant in that American state called “Provincia.”
The Mexican vibe seemed to disappear as we went through the menu, because local ingredients were used and the names given the courses seemed to be Filipino. There was the invigorating soup that had the local small clam called onnok and corn, a good roast chicken called pollo Imeldifico, a salad of pallang (winged bean) and tomato, blue marlin tinuno (grilled), and a very good dessert of coconut pudding.
Also on the rim of the lake is the restaurant Terrazas, where breakfast was scheduled. The menu that the manager, Marymel Sorolla, showed had the typical Filipino breakfast—longganisa, tapa, daing na bangus, scrambled eggs. But all that became Ilocano with the sour taste of Ilocos dark vinegar in the longganisa, and the eggs cooked with grilled eggplant in the poque poque.
The rice cake looked like biko or bibingkang malagkit, but we were surprised to learn that it’s called sumal latik. The best course was the tinolang manok, soup of native chicken with malunggay (moringa) flowers. And so, my taste experience of this reputed health plant is complete—leaves, pods and, now, flowers.
Terrazas is a good place for bird-watching, as two of its most avid practitioners showed us. Dr. Petrus Calope and Richard Ruiz educated us on various species such as egrets, cormorants, Philippine duck and osprey. We went to the Paoay Lake National Park for more bird-watching. We were amused to listen to our two experts arguing whether the bird gliding above us was an osprey or an eagle.
Two new hotels provide a view of Paoay Lake. Across Terrazas is Veranda Suites, which looks like a new house with dining room and several bedrooms.
On the other side of Paoay Lake is Bellagio Hills—a home converted into a hotel by a German businessman, though limited to just four rooms for now. It has big, comfortable rooms and bathrooms, and a restaurant with a rather extensive menu, as its Filipino general manager, Allan Tuppil, showed us.
The restaurant had another name, but guests kept calling it Wilkommen, because the word—German for “welcome”—was on a sign outside.
Bellagio Hills’ British chef, Paul Kimpson—who had retired in Ilocos with his Filipino wife—gave us a tasting menu of several dishes such as grilled blue marlin, perfectly cooked medium-rare steak, salad, soup and thick berry mousse.
We went back to the Vista del Lago vicinity to take in the breeze on the roof deck of Kamarinn Café, and for one last look of the lake at sunset before going to street level to taste what owner Blas does best: mixing cuisines in one dish, like longganisa and saluyot quiche, or poque poque on French bread.
It’s good that the members of the Paoay Hotel and Restaurant Association not only work together—they also taste each other’s cooking, and engage in teasing for fun. They joined us at Sitio Remedios in Currimao, Ilocos Norte, for dinner of mostly Ilocano food, including great pakbet.
On our second week, we went around the Paoay church environs, which had restaurants such as Herencia (the first in the area), the new venue of Rufino’s of Nick Rodriguez and the newly opened Smoke of Chris Stolk.
We also went out of town on a picnic and a swim at Madongan Dam in Dingras as well as up beyond the mountaintops on the Solsona-Calanasan Road to Apayao, and checked out a bit of Ilocano weaving culture at two abel-weaving sites.