It’s difficult these days to take a photograph of Paoay Church by itself. There will always be tourists and cars on the street fronting it, blocking your view no matter the time of day.
It was different years back, when the church served as backdrop to a table filled with Ilocano dishes for a story we were writing. The shoot was a breeze and we didn’t have to shoo anyone away. The food came from a nearby restaurant, Herencia Café, where we first tasted pinakbet pizza.
I must confess that the pizza idea was not appealing at first. But it grows on you, along with its Ilocano variations—with bagnet (deep-fried pork), dinardaraan (dinuguan, blood stew) and poque poque (eggplant omelet).
Herencia Café is bigger now, but the pinakbet pizza is still a bestseller. Its proprietor, Eric Juan, welcomes the many restaurants that have opened around the Church. Competition means business is good overall.
It was at Rufino’s where we had our very high-end pizza variation. Chef Nick Rodriguez placed blue cheese on the bagnet pizza and broke an egg on top of the still-hot longganisa pizza.
Rufino’s was then located near Herencia at the Luna Art Gallery. But the unforgiving Ilocos heat made Rodriguez move the resto to the Paseo de Paoay Building across the gallery.
His excellent bagnet was what we looked for on our latest visit, having first tasted it in his Candon, Ilocos Sur, hometown eatery years back. And there it was, the skin cracked and fried golden, promising crunchy, crisp bites—never mind the cholesterol.
Dinardaraan and ipon (small fish) was served on crisp rice mounds, part of his catering menu, said Rodriguez.
Catering is what keep him busy these days, and we did see him in a wedding at Sitio Remedios in Currimao where we were staying.
The longganisa was in his pasta sauce, another fusion variation. But we kept some space for the dessert that we knew would include his great chocolate cake. Rodriguez added brazo de mercedes just to make sure we had our sugar fix.
He sent the Manila visitors home with one whole chocolate cake each, which we didn’t mind hand-carrying. And we secretly sneaked in orders of bagnet, a must-buy in his place.
The Paseo de Paoay building was still under construction when we visited four years ago. Spam of Pam Arragoza (the name a play on her name) had just opened, catering to the younger crowd with sandwiches, cakes and pastries and cooling concoctions.
On the second floor of the building is Smoke. The owner, Cris Stolk, an American in Ilocos, described himself as the pitmaster of the smoking pit, and a meathead. It was good to know there were other food options in the area other than Ilocano dishes.
We met Stolk in the food tasting held by the other members of the Paoay Hotel and Restaurant Association. He let us have a taste—but verbally at first, about what he offered in his place. Have we ever tasted really hot sauce, he asked, way up high in the Scoville scale that measures spicy hotness? Do we like blackened fish?
Finally, we climbed the stairs to Smoke—the best place, it turned out, to view and photograph Paoay Church without the crowds. We were seated at one long table, and from our end didn’t see what was being served at the other end.
We started with what Stolk was crowing about on the first days of our visit—buffalo wings served with hot-hotter-hottest sauce.
He has a way with menu names. The buffalo wings variations were “Lord of the Wings,” and were called “The Shire,” “Mordor’s Revenge” and “The End of Middle Earth.” The latter had all of Stolk’s favorite hot sauces—so hot that they deadened our taste buds temporarily.
When we recovered, it was on to baby back ribs, beef slab and beef brisket, and a burger that Stolk termed “big ass.”
The place also had Ilocano longganisa and bagnet, which Stolk likewise smokes to give them a different flavor. The Cajun/Louisiana bent was completed with servings of corn bread and dirty rice, ending with an excellent spice cake.
As if we haven’t had enough, we went down and walked a bit further to Strasburg for coffee and dudol, Ilocano dark kakanin (rice cake) made with rice flour, sugarcane juice and coconut milk.
When the Paoay Church lights were turned off, it was a signal to call it a day.
Strasburg Café sandwiches were also part of our picnic fare at Mandongan Dam in Dingras town, Ilocos Norte. The dam looked like a long waterfall that refreshed our bodies and eyes. Pam Arragoza and Sam Blas filled the picnic table with vintage Ilocano cooking—higado, dinendeng, imbaliktad, dinardaraan.
We were lucky that ipon was in season, those tiny silverfish (sycyopterus lachrymosus) wrapped in banana leaf and steamed in a procedure called tamales.
According to Ilocos promoter and tour guide Rene Guatlo, when the ipon goes from sea to river, it becomes bukto, its new name and form, which was also fried for us.
Ipon bagoong is the best. Obviously, all that exercise paddling in the dam waters didn’t really help us lose the pounds we gained eating all the picnic food.
This trip also introduced us to other things one can do in Ilocos, apart from eating—something good to know if you are scheduling a trip there this Holy Week.
We were brought to the steep Solsona Apayao Road. We didn’t quite reach the highest elevation of 1,300 meters, but managed high enough to see pine trees and some peaks of the Cordillera mountains.
And we went to see the abel makers who keep the Ilocano weaving of cotton alive. We marveled at their artistry and got to know the artisans, especially Magdalena Gamayo of Pinili, a national living treasure.