As managing director of Playa Tropical Resort, Toni Carag runs her family’s beach hotel and villa in Currimao, Ilocos Norte, and helps guests and tourists discover what the province offers.
Carag, 32, has the advantage of having lived in Ilocos Norte most of her life. She once worked as a regional tourism officer.
An avid foodie herself, Carag, with her 5-year-old daughter Cefina in tow, has eaten her way around town and knows exactly where to take people to enjoy Ilocano specialties.
The Batac Riverside Empanadaan is where the locals have a quick snack before heading home.
It has three sections, each serving a favorite item—Batac empanada, miki and barbecue.
One of the more famous stalls is Glory’s Empanada, credited for adding hubad na longganisa into the orange pocket.
Carag is a regular customer of its isaw and longganisa. The sausages are skewered, dropped in a vat of hot oil until brown, while the chicken intestine is deep-fried to a crisp, then eaten with a condiment of banana ketchup and vinegar.
At the end of the food row is Harvey’s, which serves grilled pork items. Owned by Amado Yap, it opened in 1998—the first to sell food in the area. Different parts of the pig are sold on sticks, from skin, meat to the ears and the face (sisig). Yap himself does the grilling at 2:30-6 p.m. only.
JNF Dawang’s Foodhouse is a typical carinderia—electric fan for ventilation, monobloc chairs and tables for dining, and a simple menu of 10 dishes.
It’s the kind of setting where traditional Ilocano food like igado (pork tenderloin and pig innards), dinardaraan (dinuguan) and imbaliktad (beef stir-fry) are enjoyed.
What Carag keeps coming back for is the tinuno, charcoal-grilled pork. It’s chopped to bite-sized pieces, with fresh tomatoes, and flavored with patis before enjoying it with steamed rice.
Hidden in Barangay Barney in Batac is a humble hut that serves just two items. Located across the cemetery, the shack has neither signboard nor menu. But those in the know head here for miki, and Carag’s favorite, the lumpianada—a cross between empanada and lumpia.
Inside the deep-fried golden spring roll are crumbled longganisa, raw papaya, egg, chopped carrots and shredded cabbage. This is the perfect place to go eat-and-run.
When it comes to noodle soup, the Malabed Toledo Miki House is hard to beat. The family-run business started out selling meat in the market. It still does and has added chicharon (Ilocos Norte’s bagnet), longganisa and miki—following the recipe of lola Emiliana Asuncion Malabed.
What makes its version different is the broth from boiled chicharon and oil from slabs of pork that have been fried to start the sauté.
Each bowl is topped with hard-boiled egg and generous portions of fried pork skin that’s been crushed to bits.
‘Lechon’ in empanada
When in Laoag and wanting to take a break from the usual fare, Carag drives to Café Luca at Sola Hotel.
The menu has local dishes such as poqui-poqui, laing, pinakbet and the house specialty, kare-kare. But what draws Carag are the classics with a twist—bagnet sa gata, sisig Ilocano made with chicharon and longganisa, and the Ilocano paella, igado rice topped with bagnet.
She caps the meal with a slice of Cefi’s Special—yema cheesecake and chocolate cake, desserts that people usually take out for giveaways.
Run by the Morales family, Milky’s Farm is known as the home of lechon baka.
Don’t expect dry-roasted meat. Instead, tender pieces are drenched in a barbecue marinade made of 26 secret ingredients. An order comes with this sauce.
Shreds of lechon baka are also put in the empanada, with bean sprouts and papaya.
Another item Carag regularly orders at Milky’s is the bagis, crispy pork intestine. It is cooked adobo-style before frying, making each bite very flavorful.
Not far from Playa Tropical is Irene’s Native Delicacies where Carag gets her kakanin fix.
This streetside shop has been running for over a decade, selling sweets, the most popular of which is tupig, a rice cake made with young coconut strips.
Its version is thicker than the usual tupig, cooked in a wood-fire oven instead of flat metal on hot grill. It has chunks of cheese. Carag usually makes a special request for owner Irene Calipjo to double the amount of cheese, for a more delectable bite.
A sweet treat Ilocos Norte is known for is inkalti, and for this, Carag relies on Saramsam’s modern take. Bananas and sweet potatoes are sliced, fried and served with panocha and bilo-bilo. Unlike the traditional version, the restaurant serves inkalti as a fondue—diners use sticks to dip the cubes in a bowl. —CONTRIBUTED
Ilocos Food Tour, tel. 0939-8597770; visit ilocosfoodtours.com; [email protected] on Instagram. Special thanks to Bernard Joseph Guerrero.