MANILA, Philippines?My sister is home from Panama where she is based. She will only stay a short while so there will be no long trips out of town.
But, like all families whose members are coming home for the holidays, the nagging question is where to take the balikbayan to eat.
The question is also asked by Filipinos abroad who want to know where they can eat when they come home. Because I live in Metro Manila, most of my recommendations are around this area. It makes it easier for me when I know what kind of dish they miss.
Of course there is nothing like a home-cooked meal. Or food bought from specialists. But, for variety, balikbayans are taken out to sample the local restaurant scene.
Not just ?carinderia?
My trips to Ilocos Norte and Leyte have shown me that there are restaurants that are no longer in the mold of the carinderia and turo-turo.
Just as the houses of overseas workers? families have changed the landscape in the provinces (for better or worse), the new restaurants have changed the dining scene.
Some still do regional cooking, though tweaked a bit. And usually the ambience is something to talk about.
In Leyte, just a short drive from downtown Tacloban, guests were welcomed to the Rafael farms and garden in a vine-covered station. An open-air walk led to the restaurant, a structure that reminded some visitors of the upscale resort huts in Bali, Indonesia. All around, the landscaped place was green with grass and plants.
In the dining area, one wall was colored a fashionable red with touches of green. Two sides were open. In the one that looked out to a garden and a pond, conversation areas were created with sofas and interesting coffee tables.
All the dining tables were covered with crocheted tablecloths. Some chairs had backs of woven abaca and seats covered with banig.
The menu showed local dishes that one can say is Filipino, but not necessarily Leyteño, cooking. We had fish sinigang, a salad of the vegetables that they said was grown in the farm and turon. In the pastry display case, the mini cakes were what you could get from any urbanized towns in the country.
Most of the diners were balikbayan and their hosts. We saw relatives that we did not even know were visiting.
The owner is Rene Tampi. He started with a restaurant in Tacloban called ?Join Us? and a produce shop that sold meat, ready-to-cook food and vegetables. Tampi is a young entrepreneur who decided to stay and do business in his home province.
Having traveled throughout the country, very few lodgings impressed me. But, in Ilocos Norte, we stayed in well-made hotels and resorts.
Casa Doña Emilia in Paoay is a two-story building, small and unpretentious with a homey feeling but with touches of sensible interior design that uses the products of Ilocos such as the wooden furniture, Vigan tiles and abel wall hanging.
What is more important is that it is clean and comfortable, the plumbing works, the beds allow you to sleep peacefully and the air-conditioner works. The food is good traditional cooking and the staff of owner Bobby Diaz allows you to go to the kitchen to watch them work.
Across the Paoay church, the Herencia Café is known for its pakbet pizza. But the vegetables with cheese somehow do not work as well as the longanisa and bagnet version.
The interior consists of antique chairs and baul. The mural in the dining area shows Sitio Remedios in Currimao. It gave us an idea of where we were to stay the day after. Dr. Joven Cuanang owns both the café and the resort.
But the resort looks infinitely better than the painting. Again, there was a collection of antique furniture amid modern amenities.
Updating the provincial
A more updated take on provincial cooking was at Saramsam Café of Sammy Blas. Its small elongated space has wooden tables and chairs. What serves as the buffet table is the small display area by the window.
We had lechon stuffed with aromatic oregano and the local basil. The sauce had liver mixed in with a bit of pork blood.
Using the empanada crust recipe, thin, round wafers were made to be eaten with a salsa of tomatoes, onions, mango and cilantro. The same salsa was placed on top of spaghetti noodles.
We had traditional miki that did not look hodgepodge, half an egg peeping out of the noodle soup arranged neatly in each bowl. The bibingka with crushed peanut on top was in neat wedges.
What Sammy showed was that an updated look did not mean the traditional was lost.
Our last day was lunch at Mom?s Country Kitchen run by Eya Cabanos, a busy caterer who squeezed our meal into her schedule. While her catering includes very Continental dishes like roast beef, she let her guests enjoy Ilocano cooking including small empanadas cooked on site.
She had adobo, kilawing baboy (vinegar-cured boiled pork) and seashell soup. I did not know I missed eating the sautéed green chili (siling haba) I first tasted years ago on an Ilocos food research. There it was, not hot, safe to eat by those who cannot stand hot chili.
Eya?s spread emphasized Ilocos vegetables. She had a pakbet of fresh garlic. And she made several salads of talbos ng upo (sprouts of fuzzy gourd); rabong (bamboo shoots); katuday or katuray flowers and green beans. What caught my eye was the balayba, a freshwater plant, because of its other name??I shall return.?
Eya explained that it was a vegetable that could not be digested by the body so looked exactly the same when expelled.
You learn something new every time.
E-mail the author at email@example.com