Eating Real Food in Baguio

I call this my Baguio Real Food post because you won’t find the chic or chill dining options that Baguio has become famous for in the past few years. In the 6 days since arriving last Tuesday morning at this cold city, I purposely shied away from the Instagrammable places as I was scrimping a bit for my European trip coming-up in two weeks. The 3-day conference I attended also came with lunch and snacks so I didn’t really go out much to eat. If you’re the “I just wanna eat good real food” this is for you. Of course, I only went to local places (always always patronize locally-grown businesses).

Luisa’s Cafe

Back in those days when there was a toss-up between Luisa’s and Star Cafe, I’ve always been partial to the latter mainly because of their delicious curry pies. Unfortunately, Star shut its doors some years ago.

Nothing’s better than a bowl of very tasty broth with the signature chewy home made noodles.

The dumplings, however, were the tiniest I’ve ever seen. Quite good, though. The bola-bola siopao was forgettable. It arrived lukewarm and had more dough than meat.

Though, the soup and siopao combo satisfied my appetite, I’m not quite sure it was good value as the servings were small. Perhaps, consider it a snack rather than a meal when you come here.

Luisa’s is old-school Baguio and amidst the city’s culinary gentrification, I hope it doesn’t suffer the same fate as Star Cafe’s.

Sizzling Plate

Another Baguio old-timer. The double pork-chop (Php 219) was chunky and sizzled perfectly. The signature gravy was thick and savory. It’s the kind of meal that made one feel so manly. They could have used better quality rice for their Java rice, though.

Nevertheless, it was a dinner that hit all the right notes— filling to the tummy, satisfying to the taste buds.

Jack’s Baguio Restaurant

The lechon on fried rice (Php 80) was cheap and filling. Amidst the tourist-oriented prices in Session Road, Jack’s is a haven for the budget-conscious.

Unfortunately, the sorry-looking fried pork and the bland fried rice makes me think that’s all Jack has going for itself– cheap and filling. Maybe, I’m being too harsh. Jack’s, however, always has a steady stream of patrons everytime I pass by so I guess it’s not so bad.

Central Park Restaurant

The cool evening weather brought Chinese noodle soup cravings again and since Good Taste was full, I crossed to the other side of the road to this restaurant that always had a good number of diners inside everytime I passed by. Surprise! There was a dimsum cart. Unfortunately, only the “snowball” (meatballs with chorizo and egg white, Php 80) seemed tasty. The rest of the dumplings looked like they came from some dumplings factory. True enough, when my dumpling noodle soup (Php 110) arrived, the siomai was a mashup of flour and extenders wrapped in thick sickly yellowish wrapper. I’d take Master Siomai over it anytime.

Good soup and noodles though but not as tasty as Luisa’s. The taipao (Php 90) was hefty and chock-full of meats. Good points on this one.

The price is good value considering the big bowl of noodle soup and large taipao. Glancing around at the other tables, the plates of a la carte orders held generous servings. Perhaps next time, I should have some rice meals and just skip the dumplings. This place deserves another chance especially since the service was quick.

So I went back for dinner and had the lechon rice. 2 slabs of pork belly and a big cup of rice.

It’s just okay. The meat was tender but the skin wasn’t crisp. Also, by the look of the dark-colored meat, it didn’t seem to be too fresh. The service, however, was excellent again.

Good Taste

I finally snagged a table here even if it meant having lunch at 10am on a Sunday. Good decision as the place was brimming with people and by 10:30, large groups were arriving. Of all the rice meals I’ve had, the lechon chopsuey rice (added Php 30 to upgrade to fried rice) was the best value. It only cost Php 140 and the serving was huge. I’m not a chopsuey fan but I wanted some vegetables with my pork so I ordered the combo. Wise choice.

The vegetables were cooked just right– still crisp. It was tasty and mixed well with the large cuts of crispy skinned lechon kawali. It made me regret why I only ate lunch here just when I was taking the bus home to Manila. Now I know why people are willing to line-up here.

Pinares Pagkaing Pilipino

Such a pleasant surprise! This was just at the ground floor of my hotel and I headed here as the reviews on FB promised good Pinoy food. Promise fulfilled! The place had satisfied diners digging on heaping plates of food. My bagnet express was delicious. The pork belly was tender and fried perfectly and served over a heaping mound of Bicol Express.

You know that feeling when you’re happy putting spoonfulls of food in your mouth? Plus points too for the professional and super attentive service staff.

A Little Indulgence

I needed to work so cafes with strong coffee and even stronger wifi was my go to.

Cafe By the Ruins

It’s back and it’s just across my hotel. After dropping my luggage at 8 in the morning, I needed to stay awake. The cafe’s unique take on coffee (cardamom and cinnamon) did just that. For Php 80, you get heaven in a cup. I didn’t like the kamote bread, though. Store-bought dinner rolls were better.

Hill Station

So I rewarded myself with its decadent chocolate cake (Php 150) and good Cordillera brew (Php 80).

Because, I wanted to stay forever, I had the spinach and cheese dip an hour later. I came in around 4pm and had the place almost to myself. Bonus points for the electric outlet by my corner table by the window. Hill Station is still impeccable. Made me feel truly rich and handsome.

Il Padrino Cafe

I came here mainly because I needed to work. It turned out to be a pleasant surprise. The club sandwhich was hefty and had bacon!

Coffee was also good and strong. I especially liked the outstanding service. Smiley faces and staff refilling your glass with water without you needing to ask for it. Oh, and some of the tables have sockets.

Categories: Baguio, Philippines | Leave a comment

In the Company of Donuts

The donuts looked too cute to be missed.  All brightly colored and gay they looked like they had fallen off some confectionery rainbow. Oh, and their names were a delight too—Alcapone, Why Not . . .  I stared at them for a long time seemingly mesmerized by the the colorful rings that gleamed under the halogen lights of the yellow counter.

We had passed the store already but it had beckoned me back.  They were really soooo cute.  It was like sushi.  It  was meant to please the eyes first before the palette.  Grabbing a piece and sinking your teeth on it would be sacrilege.  Maybe it tasted really good that making it so pretty was a way of controlling the eater lest he mindlessly just gobbles away.

“Are you buying?” my sister asked, breaking my reverie.

My tummy was still busy digesting all that satay and bakso we had at the funky food court named, “Food Library.”  I was really bursting-at-the-seams full but apparently  my taste buds weren’t.

I pointed to a box of two dozen bight-sized pieces of different flavors.

 “For snacks later,” I reasoned out.

It had been a long day in Jakarta that started at the Monas, laughingly called by the locals as “Sukarno’s Last Erection, ”  and ended at the  crowded Citra Mall where  we had dropped by to check-out the Gold’s Gym at the basement.  We were on our way to the taxi stand when we passed by J Co Donuts and that’s how my love affair with the donuts began and how this story started.  With my yellow take-out box of goodies, we were ready to navigate the notorious Jakarta traffic.

These hearty Indonesian fare at the "Food Library" could not stop me from the donuts.

Back at the apartment, I took of my shoes, propped-up my feet and opened the box.  Before option paralysis could set-in, I took one all covered in a light brown icing.  I think it was called “tiramisu.”

If heaven had a taste.  This would be it.  The dough was so soft it seemingly melted in my mouth.  The icing was light and not very sweet and was sooo creamy!  The next one was covered with shaved almonds that gave a really pleasant crunch.  This was followed by another one that looked like it was covered with Oreo crumbs.  I took each  of the tasty morsels, popping them one by one in my mouth.  Each and every time goodness exploded in my mouth.  Nope, the donuts weren’t very sweet at all. Some were even more savory than sweet.  Oh yeah, I did give one piece to one of my friends who saw me looking so intense at the dinner table.

My first taste of these yummy yummy donuts in Jakarta

In less than half an hour, the box lay desolate and bare.  I had had the best donuts ever.

That was last April last year in Indonesia.  Fast forward to March in Manila this year.

It was an ordinary commuting day —- MRT from Ayala to Q Ave.  It was just after noon so there wasn’t much of a crowd.  Showed my bag to the chatting security guards, swiped my stored value card, passed through the turnstile, then retrieved my card. As I headed to the stairs leading down to the train, the sight of a billboard nearly knocked my breath off.  In big bold letters it proclaimed, “J Co Dounuts . . . Now Here in Manila.”  OMG! The crowd  disappeared and it was just me and the billboard while in the background, trumpets sounded.  Memories erupted and I was back in that apartment in central Jakarta seated at the small round glass table,  eyes closed, as Alcapone melted in my mouth.

“Remember those super yummy donuts we had in Jakarta then later again at Jogyakarta?” I texted one of my friends who were with me on that fateful trip.  “THEY’RE HEEEERRRRRREREEEEE!!!!!!!”

The past few days were heady with excitement as I told each and everyone I came into contact with about the most heavenly donuts on earth.  One Friday afternoon, remembering that Greenbelt was one of the branches mentioned in the billboard, I starved myself for lunch then walked all the way to Greenbelt from the Hotel Intercon in search of the donuts.  Searching every crook and cranny, I found none.  Back at the office, Google informed me that the first branch to open would be Megamall and it would be on the 15th.  Oh okay.  I was too excited.

The store at Megamall has since welcomed donut lovers  and I have since wolfed down 8 donuts in a single sitting on my first visit to the store.  I was all giddy and happy.  Never in my wildest dream did I think that J Co would make it here given the Pinoy’s bias for US franchises.  That an Indonesian donut brand actually made it here was simply amazing.  The donuts were just as I had tasted them in Indonesia.  Light as a cloud dough and just right not-too-sweet glazes, icings, and fillings.

With J Co finally here in the Philippines, there will be one less hand-carried item from an Indonesian trip.

  Enak sekali.


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Pigging-out on Pig

“So where do you want to go for lunch?” my friend, Annie, asked as she picked me up at the hotel having just arrived from Manila. “Zubuchon!” I gleefully exclaimed.  I had enjoyed the  packaged lechon Julie brought home as pasalubong a few months back but there’s nothing like freshly-roasted lechon with its reddish crisp skin glistening with oil.  Proclaimed by Anthony Bourdain as “the best pig ever,” I was raring  to try it fresh right there at its home in Cebu.   Besides, everyone who knew that I was headed to Cebu for a week for work, would exclaim, “Zubuchon!” like it was a mantra of some sort to bless me for my voyage lest I be struck down like Magellan. So it seemed just fitting that on touch-down, I would head to Zubuchon.


“What’s good to eat here?” Annie asked her signage supplier who happened to be lunching there too as we took a table in the cramped restaurant that could barely hold 20 people.  “Hmmm…. lechon?” he answered.  “Order the monggo,” he added.  We ordered 1/4 lechon, monggo with lechon, and two cups of rice.  The monggo was delicious as it was cooked with coconut milk (I was to find out in the following days that this was the Cebuano way of preparing it) making it creamy and it came with bits and pieces of  what else, lechon.   The piece-de-resistance was just as it should be —  meat that was tender to the bite and skin crisp with just a thick layer of fat underneath.  It was tasty but it kinda taste, well… clean.. like the meat had been scrubbed-off its pigginess.  It  had none of the too-meaty taste that most lechons have.  Or maybe because I was eating in modernist surroundings with white chairs and glistening metal-topped tables with black apron-ed and capped staff  rather than eatery-looking places that seemed more synonymous with lechon. Don’t you ever notice how lechon tastes kinda different if you’re having it in a hotel such as part of the buffet of Circles at Shangri-la? It kinda doesn’t taste as lechon as it should be? It’s like eating fishballs from a plate with a fork in the comfort of your home even if you bought it from the vendor just outside.

A week later, we were at the CNT restaurant just across SM at the north reclamation area.  Not even the fear of a tsunami from another earthquake could deter us from lunching at this Cebu institution.  Long before Zubuchon came into being, people deplaning from Cebu would have little white boxes of CNT lechon as pasalubong.  It was the Cebuano version of Krispy Kreme pasalubong from the US back in those days when the donuts were like manna from heaven partaken only by those  who had the privilege of having viajero friends and relatives kind enough to hand-carry them.


The smell of roasted pig assaulted us as we made our way across the spacious eatery to grab a table by the open windows. Being a Sunday, the place was packed with locals waiting for their numbers to be called for their order of lechon. We ordered 1.5k, some puso (rice in small woven pouches) and two orders of chopsuey for our group of five.  Chicklet, a Bisaya from Davao and who had been Cebu-based for the last five years had mentioned that the locals didn’t really take to Zubuchon as it had none of the trademark saltiness of Cebu lechon.  Biting into the lechon, I realized that was what accounted for the clean taste of Zubuchon.   It was not salty.  It was definitely not bland.  It was delicious, in fact. But it was just not salty.  CNT was just what Cebu lechon had to be —- salty and really flavorful with all the stuff they put inside the pig as it roasts.   The meat was tender though not as that as Zubuchon.

So which really is the better pig?  When I think of Chinese roast suckling pig, I taste salty-sweet.  When I think of Spanish cochinillo, I taste herbs.  When I think of Balinese babi guling, I taste spices.  When I think of Cebu lechon, I taste salt, onions, and tanglad.  So I choose CNT.  I like its saltiness and earthy flavor. It’s the taste of the Cebu countryside.  Zubuchon, to me, tastes too clean like it was meant for delicate taste budes. The brother of another friend, tells his sister to bring home the Cebuano lechon that’s not authentic, referring to Zubuchon.  His sister says that he doesn’t like Cebu lechon’s taste that’s why he likes the simple flavors of Zubuchon.  To each his own. then.

While awaiting my flight at the terminal, I see a Zubuchon stand dispensing frozen lechon. Now, anything that has been cooked then frozen has definitely been compromised, if not in flavor, then in texture.  But a fresh and warm lechon in the plane cabin might bee too much for the olfactory senses of some.  So Fara and I buy a kilo each.  As we sit, we look at a freshly-cooked lechon in styrofoam trays covered in cling-wrap. “I want some,” Fara says.  Our boarding announcement comes just in the nick of time.

Categories: Cebu, Philippines | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

Cebu: Where the Sweet Things Are

People think of Cebu and they think of beaches. Me I think of sweets.  Nope, not the famed dried mangoes.  I think of pastries, cakes, cookies, warm brownie cups, pies and everything else that puts a grin on my sweet teeth.

I spent more than a week in the cities of Cebu and Mandaue recently and in spite of the 6.9 earthquake that sent me rushing down three floors and the subsequent aftershocks, I had a really sweet time at this wonderful place where everyone seems to be just eating and eating and eating.

My favorites in alphabetical order:

Dessert Factory

I never took a table here. It has always been a take-out of the cheesecakecicle.  A piece of cheesecake covered in chocolate sauce then frozen.  Convenient and yummy!  Skewered on a popsicle stick, you can have your cake and really eat it too!


It just opened in 2010 but this place has already attracted hordes of loyal followers; me included.  It was the perfect way to remove some aftershock stress two Mondays ago, the day the quake shook Cebu and nearby Negros.  Sure, there was a mild aftershock which sent my chair shaking a bit but I was too busy enjoying the Chocnut Sansrival to get nervous.  On the course of the next few days, I visited this place about four times. Everything here is absolutely delicious down to the ladyfingers dipped in white chocolate.  The Cheesecake Delight is a rich chocolate cake with.. get this… cheesecake inside! Be warned: if you’re like me that have desserts before the main course, this is a tummy filler.  So have it after dinner or else the decadence will leave you so satiated.  I also had dinner twice here ordering Prawns in Pasta with Aligue Sauce and a bacon and cheese sandwhich. Simple, hearty, and yummy.  Too bad they only have a single branch located in A.S. Fortuna.  The plain white sign that looked more doesn’t belie the yummy treats inside the low cafe/restaurant.

Chocnut Sansrival. Perfect.

La Marea

I was raving about this place a couple of years ago.  This was my introduction to the sweet world of Cebu’s dessert outlets.  It has since opened a stall at SM Cebu dispensing its famous warm brownie cup.  But ever since discovering Fudge, I have since rated the former as my favorite dessert place edging out La Marea.  It didn’t help that when I re-visited last week, the Warm Yema Cup tasted ordinary.  Nothing exemplary.  The yema cake was a little dry and tasted more like milk than yema.  I tried to save the experience by ordering a mango cobbler but it turned out too sour and to sweet, like eating a cheap mango preserve.  Remove the ice cream from both desserts and it would have turned-out bad.  Thumbs down for my experience here.  It still has a wide variety of desserts though. La Marea is in Crossover at Banilad.

Not good. Not bad. Just okay.


The name conjures traditional home-baked sweets such as torta or bibingka.  But no, the Banoffee Pie rules this place.  Chunks of bananas in a sweet butterscotch sauce topped with light cream— banoffee pie is a make or break item. Easy to make but easy to mess-up.  Leona’s does it really well.  I’ve always loved the combination of mint and chocolate–very refreshing to the palate.  Leona’s Fudge Mint Delight was just that—refreshing and yummy.  The savory slices of cake loaves  and savory breads were tempting but I stayed close to the refrigerated goodies.  This green and white bakeshop has branches all over. I went to the ones at SM Cebu and J Centre Mall.

Sweets for my sweet tooth on Valentine's Day

Can you taste the bananas?


Who doesn’t like tablea— that rich local chocolate medallions that can be turned into a hot drink or used in desserts?  This little cafe near the escalator at J Centre Mall in Mandaue is probably the best place to have nifty desserts made from .. what else… tablea.  I brought home a pack of tablea polvoron (Php 80) and a pack of chocolate-covered cacao beans (Php 150).  Very very very good.  Pure chocolate bliss.


I just had some French macaroons to take-out at this swanky place with bright minimalist interiors. Think of Bizu.  Not much choices but there was a promising-looking Praline sansrival. The coconut macaroons were a little chewy though.  It should have been a little crisp on the outside. Tasted good.  Find it at Ayala Center Mall.

I think Cebu is the best place in the Philippines if you have a sweet tooth.  Not even Metro Manila can compete with the number of dessert outlets.  Cebu has really outstanding places and the offerings are creative, yummy, and inexpensive.

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In an era when dessert places have names such as “Dessert Factory” and  “Goodies n Sweets” which all conjure visions of saccharine heavens,  “Fudge” sounds so dry and dreary.  Repeat after me— “Fudge.”  It comes out of your pursed lips like an obscene word.  Even the signage out front the ordinary facade of the small place is so well….. ordinary you’d give it a miss. But step inside, feast your eyes  at the cakes on display, grab a seat, place your order and be delighted.

My first time there, I had a most rich cheesecake baked inside an utterly thick and decadent chocolate cake.   The following night, I tried the famous Chocnut cheesecake.  It was smooth and had the unmistakable Choc-nut taste that reminded me so much of my childhood. Forkful after forkful of the wonderful cake awakened my taste buds to the nutty taste that had long since been gone from my gastronomic senses, replaced by the now more popular and cheaper, Hany.   I put down my fork with both appetite and taste buds appeased.

The rule when dining in dessert places is to leave as soon as you put the last crumbly morsel  in your mouth.  It is not a place to linger lest you develop diabetes in one sitting.  As I sat at the small table in light conversation with Annie, the White Chocolate Cheesecake sitting so dainty and pretty on the refrigerated glass stand beckoned to me.  I walked over and saw how beautiful it was.  The icing looked like a dress with curled up designs.  It also contained one of my favorite ingredients— white chocolate.  I had to have it.  I ordered it, delighted in it and promptly left as the Blueberry Cheesecake jealously beckoned.

And now as  I write this, I have a Brownie Cheesecake, a Mango Delight, and Sansrival, and a Ladyfinger all waiting to be tasted.

Categories: Cebu, Philippines | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

Dirty Ice Cream on a Tuesday Afternoon


Saw this dirty ice-cream cart parked along Timog while walking back to work from lunch at Behrouz.  Remarkably, after all these years, dirty ice-crea, has remained the same.  The jeepneys plying the polluted streets of the metro may have loss some of its color and glamour but the dirty ice-cream carts are as colorful as ever.  The ice-cream is still as good as ever—sugary sweet and as colorful as the cart. Bright yellow for cheese, deep violet for ube, and a pale brown for mocha.  Scooped on cone, cup, or bread, it’s still the perfect respite from the heat  or best ending for a meal.  Me? Every lick of the ice-cream brings back childhood memories of playing out in the streets.

Categories: COOK, EAT, AND BURP, Philippines | Leave a comment

Fried Chicken and Fried Ice Cream in Malaybalay

Rain was pouring and I had not brought an umbrella. I was too much of a cheapskate to fork out Php 120 for an umbrella being sold at a sidewalk store near the gas station on the main thoroughfare.   After all that dust on the day trip to Songco, the rain was refreshing, not that Malaybalay was hot in the evenings.  It can get really chilly and I was glad I just took the cheap fan room at the lodge.

Malaybalay had been quite a disappointment to me and being stuck in a smelly ukay-ukay store pretending to rummage around while waiting for the rain to stop seemed to just amplify that disappointment. I had expected too much from this place.  The cool hills and outstanding vistas were more than a a couple of  hour’s ride away and there really was nothing to do here except eat.  Fortunately, a friend I had met pointed out to me a couple of restaurants he claimed served good food.  I had eaten at Mindy’s the previous night and was disappointed.  The adobo of baboy damo and its accompanying cup of rice was the most unpalatable dish I ever had.  The adobo must have been cooked on the Pangasinan salt beds as it was downright salty your tongue could be pickled while chewing on it.  I wished I had eaten at Jollibee instead.  Maybe I just ordered the wrong dish as the people there seemed generally satisfied with what they were having— bowls of bulalo.  I was still keen to give the local restaurants a try. After all, happiness in the form of Chicken Joy  was just a few minutes walk should I be disappointed again.

This "adobong baboy damo" is better left to the pigs to eat

The rain had ceased a bit and I skeddadled out of the ukay-ukay and trying to keep myself dry while walking briskly under the leaking foyer of shops selling sundries and finally scooped in at tiny Le Village.  This hole in the wall is more cafe than restaurant with its colorful walls and wooden chairs and tables that could sit around twenty people at most.  The bar stools at the window had nice viewing opportunities though.  Diego’s text that I try the Fish in Lemon Butter Sauce came too late. I had ordered a spaghetti with pesto and though it wasn’t bad it wasn’t really good either.  There was not enough pesto and more than enough cream.  The garlic bread had sugar in it and tasted no different from the commercial sugared toasties you can buy off the shelf in a grocery.

This called for Plan B.

The rain had stopped by the time I was through with my meal.  Crossed the plaza and headed to a block down from the lodge and into the cozy interiors of Isabell’s Cafe. Any restaurant with comfortable booth or sofa seating get plus points from me.  A good meal can only be complemented by comfortable seating.  Isabelle’s 3-pc chicken which I was a bit hesitant to order as it was placed under “Barkada Feast” (whaaaaaaatttttt?!!!!) was nothing to really write home about.  It was crispy though and came with a side order of potato wedges.  It was good value at Php 120 considering it was almost the same price as the pasta I had earlier.

All praises for the Fried Ice Cream which came in two large balls.  Strangely, garnishing was a red bell pepper flayed out to look like a flower—the same garnishing on the chicken.  Bell pepper must be cheap.  The coating was thin and very very crisp.  The clashing textures created by hot and cold temperatures trying to outdo each other in your mouth and tongue is unmatchable.  Sweet vanilla ice-cream melted as the crisp breaded  crunched under my teeth. It was an “aaaaaaaahhhhh” moment.

Malaybalay was saved.

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Tasting Tagaytay

A trip to Tagaytay always starts or ends at Sonya’s Garden.  This once secret garden has since expanded to a more commercial-looking place but the salad and pasta spread, though unchanging, have always remained plentiful, delicious, and fresh.  And then there’s Sonya whose sincere charm in greeting her guests have made the place legendary and unsurpassed.  However, yesterday, she was without her trademark white linen dress and big straw hat.  She seemed “less” Sonya.  Perhaps Sonya’s Garden was changing.  I just hope whatever change takes place does not detract from the secret garden ambiance.

A very welcome change though was the panaderia churning-out all sorts of home-made goodies fresh from its ovens.  By the time my sisters and I headed to the parking lot, we were armed with bags of goodies.    The cheese hopia is especially to die for.  The thin crisp crust is oozing with cheesy goodness.  Bite into it fresh from the oven and the sweet-salty taste of cheese is just heavenly.  The last time we were at Sonya’s together was three years ago when I treated them for my birthday.  The panaderia had run out of cheese hopia then so this time we made it a point to buy some first before heading to the conservatory for lunch.  Another favorite is  a soft butter cookie with a generous chocolate center that comes with the name of “Globo De Oro.” The Chili Bread which was soft and generously stuffed with bacon stood out among the raisin bread, spanish bread, and adobo bread.  I had a couple of rolls plus some cheese hopia and leeks hopia all freshly heated in an oven toaster for breakfast this morning—a wonderful (and gastronomic) way to greet my quiet home-bound Sunday.

I’m not a fan of chocolate cake but a slice of it is a welcome addition to the dessert platter of banana turon and fried camote.  The trick is to eat it with a sprig of mint and wash it all down with tarragon tea.  It had always been salad and pasta at Sonya’s Garden ever since I can remember.  Some of my friends have criticized it for its unchanging menu though I remembered a time that an additional cost gets you roasted chicken.  I used to go to Sonya’s a lot especially when I still had car and when Tony was still here.  We even used to go there every weekend and Sonya once gave us a complimentary lunch.  I never minded that the greens were with the usual accompaniment of pineapples, melons, pop beans, and whatever fruit is there in season and topped with Sonya’s Secret Sauce.  The pasta had always come with the sundried tomatoes, white sauce with chicken, capers, and black olives. The shrimp had since been replaced with salmon belly (they should have steamed it rather than fried it).  Always yummy was the freshly-baked bread with spreads like olive tapenade and pesto.  Everything was always fresh, delicious, and plentiful.  Sometimes a little surprise like black peppercorns in olive oil or jackfruit made a nice diversion.

There weren’t that much people dining at the conservatory yesterday which made it all good as it was quiet and cool.

With the pot of basil Joy bought from the garden scenting the vehicle, we drove along the ridge while munching on some cheese hopia.  We love to eat so there’s always room in our stomachs for more in spite of all the refillable plates of salad and pasta we had.

We stopped at one of the stalls along the road and loaded the pick-up with pineapples, chayote, and papaya and since the back was uncovered we had to put everything inside. We would have picked-up some raisin bread and English pot pies at Bag O’ Beans but it was kinda traffic and there wasn’t any parking.  Yna wanted some mushroom burger so next stop was at Mushroom Burger.  The place was flowing with people and there was a looooong line at the counter so we bought fresh white mushroom instead for Php 90/pack.  I did notice that they were serving potato fries in place of the mushroom fries.

Numerous restaurants had since sprouted along the ridge turning it into one ugly congested place.  Bed and breakfasts  of all kinds were also on offer but they lacked the charm of Sonya’s.

I missed the turn-off to the road leading to Manila so we detoured to the Maryridge Convent for Good Shephered ube jam, orange and lemon jam, and alfaro cookies. We came just in time as vehicles were arriving and the narrow road that led in/out of the convent was a tight squeeze.

Along with all the food, we were crammed inside with fresh flowers from the stalls near the corner of the road along the ridge.

The final stop was at Rowena’s for her pies.  This tiny place has since grown and she now has a spacious parking lot and a cafe with outdoor seating.  There were shelves of all kinds of pasalubong including Thai snacks that have been repackaged.  We bought boxes of ube pies, buko pies, and sylvannas.  The latter was a big big big disappointment as it tasted dry and burnt.  No wonder they looked kinda brown. The small pies were still delicious though with crisp tarts, generous fillings, and crumbly tops.

Back in Manila, we bought some burgers at Good Burgers along E. Rodriguez for dinner at Yna’s house.  The best of the three varieties we got was the Mediterranean burger with its tangy dressing.  Good Burgers has always had really juicy burgers grilled just right.  They also have the best vegetarian burger which tasted almost as good as the real beef one.

Tagaytay makes a wonderful day trip to escape Manila though the heavy traffic and the crowds can be a major let down at times but the food stops make it all worthwhile and you can munch your way through the traffic with cassava chips and cheese hopia.  Oh and by the way, our lunch at Sonya’s was supposed to be a meeting to discuss our plans. We spent about 30 minutes discussing our next project and spent the rest of the day eating.  Now that’s what you call business with pleasure.




Categories: Philippines, Tagaytay | 1 Comment

The Gentrification of my Secret Garden

Sonya’s Garden is the stuff that dreams are made off. Decades ago, spoken reverently in whispers, “have you gone to Sonya’s Garden?” it seemed like the lost city of gold where romantic dreams are fulfilled amidst gastronomic wonders in an epicurean setting.  People spoke of eating rose petals, of a beautiful garden with flowers that smelled like butter, and best of all, how everything was so personalized from the charming Sonya who made conversation with you to the fine china and linen.

My friend Tony and I used to go to Sonya’s almost every weekend.  We were such main stays that the staff recognized us (and still recognizes me; Tony having since moved to the US) and at one point, when we asked for the bill, were given a piece of paper that said, “My compliments, Sonya.”  During those times, there weren’t too many people then and the place was a pure explosion of blooms and foliage.  Bright colors, mis-matched furniture, and quirky decor lent an atmosphere of artistic homeliness.  It was the kind of place that you would like to bring people you love so you can share the experience.  I brought my entire family there to celebrate one of my birthdays and my close friends for a quick escape from all the stress in the city.

As years wore on, the place became bigger and bigger.  Additional dining places were set-up and the garden expanded.  More people could be accommodated and on some weekends it sometimes resembled a pit stop for everyone escaping to Tagaytay (Sonya’s is actually in Buck Estate, Cavite).

Yesterday, I was back at Sonya’s with my sisters.   If the bags for sale displayed on a table by the outdoor receiving area were any indication of the changes that had since taken place, then Sonya’s Garden had now been a full enterprise.

The conservatory was bright and airy as usual. It had long been renovated with a more permanent ceiling and floor but I still miss the bamboo slats and the pebble wash-out.  A path had also been cut into the patch of flowers and plants.  We still dined on wooden tables covered with crisp white linen with floral embroidery.  Yummy still was Sonya’s Secret Sauce  and the salads and pasta condiments were just as I remember— plentiful, tasty, and fresh.  There has been little change in the food and some people have been a little put-off with it.  But I never really minded as long as the freshness and deliciousness remain consistent.   What I minded was that the beautiful floral mismatched plates, cups, and saucers had been replaced with restaurant-look plain white, the kind with a silver line around the edges.  “What’s happening?!” I thought out loud.  “Where’s the burst of color?”  Even my sister commented on it.  “Perhaps the dish washers were breaking all that precious china so she might as well keep them or use them for the bed and breakfast,” I rationalized.

As we posed for pictures in the garden outside, something different struck me.  I couldn’t place my finger on it until I looked up and saw the sky.   It dawned on me that there seemed to be less plants.  The day bed on the corner was gone and some of the canopies seemed to have been removed.  Yeah, it was brighter and more spacious but it was also less intimate.  I remember shaded walks and hidden corners.

As we headed to the parking lot, I saw Sonya with a group of elderly guests.  She was as charming as ever, joking with them and taking them to walks around her property.  So many have copied her but none have come close to equaling her and her concept.  Maybe because while others have simply set-up places, Sonya had set up a haven whose concept include herself.  Going to Sonya’s was like visiting the private haven of a gentle and wonderful person.  Perhaps it was that concept of the place that I had always held dear; and seeing all those big additional dining places, the plain white china, the cemented floors, and the over-all seeming modern look, made me yearn for that romantic vision of Sonya’s Garden.  It was after all, everyone’s own secret garden.  The vision of that secret garden crumbled before me as I saw Sonya in brown blouse and pants.  I almost fainted with tears in my eyes.   “Where’s your white linen dress and your big straw hat?”  I wanted to tell her.  Sonya was supposed to be an ethereal flower fairy hovering mystically over her guests and her domain.  She was not supposed to be in pants and blouse and a brown one at that!

I still enjoyed our lunch and still found pleasure in wandering around that afternoon but I wish those days of my secret garden.

Categories: Philippines, Tagaytay | Leave a comment

The Fat Side of Traveling

How can you lose weight when you come across a stall devoted to cholesterol at Chatuchak

At one of the travel communities I subscribe to, one of the fora had a girl asking for some tips on not gaining weight while traveling around Southeast-Asia.  Based on her picture (just a mug shot), she seemed quite heavy.  The girls who answered were one in saying that they all seemed to be naturally losing weight while traveling due to all the walking plus the naturally healthy Southeast-Asian food. Based on their pics (again, mug shots) they seemed to be averagely built.

Pre-trip Excess Baggage.

The ability to maintain weight and even lose weight is one of the greatest travel mysteries to me. Ordinary people plan their travel by  booking plane tickets, accommodations, travel insurance, and packing.  Mine includes trying to lose weight.   Any trip even for just a weekend must always include freeing-up extra body baggage as most of the excess baggage I bring home after every trip has nothing to do with luggage.  So in preparation for all those added calories, I try to have a weight deficit.  I hit the gym, live on salads, and imagine myself walking down some exotic street in a tank-top and shorts.  I think the only time people ever try to really lose weight for a trip is when they’re off to compete in a beauty pageant in some exotic Latin American country or when they’re heading to the beach.  At the gym, once the run-up to summer begins (which officially starts Jan 1 but for some can start as early as the end  of the rainy season in September), it is easy to guess who’s beach-bound—they grunt the loudest and look at themselves in the mirror in between sets.  I admit, I’ve done that “I’m headed to the beach” workout routine and mindset.  That was for  my last-minute trip to Boracay summer of 2009.  I wasn’t really out-of-shape as I had been training for a 3-peak climb in Bacun which of course requires a higher fitness level than going to the beach.  But a sudden change of plans left me with only a month to at least try to look decent on a pair of board shorts.  Like I said, I wasn’t really out of shape but I was headed to Boracay on a Lenten week which is like heading to Philippine Fashion Week on the beach.  I may not have succeeded in being as yummy as Marc Nelson on an airplane ad but at least I felt confident  enough to sun myself on the water’s edge.   I came back to Manila with a glorious tan and not much weight gained.  The secret? Just as your about to bite on a chori-burger, the sight of a walking six-pack is enough to make you even want to vomit your own spit to cut down on calories. It is ironic though that in spite of Boracay’s sexiness there are all these dinner buffets scattered along the beach. Of course, I tried one or two of those buffets.  You can’t really help yourself.

My most serious weight-loss effort for a trip was in 2008 for the US.  Now that was a roaring success.  No diet pills.  Just

Hotdog and fries at Scooby's in Hollywood where the counter guy looks like Keanu Reeves

pure exercise and vegetarianism for 2 whole straight months. The nightmare of looking like a walking sack while traipsing down Hollywood Blvd amidst people looking like they were auditioning for a prime-time soap opera was just too traumatic.  By the time I was on a plane, I was lean and mean.   And three weeks later plus In & Out burgers, Scooby’s Hot Dogs,  and Las Vegas buffet breakfasts  I had gained about 3/4 of the weight back.  That in spite of working out at the Gold’s Gym clubs at L.A., and walking the entire length of the Venice boardwalk.  It must be the sunshine or the gumbos at Farmer’s Market.

Because I was overweight this summer, I skipped all destinations that came close to water.  Lent was spent in Vigan where I could blend with the antique aparador and eat all the empanada, longganisa, and bagnet I want without worrying how I was gonna sunbathe the next day.  Vigan is just not sexy so I blended quite well.

Traveling Taste Buds

I seem to have been born to love food.  The primordial drive to keep hunting for food since not have been lost in me in the evolutionary process.  Planning my trip, I already have a list of things to eat at my destinations.  At airports, while the rest of the crowd heads to the duty free shops, I check out the cafes and restaurants.  As soon as I get to my hotel/hostel I am again in search of food.  The only time I ignore food is when I’m airborne and that’s because my anxiety over flying totally makes me not want to eat.  But then again, on the 12 hour flight to Vancouver enroute to Las Vegas, I so much enjoyed the food served by PAL that I even tried to recreate the milkfish lunch when I got back to Manila.

Food stalls await the traveler at the Phra Athit pier in Bangkok where I had some pad thai before taking-in the Royal Palace

Eating what the locals eat and more importantly where they eat it is always an adventure to me.  I could walk kilometers in search of the perfect meal.  The first-time I had a plateful of pad thai at a street corner in Bangkok, I was close to tears.  I was nearing the end of my trip and the only pad thai I had tried were the ones on the food courts at the malls which were supposed to be just as good minus the fumes.  But I wanted my real Bangkok experience of gobbling-up noodles on one of those small tables and plastic stools.   The last time I had a street noodle experience was way back in college on a field trip to the Pahiyas in Lukban where I had a Php 5.00 pancit habhab.  A classmate asked for a fork.  “That’s why it’s called habhab because you just slide the noodles down from the banana leaf to your mouth,” explained the vendor.  In Bangkok, I was seeking to recreate that authentic noodle experience.  As the woman deftly poured my fried noodles from her blackened wok to a plastic plate, I knew I had found peace and was ready to go home.  The thrill of seeing something you would normally find in a restaurant at home being peddled by an itinerant vendor is unmatchable.  Once, while walking the street alongside Ben Thay market in HCMC, I chanced on an elderly woman peddling popia!  The fresh spring rolls were as big as cigars and the equivalent of a hundred pesos got me six large pieces.

There is something about eating the food  at the very site of its origin that goes beyond any romantic notions of authenticity.  It is akin to paying homage to the food and the rich history that created it. Food after all is a part of culture and is best savored within its confines.  Take for example, Vigan cuisine’s latest export to Manila—the empanada.

Sure, I can grab one of the crunchy snacks at the Mall of Asia in Manila, but nothing beats having it oil and all at Plaza Burgos surrounded by rows and rows of empanada stalls while St. Paul’s Cathedral stands watch in the background.  Eating after all is more than just engaging the taste buds. It’s an entire sensory experience.  It includes the background chatter as the vendors knead the dough and skilfully drop the pies on the hot vats of oil to be deep-fried.   The  very air and surroundings contribute to its taste, texture, aroma, and experience.  So enamored am I with the empanada that as soon as I drop my bags at the hotel, I’m off to Plaza Burgos and after traipsing all around Vigan on a kalesa I reward myself with freshly-fried empanada bursting with longganisa, egg, and bean sprouts.  One is simply not enough, I gotta have two with an extra spoonful of longganisa please.

I take comfort in knowing that at least it has less cholesterol than the bagnet which of course, is reserved for dinner to be eaten with pinakbet and a dipping sauce of bagoong and kamatis.

Empanada at Plaza Burgos in Vigan

With so much new tastes to discover, I cannot ever understand travelers who always seek their comfort zone and head to global fast food chains which seem to be found everywhere!  Though  unique variations in their standard fare are usually on offer such as vegetables with Chicken Joy at Jollibee in HCMC or a really spicy chicken at KFC Bangkok, if I were all pho-ed out and longing for cuisine of my own country, I’d go find one that’s u

nique to the area.  Treated to dinner in L.A., my sister was horrified when she was brought to Max’s Fried Chicken!

One of my best discoveries in Cebu was the White Pizza of  Da Vinci Pizza which has branches at Fuente and at the Techno Park.  Looking for something else besides Cebu lechon and ngohiong , I entered the small pizzeria at Fuente and had the most delicious pizza made with white sauce.

Even the smallest cities have expat or migrant communities that has carved out  Chinatown, Little Arabia, Little India, and other little enclaves should one tire of local fare and crave for a taste of home without necessarily being too home.

Heck, even Las Vegas has a fast food offering Filipino food along the Strip.  Amidst shrinking global boundaries, I would say no thanks to global fast food chains and YES to  local initiatives.  Plus I really would rather patronize local food establishments to encourage entrepreneurship among and also so that the money directly goes to the local economy.

Tasting History

If history were taught in school by way of the taste buds, I would have been a historian by now.  I love colonial towns.

Pink girl frying yer char kway

The mix of culture inevitably results in beautiful architecture and very tasty and unique cuisine.  One of the best-preserved towns I’ve visited is Georgetown in the island of Penang.  While there in 2008, it had just been inscribed in the UNESCO Heritage List together with Melakka.  With Chinese, Malay, and Nonya Baba all in one small town, Georgetown was a culinary delight.  I bought Indian sweets at a van parked across a Malay open-air restaurants, had Chinese stir-fried noodles at a street stall in Lebuh Chulia and nasi lemak at an eatery just outside Fort Cornwallis.  Traveling in Malaysia, I grew very fond of nasi lemak.  The plate of rice cooked in coconut milk and served with a red sweet-spicy gravy, fried anchovies, peanuts, and a fried egg is simply wonderful!  Trying it for the first time in one of the food stalls at the chaotic Putrajaya bus station while waiting for my Melakka-bound bus was an experience.

Getting lost in narrow alleys beyond the radar of travel guides I stumble on hidden treasures of taste.   One such  treasure I unearthed was a very tasty curry puff sold outside a nondescript shop house along Lebuh Chulia.  A small white plastic table held the  tray-full of puffs and a hand-written signed advertised it as the best curry puff.  It was crispy and savory inside and much  better than Old Chang Kee’s in KL.  A few doors down  a woman was frying some dough sticks called yew char kway on a large vat of hot oil.  Freshly made, it was very light and crisp.  A bakeshop on another street had boxes of black pepper cookies!  Strange it may sound, but they were actually delicious.  It had a peculiar taste that slowly grew on you. Thirst was quenched with iced brewed tea being peddled along the street.

The best place for authentic Nyonya Baba cuisine

I only had a day and a night in Georgetown before flying to Bangkok for New Year’s Eve and having heard so much about Nonya Baba cuisine, I was determined to have it at all costs especially since I was unable to try any of the restaurants or even street stalls in in Melakka due to the crowds. The Nonya Baba are the result of the inter-mingling of the Malays and Chinese and the cuisine is fabulous.  I took a cyclo to Nonya Baba Cuisine at Jalan Japan  which came highly recommended. Getting there was an adventure itself.  The driver mistakenly brought me to the Nonya Baba museum which was closed. Then it started to drizzle, so my carriage was covered with canvass with only a small plastic window to see out.  He kept stopping for directions and even showed my map to some of the drivers.  When we finally reached what seemed to be the other side of the city, he parked the cyclo and got off apparently to ask for more directions.  Then the cyclo started moving and stopped only when it hit the curb.  I couldn’t get off as I was covered by the canvass.  When I finally stepped out I could only laugh and exclaim, “you didn’t put on the brakes.”  He apologized and announced that we had reach my destination.

The restaurant is  a restored shop house with a few cloth-covered tables inside.  The rest-room is inside the kitchen so you get peek of the food preparation. The curry capitan was delicious and unlike any I had tasted. It was also my first time to try iced cendol after having been frustrated in Melacca when the stalls couldn’t serve them as there was no ice due to the brownout. The servers were middle-aged women who spoke good English and were very very gracious hostesses.  It felt like eating in someone’s home rather than a restaurant.  I would come back here anytime.

The British may have left the East Indies but they left behind their teas and scones at the Cameron Highlands.  It may

This is where I had my tea and scones

not be high tea and I certainly wasn’t dressed for it but sipping  orange pekoe tea and fresh scones at the  Cameronian Inn was the closest I got to feeling British.    Lunch and dinner is of course  satay and nasi lemak at one of the Malay food stalls.   Speaking in Bahasa-Melayu which I learned back in college as part of my language requirement, I elicit smiles from the food server and a sense of brotherhood when they find out I am Filipino and share a lot of commonalities with language.

As a colonial outpost it’s surprising that Vigan seems not to have developed it’s own cuisine of of Spanish-influenced  food such as paella, fabada, and callos.  I’m sure these were served in the grand bahay na batos during Spanish rule, but unlike Bulacan and Pampanga with their paella-like bringhe, Vigan cuisine seems largely Ilokano.

Street Eats

Someone once said that a tourist goes sight-seeing while a traveler experiences the place.  I think that includes experiencing food streets.  More interesting than restaurant rows, food streets are not only better value for money but an experience in itself.  They’re like mini markets.  Here is where option paralysis sets in.

Yummy things ready to be fried in KL's Chinatown

In KL my hostel was situated very close to Jalan Alor which was one entire stretch of Chinese food.  Stalls and a few non-air conditioned restaurants lined the streets and tables and chairs were laid outside.  Tours with menus on hand urged you to try sit and order.  My first night there, I had option paralysis with so much stalls to choose from. I ended up with Chinese food overload with an order of peking duck, roasted pork, and yangchow fried rice.  Dessert were cups filled with a tapioca flan  flavored with pandan leaves.  On a street corner a guy selling hamburgers wrapped with a fried egg.  An egg is cracked open on a griddle than the  hamburger sandwich placed  in the middle.  As the egg cooked, he would  flip the sides of the egg to cover the burger.  There was always a long line so I never got to try it.

Early morning rush hour along Silom Rd in Bangkok, the smell of barbecued sticks of pork entice me to a protein breakfast washed down with fresh orange juice.  Amidst the myriad of stuff you can pick-off from the street stalls from fried insects to barbecued pork to fresh fruits skewered on sticks, what I liked best about Bangkok are those fried things. There are mini spring rolls, meat balls with basil, quail eggs with shrimp, and other dimsum-like things. I simply point to the ones I like (which is basically everything).  With a pair of scissors, the vendor cuts them in half and puts them  in a mall plastic bag  and  pours  a sweet sticky sauce with peanuts and puts a stick.  One of the best places to have them is at the weekend market in  Chatuchak.  One stall sells them in small styro bowls with a bed of cucumbers.  After all that grease, coconut ice-cream refreshes the palate.  In the evenings, my favorite food street is Soi Convent at the side of California WOW.  Here is where I have my braised pork and rice, Thai crepe filled with taro and coconut and topped with sweetened milk and sugar granules, more of those little fried things, all washed down with Thai iced tea.

Coming from the Hai Lert Park Hotel to see the  the lingam shrine, I saw a  food court at the ground floor of a high-rise building.  I was in dire need of a bathroom break so I went in.  The rest room was on the 4th floor of the building which meant waiting waiting and getting on an elevator.  By the time I reached the floor, I was dashing for the restroom.  Going down, I decided to check-out the fast-food court. It looked a bit high-end with its smartly-presented food counters and a small gourmet grocery.  But I was hungry as it had taken me  over an hour’s walk  from the Chong Nonsi BTS.   “Blue Elephant” the sign on one of the counters read.  It was my chance to try their famously delicious curry minus restaurant prices.

Blue Elephant's Pork Curry

At the backpacker district of Pham Ngu Lao in Vietnam, I had some really good sweetish  barbecued fillet of  pork downed with some local beer.  One hot afternoon in  Mui Ne, walking aimlessly along the main road, I chanced on a girl making thin crepes filled with some stuff then rolled on a stick, grilled, then wrapped on paper.  I bought one for 10,000 dong, walked away and started to eat it.  10 meters later, I walked back and bought another one.

Some of the best stuff may just be around the corner but sometimes you gotta exert more effort and go the distance. Some friends and I once went all the way to Talisay in Cebu to try what a Cebuano friend said was the best halo-halo ever.    It was just a simple house-turned-refreshment place with wooden tables and chairs set on the large porch.  Long before finely shaved ice hit the commercial halo-halo business, the halo-halo place was using it already  and the ice itself was delicious.  I suspect, fresh buko juice was added.  It was well worth the drive.

Noodles and Spring Rolls in Mui Ne, Vietnam

Tasting Experience

Sometimes I’m lucky not to just have really good food but perfect surroundings or situations as well.  My best experience of southern Vietnam was at the Mekong Delta town of Can Tho on a river trip on board a small boat we hired for 8 hours.  Pit stop was at a small garden with tables laid out in huts set among the trees overlooking the river tributary.     I had the most delicious fried elephant ear fish with its soft flesh rolled in a rice pancake and dipped in a sweet-salty sauce. Our woman boat driver whom we invited to eat with us showed us how to make the pancake.

Perhaps  my most unique eating experiences was at a rainy beach in Bataan at a place called Tatlong Poste.  It was late afternoon and the tide was low revealing sea urchins. The local kids who accompanied us to the other side of the coast earlier had learned that I enjoy eating sea urchins.  They  gathered armfuls and brought them  to me . I would crack them open on a rock and scoop out the sweet fat inside.  The rain had already fallen in torrents and had stopped and still I was greedily decimating the sea urchin population.  It was as fresh as fresh can be.

Have Seat Will Eat

Tables along a road are always an invitation to partake of something exciting like unearthing a hidden treasure. I cannot help but peer into vats of food, look under cloth-covered baskets, or even just peruse the worn-out plastic-covered menus of street eateries.  The more locals seated, the more exciting.  To sit among locals is to sit within a culinary tradition of feeding.  In the age of fine dining, celebrity chefs, and fusion, we have forgotten that the main reason for cooking and serving food was to feed hungry stomachs. That meant honest-to-goodness no pretension food that would fill the stomach and satiate the taste buds.  It would be both masarap and nakaka-busog.   To partake of such food amongst the company of locals is an experience that should be high on every traveler’s agenda.

Roadside eatery in Siem Reap

First time in Bangkok and on a first attempt to try-out street food, my friends and I headed to the direction of the side street near Lumphini Park.  We ended up on the second floor of a closed wet market.  Everything was in Thai and no one seemed to be willing to communicate.  Somebody handed us a menu with pictures of hamburgers, fries, steaks— the last thing we wanted.  In the meantime, from the stalls, vegetable and meat stir-fries, curries, noodles, and other Thai viands were making their way to the tables around us.  My two friends were resigned to ordering steak and mashed potatoes.  Not me! I was determined to eat Thai!  I called the server and pointed to a dish of meat, vegetables and basil leaves which someone was eating at the next table.  Sometimes, the best way to order is simply to point.  That didn’t work though at one of the stalls in Silom which had a foul-tempered cook.  As we attempted to communicate to the order-take who was very patient with us, the cook kept on shouting at us and waving us away.  The order-taker just seemed amused and continued to write whatever it was we were pointing.  Most of the orders arrived correct except for one.

More Bangkok-savvy now, I have already staked-out a few of my favorite street-side tables.  Convent Rd which intersects Silom probably has some of the best eating options in the area.  Top on my list is the braised pork with rice stall run by three gracious women and located near the 7-11. Jostling for space with the locals  in one of the 3 small tables set-out on the sidewalk is always an experience.  Every time I drop by, the two women give me a warm smile and welcomed me back. They even accommodate my strange requests such as adding some soup on my rice and extra toppings such as mushrooms and crispy pork.

In Siem Reap, all the calories burned clambering all day in the temples were dutifully replenished at a favorite street stall near the night market.   Every night for three nights we  feasted on fried rice, amok,  spring rolls, Khmer barbecue, and fried noodles.  The food was really quite cheap (US$1) and the lady and her sisters who ran it were really nice.  We sometimes even got free fruit for being regulars.  It was no wonder that by the time I returned to Manila, I was about 10 lbs overweight.

One of the few proper restaurants I tried was Khmer Borane Restaurant at Sisowath Quay in Phnom Penh.  I had just arrived from a 5-hour boat trip from Chau Doc and I was hungry for real food. I had a plate of rice, a pork dish, and a sweet cake which were all very good.  Save for the kids begging you to buy books from them, it was a nice place for a meal but $6 per dish was too much for my budget.  The rest of my stay, I found a roadside eatery near the hotel where we stayed that had Khmer fried noodles for just about a dollar and fried vegetable dumplings.

In Cebu years ago, while setting-up a gym along Fuente, on my last night before flying back home to Manila, my staff brought me to a row of tables set out in the evening along Fuente and which served the most delicious steaming bowls of sting-ray and a plate of  corn grits.  It was supposed to be an anathema to a hang-over.  The guy who brought me there even apologized for the grits as there was no rice available.  Little did he know that I have always liked grits more than rice.  It may not be couscous but it was just as heavenly and delicious!

To Market! To Market!

Market places are another one of my favorite places.  They are probably the best places to eat like a local at local prices!  After all, market places is the real source of all that food.  The variety of food can also be astounding and I always end-up just pointing and pointing and pointing until I have set of dishes enough to feed an army.

Jars of beans and tea leaves sold by the weight in Ben Than

Going nuts at Ben Than

I almost went beserk when I saw how cheap the prawn crackers, dried fruits such as jackfruit and bananas, and cashew nuts were being sold by weight at HCMC’s Ben Than market.

One of the  pasar I went to was at Kampung Baru in KL which was just a few meters from the skytrain. The pasar just like any market is liveliest in the evening but I had other plans so I set out in  the middle of the afternoon.  The streets were empty but the market was open with a few stalls doing business.  I had freshly-made roti dipped in a bowl of curry.  I had my first taste of Khmer sausage eaten with friend noodles at the market in Siem Reap.

Apom Manis, Georgetown, Penang

Sweets for My Sweet Tooth

I still cannot forget it.  The flaky crust, the sweet filling, and the creamy nuts.  I was in Bacolod and I was devouring a box of Emma Lacson’s Pili Pie baked from an old family recipe of Silay.  It had both the flakiness and chewyness of Turkish baklava.  The only gustatory feeling that ever matchd it  was the first time I took a spoonful of the famed butter pudding of Casa de Tita Moning.  It was just so delicious, I closed my eyes, took a seat, and whisperingly exclaimed to my friend, “delicious,”.  It was like taking a spoonful of pure sweet butter.  I think the real food of the gods is not ambrosia but sweet butter.    My meals  start and end  with sweets. Desserts is the beginning and the end.  The Alpha and the Omega.

Crunchy on the outside sticky sweet on the inside are these Thai treats.

Fortunately for my calories but unfortunate for my taste buds, traveling mostly around southeast-asia means dessert would be fruits. I like fruits but I never consider them as desserts.  They’re… well… fruits.  Desserts should be made of cream, butter, flour, milk, and sugar.   So it was with utter delight when walking home from the Ho Chi Minh Museum in Can Tho,  I stumbled on a bakeshop that had some mini  cakes on display.  Mind you, these weren’t those tastes-like-cardboard cakes slathered with cough-syrup tasting icing. These were proper cakes on a ref display.  That night,in my hotel room,  it was pure bliss to finally sink my teeth on soft chiffon and creamy icing.

Of all the places I visited in SEA, Thailand probably is the best place for sweets.  The Thai have these cute sweet goodies that look more like snacks rather than desserts.  They even have this sweet called “golden threads” which are crunchy and look like yellow spun threads.  My favorite are those little crispy crepes filled with a thick sweet cream and are similar to apom manis which I had in Georgetown.  Ahhhh… apom manis.  Only one vendor was selling that and I had to wait patiently for my turn. Strangely, it took a trip to the street referred to as Little Arabia in Sukhumvit to find someone selling takoh, the sweet coconut cream gelatin in pandan leaves.

But my absolute favorite sweet treat was the local crepe.  I’ve seen other stalls making them but still unbeatable is the guy at the stall at the corner of Silom and Convent (again!).    He usually sets up at around 7  in the evening though there are some nights where he is nowhere to be found.   For about 30-40 baht, you can have a choice of corn, coconut, and taro.  The crepe is laid out on a flat pan then the filling put in.  It is then folded then fried some more and topped with sweetened condensed milk and granulated sugar.

A trip to MBK means two things— really hot catfish salad and bows and bowls of those icy desserts filled with different sweets much like our halo-halo and some sticky rice with coconut milk and durian! Halo-halo-like icy desserts seem to be prevalent in southeast-asia as I’ve also had them in markets in Phnom Penh and KL.

For Western style desserts, heaven must be the food court at Siam Paragon.  Rows and rows of continental cakes, cookies and pastries!  It was just too much! I wished I could eat them all!  A little pricey  definitely worth it.

Fried mussel cake

So How Do You Keep It Off.

Going back to the post on the travel blog, I wonder how those women managed to keep their weight while on a Southeast Asian trip.  Come to think of it, staying at the backpack ghettos of Khao San in Bangkok, Bui Vien in HCMC, and Pub Street in Siem Reap, I hardly saw any overweight travelers.  Take note though that most of the backpackers in the Southeast Asian routes are of the European and North American kind with the former I suspect born with the inability to keep body fat especially if a backpacker.
Some places seem to have certain food which I always associate with and cannot seem to get enough off.  That means eating them at every chance I get.  Bangkok  would be all those little fried things. In Vietnam, it was the  bahn-mi ,  a crusty baguette filled with a variety of meats, vegetables, and some sort of pate.  I was having it for breakfast, lunch, and midnight snack everyday, sometimes even having 2 at a time!   Even when I was in Cambodia, I was still having bahn-mi though I don’t think that’s what it was called there.  The best bahn-mi I had was at a bus stop eatery en route from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap at a town called Skuon which was known for its fried spiders and bugs.  Instead of the usual pork and ham, there was fried crackling pork that looked like Lechon Kawali!  I not only had it on bread but I also ordered one as a topping on sticky rice.  Really really yummy! Vietnam was also spring rolls, especially the fried kind which my friend and I had everyday in Mui Ne.  But the best was at Bay Bong in Chau Doc which had spring rolls that seemed to have been wrapped in vermicelli noodles resulting in a delicate crispiness.

Adventurous I can be, still I shy away from some food. They’re just too strange to me such as the crispy bugs and worms sold in carts around  Bangkok, the spiders-on-a-stick in Cambodia, and the dogs in the Cordilleras.  Enroute to Sagada from Baguio, we passed villages that had dog heads hanging on stalls.

So going back to the question posted by that girl. How can you not gain weight while traveling?  My answer is: You can’t.

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