Kapampangans are generally regarded to be the best cooks in the country and for Manilans, the 1.5 hour drive makes it even easier to indulge in the area's bounties. Here's a list of my favorites.
Everybody's is a typical provincial restaurant: it's a cafeteria-style set-up, where the food is displayed behind a glass counter. Scan the dishes and hail the first server (all of them are clad in white casual barongs); they'll take care of your order.
The place may strike you as a bit "tired," it's been around since 1967 after all, although the business itself began in 1946. Get over the restaurant's façade and your initial impressions, and let your taste buds take over.
The star at Everybody's is the morcon, or how they spell it, "murcon." Traditionally a beef roll, this is made from a guarded family recipe. I'm told by the owner, Pette Jorolan, that it takes six hours to make — a dish that defines the spirit of slow food. The murcon glistens in its drippings, the color of what I imagine the sun would be if it were dipped in honey. Taking a bite, I taste deep meaty flavors echoing with saltiness.
Uraro and San Nicolas Cookies
These are two types of cookies from Pampanga that I like: uraro and San Nicolas. Native to the area, both are examples of arrowroot cookies.
Arrowroot is a starch powder obtained from the root of a (West Indian) plant. If I'm not mistaken, I think it may be the cassava plant. Similar to cornstarch or rice flour, it's often used as a thickener for puddings and sauces. It also has a very low gluten content, so cookies made from it are delicate and powdery, much like shortbread. Because the powder is also called araruta, that may have been where the name uraro originated, thus uraro cookies. Its texture is a melting sort of crunchy, if you can imagine that, given its ingredients of arrowroot (cassava) flour, butter, sugar, salt, eggs, and milk. To put it more illustratively, uraro is a cross between polvoron and butter cookies.
Where uraro is found, the San Nicolas cookie can never be too far behind. Also made from arrowroot flour, sugar, and eggs, some versions include anise, dayap (lime) and coconut milk. The cookies are made to celebrate the feast of San Nicolas, the patron saint of bakers. Its characteristic leaf shape is created by rolling the dough then pressing it into wooden molds carved with the saint's likeness. The mold is a favorite among antique collectors because no two San Nicolas cookie molds are alike.
I've never been able to make out the impressions on these cookies, but it supposedly shows the saint wearing his Augustinian habit and holding a bird on a plate.
Available at Pampanga supermarkets, pasalubong stores, and some restaurants like Everybody's.
A La Crème
I love ube cake but there isn't much of it or a wide variety available in Manila. The A La Crème ube cake is dense and believe it or not, has macapuno and walnuts rippled in the cake. The cake's ube buttercream filling and frosting has that characteristic ube taste with a velvety texture.
The servers also recommend the Chocolate Sin, a cake with alternating layers of mousse layered between a walnut-encrusted chocolate cake. It's impressive and massively chocolatey.
I also really like the Belgian Chocolate Cake, the store's version of a decadent chocolate cake. It's so dense that it sticks to the roof of my mouth and it's imbued with a deep chocolate flavor, not to mention that it also weighs a ton in one hand!
A La Creme
Alcon Bldg., MacArthur Highway
Angeles City, Pampanga
Tel: (45) 888 2303
CTH Bldg., MacArthur Highway, San Fernando City
(45) 861 0829 / 961 7624
3933 MacArthur Highway, Balibago, Angeles City
(45) 892 1205 / 332 1593
Aurelia Miranda Yap (more familiarly known as Lola Els) is credited with teaching luminaries in the local baking industry, people who now run Goldilocks, The Pastry Bin, Red Ribbon, etc. Her niece put up a bakeshop several years ago called Aurely's, and all the pastries sold there are based on Lola Els' recipes.
Aurely's now has three branches in Pampanga. The original one still stands on B. Mendoza Street, the same street where my lolo's house used to stand on. I have fond memories of the yema balls, the old fashioned sort where the custard is formed into a ball and then dipped into hot sugar which then caramelizes. The yema balls aren't the same - margarine has replaced butter and the balls are smaller but there's another treat I'm quite fond of now called the Aurely's Special.
Also known as the "inside out brazo de mercedes", it's squares of whipped egg whites topped with yema. It's perfect for people like me who think that the only reason to eat brazo de Mercedes is the yellow custard ensconced within. With this inverted brazo, it's just a matter of scrape and slide into the mouth.
Main: B. Mendoza Street, San Fernando, Pampanga
(45) 961 5607
San Agustin, San Fernando, Pampanga (2 branches along this stretch)
(45) 961 1006
(45) 963 5726
The Zapata Turns Into An Iguana
Zapata's was known as one of those restaurants that did Mexican food really well. It was terrific and soul-satisfying. Sometime last year, it changed its name to the rather peculiar Iguana Cantina Mexicana.
The kitschy décor befits the spirit of the place: guitars, plastic chili peppers, and the requisite oversized sombreros. The restaurant always makes me feel that the long drive over from Manila is worth it, and apparently, a lot of other Manilans do too, since the place is almost always full especially on weekends. The female servers are very pleasant, peppering their conversation with Spanish words like "gracias" and "de nada."
A plate of warm tortilla chips with a cold bowl of salsa paired with cheese quesadillas is a rejuvenating starter and then we move on to combination plates of burritos (choices of chicken, beef, beans and cheese) and enchiladas. Each combi plate comes with refried or whole beans and Mexican red rice or plain rice if you prefer. The fajitas are also excellent as are the tacos (fish or soft), a Mexican burger for those not so inclined to Mexican food, and of course, chili con carne. I always order the strawberry margaritas as well, they're ice-cold and tangy and perfect with just enough salt lining the rim.
Iguana Cantina Mexicana (formerly Zapata's)
50 Meliton Road
Angeles City, Pampanga, Philippines
(45) 893 3654
Editor's Note: Manila-based Lori shared her fave food stops in Pampanga. What are your must-visits when you go there? And if you're from Pampanga, share your recommendations on what vistors must try when they arrive!