My sisters and I grew up going to Pampanga — my mom is from there and we would visit my lolo every weekend. Little did I (we!) know that the then-quiet, mall-less city would bloom into a culinary destination — or has it always been and I was the one who became more aware? Well ok, Capampangans are generally known to be the best cooks in the country so it was inevitable that Pampanga would soon boast of a plethora of dining establishments. Here are a few of my favorites.
Manila desperately needs a good Mexican restaurant. Mexicali is decent, Chilly Willy’s (at Robinson’s Pioneer) isn’t. Until something happens to change this or I get to Agave (at Eastwood Mall) â€“ whichever comes first, my fellow Mexican-food fan sisters and I motor all the way to Zapata’s. We always say that we’ll try another restaurant whenever we go to Pampanga, but the pull of terrific, soul-satisfying Mexican food is just too strong.
As Mexican as it can get in terms of dÃ©cor, Zapata’s is named after Emiliano Zapata Salazar (August 8, 1879â€“April 10, 1919), a leader in the 1910 Mexican Revolution. Yellowed blow-ups of the man dot the walls, accompanied by large guitars, kitschy plastic chili peppers, and the requisite oversized sombreros. The restaurant always makes us feel that the long drive 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 â€œgracias,â€ and â€œde nada.â€
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. We always order the strawberry margaritas as well, they’re ice-cold and tangy and perfect with just enough salt lining the rim.
480 Don Juico Ave, Clarkview Angeles City (Right on the perimeter road adjacent to Clark)
Closed on Mondays.
A La CrÃ¨me
A reader of my website gave me the heads up on A La CrÃ¨me after reading my post on ube cake. â€œIt’s so different from all the ube cakes I’ve come across,â€ she writes. â€œâ€¦texture is dense, and it has macapuno and walnuts!â€ After getting lost trying to find the place â€“MacArthur Highway is so gosh-darn-it long! — but finally stumbling upon it and trying the ube cake, it’s everything she says it is. Definitely heavier than that of Red Ribbon, it’s made extra special with bits (though very few) of macapuno and the ube buttercream filling is dotted with chopped walnuts.
The servers recommend the Chocolate Sin to me, a cake with alternating layers of mousse and sheets of a walnut-encrusted chocolate cake. Impressive though it looks, it’s not my thing because I’m not big on mousse. But what I really like is 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 CrÃ¨me
*Alcon Bldg., MacArthur Highway, Angeles City
(045) 888.2303 / 322.2745
*CTH Bldg., MacArthur Highway, San Fernando City
(045) 861.0829 / 961.7624
*3933 MacArthur Highway, Balibago, Angeles City
(045) 892.1205 / 332.1593
Aurelia Miranda Yap is credited with teaching luminaries in the local baking industry, people who now run Goldilocks, The Pastry Bin, Red Ribbon, etc. I called her Lola Els, and though she’s passed on, I was lucky to have had one baking session with her in the earlier days of my food writing career. Her niece (if I’m not mistaken), put up a bakeshop several years ago called Aurely’s, and all the pastries sold there were based on Lola Els’ recipes.
Aurely’s now has three branches in Pampanga. The original one still stands on B. Mendoza St., the same street where my lolo’s house used to stand on. One of the windows looked out onto Aurely’s which was just across the street, and come merienda (snack) time, my sisters and I would scamper over and choose our sweet for the day. My sisters and 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. Peeling off the cellophane wrapper was sheer agony since it stubbornly clung to the hardened sugar, but oh! how sweet success was when we popped the yema ball into our mouth and heard the triumphant crunch of the sugar melting away to reveal its soft, custardy center. I still remember the taste sensation of gritty sugar melding with smooth yolk.
On our most recent trip back to Pampanga, my sister, Tricia, and I are disappointed that the yema balls aren’t the same as we remembered them to be. Margarine has replaced butter and the yema balls are noticeably smaller (or is it that my sister and I are all grown-up now?) Whatever it is, I took solace in a new treat called 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 St., San Fernando, Pampanga
San Agustin, San Fernando, Pampanga (2 branches along this stretch)