Bacolod is where my Philippine sugar dreams come to life.
It would be irresponsible of me to leave Bacolod without having coffee at Kuppa, so it’s where we have breakfast on my last day. The coffee doesn’t disappoint. We try the House Blend, a mixture of imported and local beans (bright, low acidity) and the Charcoal-Roasted Coffee (slightly earthy, very mild). The food, however, is dismal. There are only three dishes on the breakfast menu and we get one of each since we’re a party of three. My Continental breakfast which consists of a “giant” (as per the menu) pandesal, has been sliced into three so I’m not able to appreciate its supposedly daunting size. The cinnamon roll that is part of my turbo-charged carb breakfast is tough, evidence of its return trips to the microwave. The salmon-egg special isn’t an augur of good mornings either.
I’m thrilled to be able to visit a piaya-making factory, albeit one that veers from tradition (the piaya, not the factory). In her Casa Carmela Kitchen, Negrense Millie Kilayko imbues new life into this age-old treat. The thick and flaky piaya becomes thin and crispy kicked up with various flavors (mango, ube, and mint among others) and, as a nod to today’s healthy observances, less salt and less sugar varieties are available. There are also piaya “tuiles,” lean piayas wrapped around metal cylinders resulting in a piaya-barquillo spawn ”“ piaquillos.
The vintage piaya has a muscovado filling but regardless of flavor the process is relatively the same. A lean dough made from just water, flour, and shortening is prepared then shaped into nuggets. The desired filling, usually a mass or paste, is pinched or spooned onto the center of each nugget, re-shaped, and flattened with a rolling pin. Commercially produced piaya are baked on large griddles but for these newfangled creations, which bake up in just five minutes, traditional enclosed ovens will do.
It’s well-nigh impossible to leave Bacolod without having eaten one’s way through bags of caramel tarts, mango empanaditas, butterscotch squares, and barquillos (big and small in all the colors of the rainbow). This, in addition to brushing off trails of flaky pastry from my shirt, evidence of the excess consumption of those irresistible Napoleones. There are as many purveyors of these sticky sweets as there are ardent disciples of the power players ”“ Virgie’s, Bong Bong’s, et al. My friend and tour guide, Bubbles, is a member of the former, so we’re at the original Virgie’s on San Sebastian Street.
Meticulously arranged packs of sweets peeking through their transparent packages beckon with their colors, shapes, and glazes. I’m quite decisive about what to bring home but what I really want is to plop myself in a corner of the store and rip through bags of each type of sweet and nibble away into oblivion. Of course that’s not possible and despite my apparent self-control, I end up paying a thousand pesos for my stash (above). Turns out Bubbles has been grabbing sweets she thinks I must try and then sneakily tosses them into my cart!
Women don’t live on sweets alone, although I most certainly can. Still, we take a break from the sweets to have batchoy at “21,” so named because it’s located on 21st Lacson Street. I’m bowled over by the cool, sleek interiors, definitely not the kind of ambience I’m expecting to find in Bacolod. I’m even more astonished when I’m handed the menu and the prices that stare back at me aren’t even commensurate to the lush interiors. I’m told that the owners intend for 21 to have the “hotel look” sans the hotel prices. I say they strike that balance outstandingly. 21 has been through a few incarnations from simple food stand to bar to family restaurant but it hasn’t moved from its current location since its inception more than twenty years ago.
Batchoy (from the Chinese ba chui, [“meat water”]), has its origins in Iloilo, a screamingly decadent broth, the result of simmering bones – pork and beef along with the animals’ various innards. Other seasonings are added (guinamos? [Visayan fermented fish paste], sahog? [that secret something-or-other] and then into this intoxicating miasma is plunged snips of (miki) noodles. It’s the pedestal on which to raise a motley of ingredients dedicated solely to knee-weakening pleasure: pork liver, chicharon (pork cracklings), fried garlic, chopped scallions, a (raw) egg, and something I’ve never seen before in batchoy, bone marrow, still retaining its cylindrical shape.
Now, batchoy is an exemplar of food for the soul ”“ revivifying, stick-to-the-ribs sustenance, the aroma of which inspires growls in stomachs and sets mouths a-watering. But such edible virtue doesn’t come cheap ”“ this is a calorie-bomb-in-a-bowl teeming with all the murderous things that make cholesterol levels skyrocket, and sends men, I’m told, scrambling for their “out with gout” meds. It’s an “unwholesome,” X-rated dish but like all things that are bad for me, titillatingly toothsome to the hilt. So taken am I by my bowl of batchoy that I can hardly speak coherently when 21 co-owners Rica and Mitos Gamboa (siblings) and Ricky Trinidad (Managing Director) pass by Bubbles’ and my table to ask us how we’re loving our batchoy. I say that’s a rhetorical question.
Once we’re sufficiently shot up with soup and can feel the marrow circulating in our veins, it’s time to push on to dessert. This is a pig-out pilgrimage and we must soldier on, this time to the temple of sugar that too many people tell me about: Calea.
Upon entry, I’m confronted with embodiments from my sweetest dreams: rows of cakes high and whole, cookie jars filled to the brim, baskets of bar cookies, streusel-topped cakes lording it over on their stands, and what seem like miles of pies and ice cream creations. Like a little kid, I run to the displays and shove my face as close as I can get to the glass without flattening my already-flat nose. Already, my heart is beating fast and it has nothing to do with the cholesterol bomb I mainlined barely thirty minutes ago.
I ask for a slice each of the white chocolate cheesecake, pecan pie (a la mode, please), mud pie, and imported chocolate cake (Calea’s undisputed bestseller). I turn to Bubbles and three other friends who’ve come along and ask, “And what will you guys have?” I ignore their jaws dropping to the floor at my question. I’m in my element and all is sweet in my world. To my order, they add a mango royale, an icebox cake crowned with a mango “aspic”, cream puffs, and the French chocolate cake. Surprisingly, the server doesn’t bat an eye at the seven desserts ordered for five people.
Truth be told, I’m afraid that all the hype I hear about Calea will not live up to expectations. I’m only too glad to be proven wrong as I alternate bites of each dessert. My favorites are the cheesecake (dense and creamy), the pecan pie (I’m grateful to places that put a premium on pie), and the mud pie (“Sobrang sarap ”˜to, Ma’m, promise!” says the server. I’m glad I listen). I don’t even bother to join in the table conversation, and while I hold up half-eaten desserts for them to try, I’m secretly pleased as one by one, they admit surrender to the sweets and me, the diva of dessert. Hee. When I finally come up for air, it’s to bewail the absence of a similar place in Manila that’s as sugar-centric as Calea. “So why don’t you buy one of the cakes and handcarry it home?” Asks Bubbles. “Because I’ll probably eat it all on the plane!” I whine, my brat-mode now in high gear.
Pendy’s is another place that I’m exhorted to go to. “They have the most eclectic menu I’ve ever seen,” Goey tells me. Indeed, pad thai cavorts with steak, spareribs, and osso buco, a diversity that’s as incongruous as its interiors, reminiscent of an old, elegant sala with a large pasalubong center at the back to boot. As unsettling as Pendy’s interiors is the halfmoon cake, a crescent-shaped sponge cake slathered with custard, similar to that in a brazo de Mercedes. It’s a gummy confection edible only because of its yolk glaze. Bubbles is surprised that it already costs P35.
By this time, Bubbles and I have clocked in almost 12 hours together, a majority of which we ”“ er, I ”“ have spent eating. I’m about to plead satiety in order to keep my sanity but she tells me, “Quit playing hard to get, Lori. You can’t miss Felicia’s!” Well! Who am I to give up more dessert opportunities? After all, I believe wasting food is even more immoral than eating too much of it.
Felicia’s turns out to be the best part of my day and that’s saying A LOT considering the day I’ve already had. Less than a year old, it’s a pastry café (as it’s written on their business card) that reminds me of Bizu, miniature creations as whimsical as they are artful. There’s a banana-Nutella cake that catches my fancy as well as the sticky toffee pudding and red velvet. Our first order is for the yema torte, a multi-layered dacquoise (meringue discs) “glued” together with yema custard. Impressive it is but it’s akin to munching on popcorn ”“ all crunch, no flavor. To make amends, we ask for a slice of sans rival (see cover photo) which, on first bite, has us falling to our knees in devotion. Meringue-nut discs ensconce a buttercream so delicate that it flits on the tongue before dissolving in a cascade of crispness, like a clapping by the mouth instead of the hands. Phenomenal sansrival, I daresay better even than Jill Sandique’s.
And for the love of all that’s sweet and holy, I must say that Felicia’s macaroons have replaced, in my mind, those from LenÃ´tre and Ladurée. Larger than usual, in fewer flavors than usual — mint chocolate, blueberry, strawberry, and mocha ”“ the flavors are vibrant and true, the fillings subtle as they are memorable. Try them and experience your own epiphany.
#1 Tindalo corner Hilado Aves.,
Capitol Shopping Center, Bacolod City
Casa Carmela Kitchen
Virgie’s Homemade Products
#59 San Sebastian Street
(6334) 434.1788 / 434.1588
Lourdes Centre II Bldg.
14th Lacson St.
(6334) 433. 3143
Mandalagan, Bacolod City.
East Block (along the Circumferential Road)
65 Lacson St., Bacolod City
Felicia’s Pastry Cafe
6th Street Doll Bldg.