ONE of the best things to do, really, when visiting a new place, whether it be a foreign land or a domestic destination, is food-tripping on local food. Truly, ‘discovering’ a place’s local cuisine makes a trip a complete experience, and Naga City in Camarines Sur is no exception. I was there last weekend (April 19 to 21, 2013) with a group of Manila-based media friends to experience first-hand the recently launched Naga Excursions tourism promotion upon the invitation of the City Government of Naga’s Arts, Culture and Tourism Office headed by Alec Santos.
Apart from the high-adventure activities, such as mountain climbing, ziplining and wakeboarding, as well as religious tours of old churches in the area and cultural journeys to discover the historical past of Metro Naga, one of the main thrusts of Naga Excursions happens to be gastronomic adventures. We had a lot of that during our three-day stay in Naga, with our hosts taking us to local dining places that acquainted our palates with the best that Bicolano cuisine had to offer.
BOB MARLIN RESTAURANT AND GRILL
Our first meal in Naga City, which was lunch, was at Bob Marlin Restaurant and Grill along Magsaysay Ave.
A no-frills casual dining restaurant frequented by locals and visited by tourists who are out to enjoy local comfort food, Bob Marlin is named after the Jamaican musician Bob Marley, but the family name Marley was changed to Marlin because the restaurant serves quite a number of blue marlin dishes. We had Sizzling Blue Marlin during lunch – but what really caught our attention and titillated our palates were the local Bicolano dishes that it served. These included Laing (shredded gabi leaves cooked with pork bits, shrimps and chopped sili or bird’s eye chili and simmered in gata or coconut milk); Bicol Express (pork and bagoong or shrimp paste cooked with chopped tomatoes, onion, garlic and loads of sili, also simmered in coconut milk); and Pinangat (bundles of gabi leaves wrapped around shredded pork and shrimps, combined with ginger, garlic, onion and young coconut, and cooked in coconut cream). Nagueños also call Laing by another name, Natong.
All these native Bicolano dishes turned out to be delicious, as they were flavorful and cooked fresh, but the it was the Pinangat that really stood out. I guess it’s because Filipinos are so used to eating Laing but Pinangat is not as well-known as Laing that we get pleasantly surprised with the burst of flavor in our mouth when we finally get to taste Pinangat. The basic taste of Laing and Pinangat is so similar, and yet they’re also so different, especially when it comes to texture and mouthfeel.
Bob Marlin is also quite known for other unique dishes, such as Dinuguang Baka, which is the typical pork blood stew but, instead of the usual chopped pig’s intestines, kidneys, lungs, heart and ears simmered in pig’s blood to form a thick gravy, the Nagueños, version makes use of beef slices.
The restaurant is most famous for its Crispy Pata, which is pork knuckles fried to a golden crisp. Diners simply love its version for its crispy skin and tender meat, so our group ordered it. All meat eaters at our table raved about it and couldn’t resist having seconds until only the bones of the pork knuckles were left.
Long before our tummies fully digested our hearty lunch at Bob Marlin, our hosts brought the group to a local roadside eatery called Cordova’s Kinalas. It’s your typical everyman’s eatery that’s made of wood and hollow block walls and wooden tables with plastic monobloc chairs.
The eatery serves basically Kinalas, which is a Nagueño noodle soup dish with fine strips or small chunks of meat from boiled cow’s head that has been boiled until super tender. It’s called Kinalas because the cow’s head is boiled for very long hours so that the meat becomes so tender that it falls off the bones. At Cordova’s Kinalas, we personally saw how the cow’s head was stripped of its meat after being boiled in stock so that only the bare skull is left on the chopping board.
There is actually an art to assembling a bowl of Kinalas, and we watched the process while waiting for our steaming bowls for merienda. The staff placed noodles in the bowls, topped with boiled beef from the cow’s head that gave the dish its name, followed by a generous scoop of gravy-like brown sauce and chopped scallions or spring onion, and, finally, hot steaming soup was ladled into it.
The dish is a cross between Beef Mami and Bulalo and is best eaten with bread or with Baduya (fried banana slices with batter). Our local guide, Janwyne Almazan, even made a dip that Nagueños like to eat their Kinalas with. He first crushed bird’s eye chilies with the back of a spoon, then he added patis (fish sauce), vinegar and black pepper into it, and mixed it up. Depending on how spicy you like your Kinalas to be, you add spoonfuls of the dip to the stock. You can also squeeze calamansi juice into the stock, and you can have a whole boiled egg added to your bowl of Kinalas.
At Cordova’s Kinalas, which is also oddly known as Cha Kamot, a bowl of Kinalas comes at an incredible Php28 only or roughly 65 centavos in U.S. dollars. With egg, it is Php34 per bowl, and one stick of Baduya is only Php8. No wonder locals are queueing up at Cordova’s Kinalas, and they swear that it’s the best Kinalas in town.
Cordova’s Kinalas is located at the corner of Corregidor and Solid Sts. in Barangay Dayangdang.
Dinner on our first night in Naga was at Nikko’s Ark at the corner of busy Magsaysay Ave. and Peñafrancia Ave. It’s a restaurant and bar that’s shaped like a cruise ship, so people really give it a second look when they see it, especially if you catch a glimpse of the wait staff, who are dressed in sailor outfits to complete the look. The place has an air-conditioned indoor dining area and an al fresco view deck area which can serve as both a spillover place for the dining crowd or those who prefer to dine al fresco and as a chillout place for friends and colleagues to have a drink or two after a hard day’s work.
For a place that’s more known for its entertainment and bar, Nikko’s Ark serves surprisingly delicious international dishes. For our dinner, we had Cream of Pumpkin Soup for starters, which almost everyone finished, followed by an individual portion of Pasta Aglio Olio. The main course was a choice among Baked Salmon, Chicken Steak and Baby Back Ribs. Being more of a fish and seafood person and with salmon ranking No. 1 on my list of fish favorites, I of course chose the Baked Salmon, which came in a super generous portion with the restaurant’s version of rice pilaf and a side of corn and carrots.
Dessert was a toss-up between Mango Crepe and Crème Brülée. I opted for the former.
For dinner on our second night in Naga, our hosts whisked us away to Red Platter along Magsaysay Ave. The multi-level restaurant with modern interiors serves a combination of classic Filipino dishes, international favorites and local Bicolano specialties. We had Sinigang na Salmon Belly, Inihaw na Liempo, Crispy Pata, a combination platter of Pinangat and Bicol Express, and an interesting specialty dish called Bicol Cordon Bleu, which has spicy Bicol Express wrapped inside classic Chicken Cordon Bleu instead of ham and cheese.
STREET FOOD OF NAGA
Just like any other place in the Philippines, Naga boasts of its own array of street foods. During our stay in Naga City last weekend, we got to taste quite a few of them.
One was Toasted Siopao, which we had for merienda on our second day in Naga. It’s a round and lovely Siopao with meat and boiled egg yolk for its filling like the regular Bola-bola Siopao. This, however, has the bun oven-toasted instead of steamed so that its shelf life is much longer and it’s easier to bring around. It also has that bread-like crunch when you bite into it and is most tasty when served hot. Toasted Siopao, a truly local delicacy in Naga, is available in Chinese eateries and bakeries in the area, fresh batches of which are most awaited when they hit the shelves at around 4:00 p.m..
Then there’s Bulastog, which is the Nagueños’ version of Kwek-Kwek. It’s hard-boiled Chicken Egg dipped in orange-tinted batter and fried in hot oil. The group encountered Bulastog when we took a walk along Plaza Rizal one evening. Plaza Rizal, formal-looking during the day, takes on a different feel and character during the evening, when stalls selling Bulastog line one side of the park. Vendors shout “Bulastog!” to passers-by and offer paper plates to them. Bulastog is eaten topped with fresh onion, turnips, cucumber and spicy vinegar.
When we visited the Panicuason Hot Springs Resort in Barangay Panicuason, we also ‘discovered’ an interesting street food called Tabog-Tabog in the Naga dialect and Tobog-Tobog in the Rinconada dialect being sold by a food concessionaire. It’s pingpong-sized balls of cassava that have been fried to a light golden crisp and skewered in fives in barbecue sticks. It’s filling and tasty and sold for a surprising Php7 per stick. Can you beat that?
For its food offerings alone, I’d go back to Naga anytime.