A group of friends from the U.P. College of Law, some of whom brought their kids along, finally managed to find a common free time to accept the long-standing invitation of another U.P. Law buddy to visit his home in Negros Occidental. We agreed that we wouldn’t draw up an itinerary and just let things happen. Our host is a full-blooded Negrense who grew up there and he’d know best where we could go and what we could do.
Not making any decision on where to go and what to do turned out to be the best decision. The way the days and nights unfurled, everything we did and everywhere we went, we did and went to in an unhurried way — none of that insane frenzy that travellers in packaged tours almost always find themselves in. Seven days and six nights filled with haciendas, endless stretches of sugar cane fields, fish ponds, mangroves, mountains hiding coyly behind cottony clouds, old Spanish houses, art, architecture and the most fantastic food that I will dream about for a long time.
We flew to Bacolod, landed at the Bacolod-Silay Airport, went around Bacolod City and began a dreamy vacation that would take us to Cadiz City with side trips to Talisay City, Victorias City and the municipality of Salvador Benedicto.
Day 1: Chicken Inasal, Negros Museum, The Ruins and the hacienda in Cadiz
We landed at the Bacolod-Silay Airport before 6.00 a.m. on Thursday, May 15. We were welcomed by our host, U.P. Law batchmate Gary Acuña, and we proceeded directly to Bacolod City for breakfast.
Gary wanted to take us to Bob’s but it was early and Bob’s hadn’t opened for the day. There are two Bob’s in Bacolod City, Bob’s Restaurant and Cafe Bob’s, they have the same owner but on the morning of May 15, it was at Bob’s Restaurant where we were supposed to have breakfast. I heard that Bob’s is considered an institution of sorts in Bacolod and I had the impression that our host wanted our vacation to start with the best possible food experience. But we would have had to wait if we wanted breakfast at Bob’s, we didn’t, we drove around for a while, visited the San Sebastian Cathedral then went to Kuppa Coffee and Tea which was already open for breakfast.
I’m not really sorry that Bob’s was closed and we couldn’t have breakfast there because the smoked salmon and scrambled egg sandwich I had at Kuppa’s was so good and I felt that if it was a preview of all the meals that we were to have in Negros Occidental, I was in for a grand time indeed.
It was a pretty long breakfast. We chatted, laughed, updated each other, shocked each other… It was a hilarious three-hour meal. It was midday when we left Kuppa’s. We proceeded to Gary’s Bacolod house to freshen up and, quite unintentionally, for a siesta (we landed at dawn and we really needed the siesta). Then, we chatted some more and, before we knew it, it was time for lunch. Time for that iconic Bacolod dish called inasal.
Inasal literally translates to “roasted” but, in Visayan cuisine, inasal dishes are skewered and cooked over a grill so inasal is a cross between a barbecue and the Southeast Asian satay (or sate) seasoned Visayan style. Every region in the Visayas has its unique version of inasal but, by reputation, Bacolod has been more associated with inasal than any other city in the Visayas.
So, lunch was a chicken inasal feast. I had to restrain myself from eating so much because we had already agreed that, after lunch, we would walk over to Calea for dessert.
Calea… Aaaahhh, Calea. We spent a long time choosing what we’d order. There were just so many to choose from and everything looked good.
I finally chose a slice of carrot cake and a cup of cappuccino.
In the afternoon, we went to the Negros Museum and did the guided tour. Fascinating. Such beautiful paintings and artifacts, and such interesting stories woven from historical facts and local folklore. But it was also a sweltering summer day and by the time we were done with the tour, we were desperate for cold drinks.
And conveniently located on the ground floor of the museum is the Museum Cafe. Some ordered hibiscus juice; others ordered lemongrass juice. I loved my hibiscus juice so much that I started interviewing the cafe people. I was shown the dried hibiscus, I was informed that I could buy a pack, and I did.
From the Negros Museum, we went food shopping. Then, it was back to the Bacolod house for supplies. We were going to stay at the hacienda in Cadiz for the rest of of vacation. But there was one last stop before the drive to Cadiz. The Ruins in Talisay City. Gary timed our visit to the famous attraction so we would still be there by sunset to catch the magnificent sight of the mansion against the setting sun.
It was already dark when we arrived at the Cadiz hacienda. We had dinner, and lingered over coffee just swapping jokes and stories. Somewhere between the guffaws and the reminiscing, Gary said we would go to the mangrove the next day and we would have our lunch there.
Day 2: The mangrove and the wharf in Cadiz
I’ve been to a mangrove before but I was quite unprepared for the one that we went to the following day.
There was a bridge that connects the shore to a wharf.
And in the wharf, lunch was served.
I can’t remember the last time that I was more interested in the scenery than the food. The food was superlative, I remember that, and I especially adored the callos.
But, mostly, I sat there, sipping my buko juice and gazing at the sea.
Cadiz City lies on the northern tip of Negros island. It was named after Cádiz, a city and seaport in southwestern Spain. Unlike the sea-enclosed Spanish city for which it was named, only the northernmost portion of Cadiz City in Negros Occidental lies along the sea. In these coastal areas is a thriving fishing industry. Further inland are vast sugar cane plantations.
From the wharf, we could see islands far out into the sea. Gary pointed out Iloilo (eastern portion of Panay Island) and the sandbar (no, not Lakawon Island) that we would have gone to had we not spent so much time kayaking (oh, yes, we went kayaking after lunch). The sandbar has a beautiful beach, Gary said, but like any sandbar, it is only there during low tide. At high tide, it disappears into the sea. We had a three-hour window to take a boat to the sandbar and get back before dark, and that meant we could only stay there for an hour. We decided to go another time.
Since we had the rest of the day to just amble along, amble along some did. The friends who brought their kids decided to make an adventure of the trip back to the house. They walked taking the short cut through the fish pond and fields.
We took the SUV and passed them along the way.
Everyone went straight to the pool upon reaching the house. From water to water… well, it was a blisteringly hot day. It was on the poolside where I took the photos of the splendid sunset in Cadiz.
Day 3: Victorias Sugar Mill, Hacienda Rosalia and the Chapel of the Cartwheels
We drove to the Victorias Sugar Mill on the morning of the third day. We watched as trucks carrying sugar cane entered a toll gate where their gross weight was recorded. The cargo is unloaded and, when a truck exited, its weight was once again recorded. The difference in weight is the amount of sugar cane it unloaded.
Gary explained that sugar planters don’t necessarily mill their produce. Instead, they sell their sugar cane to the sugar miller like Victorias which processes it into table sugar, molasses and other sugar by-products.
We drove on deeper into the Victorias Sugar Mill compound for the real object of our visit—The Chapel of St. Joseph the Worker, home of the famous angry Christ mural by Alfonso Ossorio.
Day 4: A feast at the hacienda
We dined out a lot during our seven-day stay in Negros Occidental but we ate more meals at Gary’s family’s hacienda. On the fourth day, a Sunday, Gary prepared a feast.
Home cooked food in Negros is drool-worthy but not in the eye-candy sense. A lot of it is really peasant fare (I had the impression that our host made sure that we were properly introduced to authentic Negrense food). But peasant fare in Negros is not the stereotype of what poor people in metropolitan centers like Manila eat. No instant noodles and ginisa mixes. Peasant food in rural Negros Occidental can be more accurately described as dishes created with local produce often with vegetables and fruits easily grown in backyards. They are texturally rich and often bursting with colors.
But there is one dish that I will always dream about, crave and pine for. Surprisingly or not, it wasn’t something I ate at a restaurant. It was a salad with julienned puso ng saging (banana flower), onions, tomatoes and coconut milk. I asked Gary’s wife, Isabel, what it was called and she told me that the cook, Arnold, called it simply ensalada (above, top right corner). What did it taste like that made it so good? The freshness of the ingredients, the light crispness of the vegetables, the subtle bite of the onions, the sweetness of the coconut milk and how all of that rolled so smoothly inside my mouth. It was sublime.
They live close to the earth, the Negrense, and it was a very strong impression that I got although no one really said it in so many words. I could feel it so strongly that it was almost tangible. Not so surprising, perhaps, since the economy of Negros Occidental consists mainly of sugar production from planting to milling to refining.
Hence, the impression that the food and the land are one, so closely interconnected that each is, in a sense, defined by the other. They have soupy stews like kadios (a pea and meat stew, and the local name for the locally grown and harvested pigeon peas that make the dish what it is) and kansi (the annatto-tinted Visayan version of the Tagalog bulalo with a lighty sour with the addition of batuan or batwan, a fruit native to the Visayas) that are both redolent of the produce of the island.
Day 5: Pepe’s, Everest zipline and Mu Shu
If you ask me where I had the best meal in Bacolod outside of Gary’s family’s hacienda, I’d say it was at Pepe’s where we had lunch on the fifth day. We took a long time perusing the menu because everything looked good. Did the dishes taste as good as they looked? Yes, oh, yes!
The cheese sticks came with a tomato-cream dipping sauce.
My very generous slab of pork ribs was served with rice pilaf and cucumber slices. The pilaf had black olives and was topped with fresh mango. The cucumber slices weren’t just ornamental — either they had been tossed with a vinaigrette or they had been pickled.
A friend ordered chicken with pesto and mashed potatoes on the side.
Another friend had the barracuda with cajun sauce. I tried the sauce and swore I’d replicate it at home.
The thing about eating out in Bacolod is that you don’t need to drill a hole in your wallet to enjoy gourmet-quality meals and fancy pastries. At Pepe’s, for instance, the cheese sticks cost PHP 109.00, my ribs cost PHP169.00, the chicken and barracuda were PHP189.00 each. You just can’t get food that good and servings that generous for those prices in imperial Metro Manila where almost everything is overpriced and over-hyped.
The Bacolod locals take their food seriously so restaurants keep their standards high. Otherwise, they fold up. I heard that Gerry’s Grill, for instance, a very popular restaurant in Metro Manila with several branches, opened a branch in Bacolod and lasted all of two months. That seems to be the usual fate of restaurants that try to take on Bacolod with nothing new nor unique to offer.
And that’s really why eating out in Bacolod is such a delight. It’s always about the food — not the fad nor the celebrity status of the restaurant owners. It’s just about the food. As it should be.
The afternoon was devoted to the Everest Zipline in Don Salvador Benedicto, a two hour drive from Bacolod. Designated the “Summer Capital of Negros Occidental”, Don Salvador Benedicto sits at the center of the mountains of northern Negros Occidental. The elevation means the temperature is cooler. My friends did the zipline thing; I didn’t. Heights and I aren’t friends.
Back in Bacolod, dinner was at Mushu. From the first time I heard the name of the restaurant, I was amused because it made me think of that little red dragon with a loud mouth in Disney’s Mulan. As it turned out, mushu has another meaning and it is a rather naughty one. I wonder if the writers of Mulan knew that when they decided to name the dragon Mushu. But, anyway…
What were the remarkable dishes at Mushu? The pritchon was good but the non-meat dishes were the ones I was truly impressed with. There was a medley of grilled vegetables served with an eggplant dip reminiscent of the Indian baingan bharta. The gising-gising was topped with a slab of chicharon. The turon came coated in sugar and cinnamon. Heck, if that is not re-defining traditional Filipino cuisine, I don’t know what is.
Day 7: 21 Restaurant, Felicia’s and Cafe Uma
No day 6? Well, some members of the group flew back to Manila on the evening of the fifth day. On the sixth day, we just stayed at the hacienda. Swimming. Eating. Chatting. It was a day to relax, savor the provincial feel and commit as much of it to memory as it was humanly possible.
On the morning of the seventh day, we took our souvenir photos of the hacienda. Our flight was in the evening but we were driving to Bacolod for lunch and we were no longer returning to the hacienda before proceeding to the airport.
Outside the Cadiz hacienda, there is one dish that demolished many of my existing standards and preconceived notions — 21 Restaurant’s la paz batchoy. For the uninitiated, la paz batchoy is a meat and noodle soup topped with chicharon (pork cracklings) and raw egg. To eat it, mix everything together to allow the egg to cook in the steaming broth. The result is a creamy soup with varying textures and indescribable flavor.
In Bacolod, according to Gary and Isabel, the best la paz batchoy is served at 21 Restaurant. 21’s la paz batchoy is so good that you have to get there before 3.00 p.m. or, chances are, you will have to go back another time because 21 runs out of la paz batchoy. It’s that good. When he was a teenager, according to Gary, 21 was just a hole in the wall in front of the owner’s house located at the corner of 21st and Lacson streets in Bacolod. Today, it is a full restaurant run by a professional chef.
What is it about 21’s la paz batchoy that sets it above the rest? Three things: 1) the superlative broth; 2) the beef bone marrow in the broth; and 3) the chunks of chicharon rather than the usual crushed chicharon sprinkled on top of the noodle soup. 21’s la paz batchoy is unforgettable.
The 21 Restaurant experience was made even more special with my introduction to boqueron. In Spanish cuisine, boqueron is uncured anchovy tossed with vinegar and olive oil. It is one of the many popular tapas in Spain. At 21 Restaurant, boqueron is served in a martini glass with crackers on the side. What a delight!
The 21 Restaurant lunch was followed by dessert at Felicia’s. And that brings me to the which-is-better-Calea-or-Felicia’s thing. While “old timers” prefer Calea, Felicia’s is also a very popular and well-recommended pastry cafe. What’s the difference? The pastry menu is different, of course. While both have all-time favorites like chocolate cake and cheesecake, Felicia’s offers sugar-free versions of many of its pastries. Calea doesn’t. Not that it makes any difference to me, really. When it comes to sugar, I prefer the real thing. So, despite the numerous sugar-free items at Felicia’s, I chose something with real sugar in it.
Blueberry Parfait, it is called, but it had no ice cream. Rather, it had layers of blueberry and mousse. Alternately tangy and sweet with every spoonful. Really delicious.
One of my friends, a diabetic, chose the sugar-free sans rival cake. She raved that it had none of the sugar substitute aftertaste and encouraged me to try a bite. I did. And she was right. I could have eaten an entire slice and not know that it’s sugar-free. Pretty darn good!
More than one person in our group chose the chocolate cake. I tried it. It was okay but I’ve had better.
Our last meal in Bacolod was at Cafe Uma where we had the delectable liver pate served with cranberry sauce. We weren’t really hungry by then but we had several hours to kill before our flight. We dawdled and ordered food we could pick on. On our seventh and last day in Bacolod, I assessed what had changed in my impression of the city.
Like most Filipinos who grew up in the Metropolitan Manila area, upon arrival, I subconsciously sized up Bacolod City by Manila standards. Bacolod City won, hands down. No potholes, no traffic, no tricycles within the perimeter of the city and no uncollected garbage dotting the street corners. Bacolod City is clean. The network of city streets is a series of parallel and perpendicular lines intersecting in a picture-perfect grid.
Bacolod City is new and old. Like any modern-day city, the commercial areas are lined with restaurants and business establishments. But here and there are old Spanish houses that rightly belong to a different time but which ironically seem to fit in with all the modern structures. The plaza in front of the provincial capitol is as large as the town plazas of a bygone era. It is three hectares in size, consists of a park and a lagoon, and it is devoid of flea markets stalls. At around 7 o’clock in the morning when I first glimpsed the plaza, it was the most languid city scene I have ever witnessed. It is probably this unique blend of old and new that gives Bacolod City its distinct character. It is now but it is also then, and the lifestyle takes the best that past and present have to offer. It was hard not to fall in love at first sight.
As we walked to the airport gate and said our goodbyes, I realized that the love at first sight had developed into something deeper. I would come back. As often as I could.