Calabarzon Food Trip: A Gastronomic Journey of Southern Tagalog (Day 1)

I am a small eater but I love good and well-prepared food. When the Department of Tourism partnered with the Lucban local government and nearby areas to promote the 4th Habhaban Festival and the culinary heritage of Calabarzon, I knew I’m in for a stomach stretch. I am a small eater; but somehow, I have to make do.

Sulyap Gallery Cafe and Restaurant
San Pablo, Laguna

Sulyap Gallery Cafe and Restaurant
Sulyap Gallery Cafe and Restaurant

Our gastronomic tour started at the home of Roy Empalmo. His restaurant, Sulyap Gallery Cafe and Restaurant, boasts food that transports anyone to the days when meals were prepared traditionally. Fittingly called”Sulyap,” or “Glimpse” in English, the humble place allows its guests to peek behind the modern curtains of TV chefs and rediscover the dishes once prepared for us by our grandmothers.

Boneless Bangus Belly
Boneless Bangus Belly – A prime choice cut of milk fish, sautéed in minced garlic

Grilled Pork
Grilled Pork – Sliced pork belly grilled in coconut husk served with spiced vinegar

Pan de Sal and Kesong Puti
The perfect pairing of Pan de Sal and Kesong Puti

We were abundantly served with bangus (milk fish) belly and grilled pork that were so sweet, you know they were fresh. Dipped in vinegar and paired with garlic rice, it was the perfect meal to start my day. A side of salted eggs and tomatoes joined the banquet and Ube (sweet yam) Halaya was served for dessert. But what really topped the morning was the good old pairing of pan de sal – a local bread and kesong puti – white cheese made of carabao’s milk, a specialty of the province of Laguna.

Lovely Nook
A lovely nook where couples can enjoy a hot cup of coffee

Antique dining tables
Antique dining tables on the first floor of Sulyap Restaurant

Religious relics
Religious relics on display

Not only does the restaurant give a glimpse of good food, it also doubles as a museum put together by Roy and his fellow proprietor, Arthur. Avid collectors and heritage preservers, the two have put together a fine sample of religious icons and wooden furniture that made me recall our old house. Both started collecting way back in 1985 and they are still not tired of finding more pieces of the past to put in their museum to make available to those who are reminiscent.

Casa San Pablo Bed and Breakfast
San Pablo, Laguna

Casa San Pablo
Casa San Pablo

A few blocks away from Sulyap is an enclave that tells stories, Casa San Pablo Bed and Breakfast. An Alcantara, the owner of this quaint property, tells the story of the province of San Pablo and its rich source of clay.

Casa San Pablo Owner
An Alcantara showing her amazing work with the tour group

Basyang and the hordes
Basyang and the hordes of children showing that story-telling is not a dying art

Ans Tablet
One of the many samples of An’s tablets. Our Lady of Sorrows of Turumba in Paquil, Laguna

An artist by heart, she gives new meaning to terra cota by converting them into mouthpieces of the past. We all remember how we used to play with clay pots when we were kids – a dead giveaway to anyone who’s in the same generation as I am, but An pushes the malleability of the humble clay and makes them into storytellers. According to An, Basyang, a character of Severino Reyes, and her stories only come alive because there are listeners. Same goes with her clay tablets that capture specific places and rural scenes under the tutelage of the Virgin Mother, a centrepiece of every tablet.

coconut flowers
I didn’t know coconuts have flowers nor that Lambanog comes from these and not the coconut itself

Coconut macaroons
Coconut macaroons

Nata de Coco
My all time favorite coconut product, Nata de Coco

Apart from her lovely art works, An offers a culinary tour at Casa San Pablo. A coconut plantation turned bed and breakfast, she highlights Laguna’s culinary heritage by using coconut in their restaurant’s food. We were delighted by every stage of the coconut’s life cycle and the products it brings. The budding flower gives us Lambanog; it’s young fruit gives us coco syrup, jam, vinegar, and the sweetest coconut water; a slightly grown fruit can be made into buko pie, and the older fruit can be made into nata de coco as well as desiccated coconut used for garnishing macaroons.

Casa San Pablo Chef
Emer, Casa San Pablo’s in-house chef

Kulawo, grilled eggplant with coconut

As a treat, An invited us to watch her chef, Emer, while he made the exotic dish Kulawo. Emer threw burning charcoal into a bowl of grated coconut. He squeezed the juice out of the mixture and put grilled eggplants in. After that, he tossed in garlic, onion, chilli, and vinegar. It was a challenge to imagine how this dish would taste like. And so, it was the first thing I scooped up when it was time for us to eat. It was, perhaps, one of the best eggplant dishes I’ve ever tasted in my life. It could be a viand on its own, but I prefer to use it as a side dish with grilled pork. And there goes my no-rice diet.

Buddy’s Pancit Lucban
Lucban, Quezon

Buddy's Pancit Lucban
The original Buddy’s Pancit Lucban Restaurant at Lucban, Quezon

We travelled a few more hours to the highlight of our Calabarzon Food Tour, the 4th Habhaban Festival at Lucban Quezon where the famous Buddy’s Pancit Lucban Restaurant was celebrating its 30th year in business.

Buddy’s Pancit Lucban Restaurant Owners
Salvador “Buddy” and Nova Veluz, owners of Buddy’s Pancit Lucban Restaurant

Like all inspirational stories, Salvador “Buddy” Veluz started as a humble farmer selling vegetables in Divisoria. Presented with the challenge of keeping his excess produce fresh, he started cooking lumpia and sold them in front of the church. He started innovating and churned spaghetti which came at number 1 at’s Top 10 pinoy style spaghetti, hamburger, and even pizza when his patronage grew; and he decided to convert the lower part of his house into what we see now as the original Buddy’s restaurant in Lucban. With the help of Buddy’s wife, Nova, the family’s empire grew from one restaurant into twelve across Luzon. Each branch is personally managed by the couple and their children.

Pork BBQ
The beauty of simplicity and well-made food – Grilled Barbeque and Chopsuey with white rice

Pancit Lucban
The famous Pancit Lucban, best eaten with vinegar

As embarrassing as it may sound, I only found out then that Pancit Lucban and Pancit Habhab are one and the same. Pancit Lucban becomes Habhab when it’s eaten from a banana leaf without using any utensils. Buddy’s restaurant and the Local government of Lucban want to promote this dish by launching the Habhaban Festival in the middle of August, one day before the feast of San Luis Obispo. People now have another reason to visit Quezon other than Pahiyas Festival in May.

Habhaban Queen 2015
The contestants competing for Habhaban Queen 2015 title with Kaye Brosas hosting the competition

The celebration was cranked up by the presence of the Makati Brass Band and Lucban’s very own band. Kaye Brosas was also invited to host the Habhaban King and Queen Competition where the winners were able to finish 13 and 18 plates respectively in 15 minutes. Even the kids have their own eating division. Towards the end of the program, Jericho Rosales delighted the attendees with a few song numbers.

Kamayan sa Palaisdaan
Tayabas, Quezon

Kamayan sa Palaisdaan
Kamayan sa Palaisdaan façade

As the night draws in, we travelled, yet again, to one of Quezon’s well-loved restaurants, Kamayan sa Palaisdaan. Not to be confused with the original Palaisdaan Restaurant that is also owned by the same family, Kamayan sa Palaisdaan’s main draw is its calming set-up.

Kamayan sa Palaisdaan floating restaurants
Floating cottages where guests can dine

Evangeline delos Santos
Evangeline delos Santos, owner of Kamayan sa Palaisdaan

Native cottages floating on the property’s fishpond and classically prepared food are enough to gather a sizeable following. Evangeline de los Santos, owner of Kamayan sa Palaisdaan, shares their origins. She and her husband, Rosauro, were once Overseas Filipino Workers. Finally deciding to go home, Rosauro started a fishpond business. As the entrepreneurship flourished, a lot of people who come to the palaisdaan to buy fish requested a few of their purchases to be cooked so they can eat before heading out to their respective destinations. This gave the couple an idea to set up airy cottages balanced on individual balsas so that people would have a decent place to enjoy their meals. Pretty soon, the word spread and their once thee floating cottages grew to 60, spread across the 7-hectare property.

Our group’s spread with Sinugno – Tilapia cooked in coconut cream and Binusog na Pusit – Squid stuffed with ground pork and cooked in squid ink

paco salad
Pako Salad topped with salted eggs and tomatoes

Fried Squash
Fried Squash rounds smothered with latik – coconut syrup

The restaurant has perfected its Quezon delicacies as it has been in business for over 24 years. Their Sinugno, tilapia which is grilled first before cooked in coconut cream, melts in the mouth while their Binusog na Pusit was enough to make me forget that I’ve been full even before arriving this restaurant. If only I had the chance to bring some home, I would. I guess there’s no other way to experience it one more time than to ask my family to go back to this place. As a vegetable lover, I was drawn to the Pako salad. And to wash the mains, I had a modest helping of the fried Squash personally prepared by Evangeline.

Our Gastronomic Tour did not end in one day. The next day, we were treated to more of Calabarzon’s food gems before we headed out to Manila.

To be continued…

Sulyap Gallery Cafe and Restaurant
Brgy. Del Remedio, Cocoland Compound, San Pablo City Laguna
Landline: (049) 573-2907
Mobile: 0920-9519185 | 0999-9953165 | 0917-5968760
Open from Monday to Sunday, 10AM to 10PM

Casa San Pablo Bed and Breakfast
Barrio San Roque, San Pablo City, Laguna
Landline: +63 2 211 2132 | Fax: +63 2 724 7023
Mobile: +63 920 967 5277 | +63 917 812 6687

Buddy’s Pancit Lucban
99 Avenida Rizal, Lucban, Quezon
Landline: (042) 540 – 3394 | 911-1178
Open from Monday to Sunday, 9AM to 11PM

Kamayan sa Palaisdaan
Brgy. Dapdap, Tayabas City, Quezon
Landline: (042)793-3654
Mobile: 0917-556-2642 | 0918-951-0460
Open from Monday to Sunday, 10AM to 10PM

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