It was in 2021, while watching an episode of chef Sandy Daza’s TV show “FoodPrints,” that I planned to one day visit Pampanga and try the seeming to-die-for dishes offered by some of the restaurants he featured.
I was finally able to travel to the culinary capital of the Philippines early this December, accompanied by my good friend, Stella.
We were ready with a short list of the food we wanted to check out at three restaurants in Angeles and one in Mabalacat. With Quezon City as starting point, we left for Pampanga on a Tuesday at 10:32 a.m. via the North Luzon Expressway. The traffic was light despite the holiday rush and ongoing road repairs. Had we set out on a weekend, we would have babbled on end in the car and still found ourselves stuck in heavy traffic, hours away from our destination.
At 11:35 a.m. we reached our first stop in Angeles: the Sto. Domingo branch of Mila’s Tokwa’t Baboy. We were happy to get there without any hitch, except that we suddenly realized that parking would be a problem. While we were figuring out where to park, a man approached and guided us to a small basketball court across from the restaurant. It could fit only eight vehicles and we were lucky to get one of the last two slots.
Diners have a choice: air-conditioned or al fresco. We chose the first option, this December being unseasonably warm.
You’d think tokwa’t baboy is Mila’s Tokwa’t Baboy’s best dish. Well, no, it’s more known for its delicious sisig. Which we ordered, along with tokwa’t baboy, tocino barbecue, and the “mandatory” plain rice.
The tokwa’t baboy, a popular Filipino appetizer made of deep-fried tofu with tender thin strips of pig ears, celery, onions, and chili mixed in soy sauce and vinegar, was served first, and really hot—the tofu was crisp and not oily, which made it all the more delicious when paired with the pork strips and vegetables.
I was glad that the sisig was delivered to our table shortly because I was eating the tokwa’t baboy nonstop, leaving Stella, who had to go out of the restaurant to make a phone call, with only a few pieces of tofu. But then, what’s a few pieces of tofu between friends, right?
I had always considered sisig as a dish that only the Kapampangan can cook to perfection. And every crunchy spoonful of Mila’s Tokwa’t Baboy’s sisig proved me right, its aroma adding to the delightful culinary experience. That sisig is a dish made from pig’s ears, cheeks and snout may sound unappetizing, but it’s nothing if not delish, especially if it’s cooked by Mila’s Tokwa’t Baboy.
As for tocino (sweet-cured meat) barbecue, it’s exactly what its name suggests.
The tasty dishes we had at Mila’s Tokwa’t Baboy fulfilled our craving for good food that’s heavy in the belly but light on the pocket. Now for dessert…
We took 45 minutes to drive from Angeles to Mabalacat and on to My Lola Nor’s Meryendahan on MacArthur Highway. We parked inside the restaurant’s compound (a bit small, with room for not more than 10 vehicles).
From afar, and if you fail to see the signage, you’d mistake My Lola Nor’s Meryendahan for a family residence with a large concrete driveway. But I guess that’s the point: It means to convey that you can feel at home there and be reminded of the times you spent with loved ones while partaking of good food.
Inside are antique dining tables and chairs; vintage mirrors, clocks, telephones, and lamps; paintings; and an old piano. It was as if we were visiting one of Vigan’s old houses, made homier when the tibok-tibok that we ordered was served.
Tibok-tibok is Pampanga’s version of the maja blanca. Though both are dessert puddings, carabao’s milk—creamier, with a richer flavor—is used in tibok-tibok. It’s also worth noting that the carabao milk used by the restaurant for its famous dessert is organic and supplied by an Aeta community.
My Lola Nor’s Meryendahan wasn’t pulling our leg when it posted on its Facebook wall that “the tibok-tibok is so far one of the best that [it] could offer.”
Driving back to Angeles to check out a burger joint may seem unnecessary given the many establishments with burgers on their menu. But for a food business that was established only in 2020 and is getting rave reviews, it was hard to ignore Ollie’s Burger, allegedly the best burger in Angeles.
From Mabalacat, it took us 50 minutes to reach Ollie’s Burger at the New Forest Park Resort. Since it was already 3:48 p.m. and we still had one more restaurant to visit, we decided to order our cheeseburgers to go. Interesting that instead of the usual burger fully wrapped in wax paper, ours were half-wrapped and placed in individual circular plastic containers. It could eat up space in your bag, but it’s an advantage for harried travelers who don’t want their burgers squashed.
Ollie’s Burger has indoor and outdoor dining areas, with more seats for the latter—a good thing because the place is in an area where customers have an elevated view of tree-lined streets. Besides, according to restaurantengine.com, dining al fresco “affects the senses and seems to make the food taste fresher and, therefore, better.”
“Would you like another round?” That was our stomach, not the bartender, talking as we savored the aroma of freshly cooked sisig wafting around us. This time we were in the main branch of Aling Lucing’s in Angeles, whose late owner is touted by many as the creator of the renowned Filipino dish.
A framed poster hanging on one of the restaurant’s walls tells the story of Pampanga’s beloved Lucia Cunanan (popularly known as Aling Lucing) and how she came up with the sisig recipe: She accidentally burned a pig’s head on the grill and, instead of throwing it away, set about chopping it and mixing the small pieces with calamansi and onions.
We would have loved to have another round of sisig (after our enjoyable lunch at Mila’s Tokwa’t Baboy), especially since this time it was going to be cooked “the Aling Lucing way.” But we had to be back in Manila by 7 p.m., so we did the next best thing and asked for two orders of sisig to go.
The first thing I did upon reaching home in Las Piñas was to taste the sisig and cheeseburger that I ordered for take-out. It was now 9:30 p.m. and I wanted to know how they had weathered the long hours.
After reheating my burger for 30 seconds in the oven toaster, I found the bun still tender and not totally soggy, and the burger patty still juicy. (I would have preferred a completely browned one; maybe I could make this specific request at Ollie’s Burger on my next visit.) The sandwich still tasted good and had just the right amount of dressing, cheese, tomatoes and onions in it.
Aling Lucing’s sisig was equally tasty even cold. In the morning, I reheated it on a frying pan for a few minutes and, as expected, with a little soy sauce with chili and calamansi, I had a delightful breakfast (and an extra serving of rice).
How do the sisig served at Mila’s Tokwa’t Baboy and at Aling Lucing’s compare? I’d say the former is bit crisper and the latter more flavorful.
But as the saying goes, to each his own, right? What I consider delicious may be blah to others, and vice versa. Yet one thing that we can all probably agree on is that Filipino dishes are among the best in the world, and that Filipinos—according to a 2019 poll by market research and data analytics firm yougov.co.uk—are the most appreciative when it comes to local and international dishes.