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Food Trip (Exploring the culinary wonders of San Pablo, Tiaong and Dolores)
Source: Manila Bulletin
Author: Kara Vibal Guioguio
Date: 0000-00-00
It was the weekend before classes resumed at Miriam College High School (after the semestral break) when my Mom asked me if I wanted to go with her and her friends on an overnight trip to San Pablo, Laguna.

Never mind that I would be the only teenager in the group, I sort of grabbed at the chance especially when she delivered the clincher: "Oh before I forget, it’s going to be one food trip."

The mere mention of the words "food" and "trip" got me to pack my bags at that very instant.

We arrived in San Pablo after a pleasant hour–and–a–half drive—without traffic, that is. We passed by greeneries, old houses and stalls selling buko pie and other native delicacies before we reached Casa San Pablo (, the charming country style bed and breakfast inn. I couldn’t help but be entranced by its homey ambiance.

The kidney–shaped pool which greeted us, as I would find out later, was filled with water from natural springs which San Pablo, also called the City of Seven Lakes, is known for.

Gracious host and innkeeper An Mercado-Alcantara welcomed us with a hearty buffet breakfast and then showed us to our room, a dormitory style area that is best recommended for groups like us or for one big barkada.

I strolled around the resort while the grown-ups were busy having their chitchat and instantly, I fell in love with the place. The whole ambience of Casa San Pablo reminded me much of Baguio with pine trees dotting the place, that soothing pine scent, that cool breeze wafting as I laid in one of the hammocks strung between the trees. It was truly a home away from home.

Lunch at Casa San Pablo is served buffet style, so are breakfast and dinner. It was my first time to taste San Pablo’s version of the karekare called the Pipian that uses chicken instead of pork. It is a healthier alternative to my favorite dish without compromising the rich Filipino taste. Truly, an absolute must-try.

According to An, their festive breakfast fare of traditional San Pablo dishes usually consists of binalot (rice with adobo wrapped in banana leaves); pinaputok na tilapia (grilled tilapia stuffed with a salad of red eggs, onions, and tomatoes wrapped in banana leaves); and dilis tossed with tomatoes, red egg and onion, which is prepared like salad.

Guests may take it with hot tsokolate with toasted pinipig or freshly brewed kapeng barako.

By the way, most of these recipes originated from the Gomez matriarch they fondly call Inay.

Ginataan and pancit habhab

After siesta, the group took off for Ugo Bigyan’s place in Tiaong, Quezon. Ugo is a celebrated potter whose works are sought after by upscale hotels and resorts. It took us about 30 minutes to get to his place from Casa San Pablo.

ucked in a rustic village, Ugu’s workshop is off the main road and is a little tricky to find. Yet rest assured that every trip to Ugo’s workshop cum gallery and café is worth it. His beautiful works of art are displayed all over the place, rendering it the feel of a classy art museum without the traditional stone walls.

I was surprised to find out that Ugu also does all the cooking in his café – not only is he a gifted potter but a master of the kitchen as well! He does not have a fixed menu and works with whatever is fresh and available in the market.

Ugu’s creativity as an artist is also evident in his food because each dish is marked with his touch of magic with proud hints of local culture. I specifically liked his Ube Ginataan because of its very distinct Filipino flavor—one that made me nostalgic about my vacation days in the province. Ugu added corn too for the added twist!

The local specialty called pancit habhab was an interesting variant of the pancit sans the usual garnishings. Encouraging us to add flavored vinegar to taste, Ugu said it is best eaten the traditional way - from a banana leaf.

niquely kinabuhayan

Still bursting from our wonderful merienda, we proceeded to our next stop, dinner at the Kinabuhayan Café. This 40-minute or so drive from Ugo’s place took us to the foot of the fabled Mount Banahaw in Dolores, Quezon.

The place was dimly lit by lamps that gave off a nice relaxed feel. Guests are allowed in small nipa huts which are sparsely scattered in his one hectare land. But my favorite was the treehouse which was also used by guests who prefer a more natural breezy ambiance.

Jay Herrera, co-owner of Kinabuhayan Café, is also the cook. He also has no menu and serves his guest whatever he feels like cooking.

He served us with exquisite dishes: Barbequed ribs, roasted chicken spiced with basil, garlic and even lambanog, and the best Risotto I have ever tasted. Every dish complemented each other and the whole group was more than satisfied with our sumptuous dinner.

For dessert we were served with camote bits and syrup topped with cherry—Camry as they call it. It was very unique and very Filipino, one that made us all dig in despite the fact that we were all very full. With Jay’s avant garde cooking style, his outdoorsy and close to nature accommodations and the soothing ambience of Mount Banahaw nearby, Kinabuhayan Café really is another must go place for the adventurous urban dweller.

Filipino with a twist

Brunch the following day was at the Kusina Salud. Being a lover of fashion myself, hearing that the renowned couturier Patis Tesoro owns the said restaurant made me look forward to our last food stop in the hope that I would meet her.

Unfortunately, she had left the previous night to go back to Manila. Oh well, there’s always another time.

But my disappointment didn’t last for long because as soon as I tasted the food, I was in bliss again. Kusina Salud has buffets every Sunday offering a variety of distinctively local cooking - a veritable showcase of Filipino cuisine.

Their menu is always fresh and constantly adapting to the availability of the produce and ingredients in the local markets. Their house specialties include Sinampalukan, Pako Salad, and the bestseller Kare-Kareng Dagat.

During my visit, I was able to taste their Fresh Lumpia with Peanut Sauce, Adobo Diablo Kalabaw sa Gata, Lechon Kawali in Laing among many others. The richness of their food and its distinctly Pinoy taste and first class quality made me go for a second, heck even a third round in the buffet area.

Chef Paul Poblador of Kusina Salud said that their main objective is to sell back the Filipino culture to the youth by providing people like me with a fresh take on the food that is truly from this proud and historical part of the country.

With establishments like Casa San Pablo, Ugo Bigyan’s workshop, Kinabuhayan Café and Kusina Salud – surely the youth will be lured once again into appreciating the beauty of what makes us Filipino, in word, in sights and in cuisine. And with all these, I think of going back again for second helpings of this food trek across Laguna and Quezon.

[ Mt. Ugo Wiki ]

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