A year and a month after my first visit to Bacolod, I was back. This time, to join my daughter, Alex, on the last stop of the Visayas leg of a show that was being toured around the entire country. She would have a two-week break after the Bacolod show and I thought it would be nice to spend a few days with her in a city I had fallen in love with.
As the plane touched down at the Bacolod-Silay Airport, I wondered if I’d still feel the same way about Bacolod. Sometimes, it’s just the novelty that makes us enamored of something — a place, a person, a book, an idea… And it often happens that after the novelty has worn off, the phenomenal becomes commonplace and the magic dissipates.
I need not have worried. Over the next four days, I fell in love with Bacolod all over again. Even more, in fact, because I knew that how I felt about the place had nothing to do with novelty. On the contrary, it was about familiarity. As a city, Bacolod is today what Manila was several decades ago — breathable, friendly and full of promise. In a way, I was recapturing the city of my childhood albeit a city with a different name several islands away.
Bacolod thrives with restaurants and eateries owned and operated by locals. Although fast food franchises have made their way into the city, it is still the decades-old haunts that define the culture. Bob’s, Calea, Manukan Country…
My friend Gary picked me up from the airport, we dropped by L’Fisher where Alex was working on the show to be staged that evening. Then, we went to Cafe Bob’s. While its ancestor, Bob’s Restaurant, served traditional fare, Cafe Bob’s is about modernity. The food is mostly fusion.
Gary recommended the Pinoy-style pasta with tinapa (smoked fish). I ordered it knowing I would love it. I’ve cooked pasta with tinapang bangus and tuyo, and I have long ago discovered just how well salty fish goes with pasta. Bob’s Cafe’s Pinoy-style pasta did not disappoint. The bold flavors of the smoked fish and the fresh vegetables mingled happily in my mouth.
Then, there was the vegetarian pizza which, according to Gary, was even better when sprinkled with chorizo. I didn’t miss the irony but, perhaps, only I was the only one aware of it. It’s something that Speedy and I do at home. When we’re staring at leftover vegetarian food that Sam couldn’t finish, we’d add chicharon or chopped lechon kawali to un-vegetarianize it. The pizza was lovely.
Because I have been dreaming for a year that we will retire in Bacolod someday, I started paying attention to a lot of things. One of my complaints about living in Antipolo is the lack of gourmet food. Does Bacolod have what Antipolo doesn’t?
Cheese, check. Cold meat, check.
Gourmet seasonings and condiments, check. And all under one magical roof called Cafe Bob’s.
Oh, yes, Bacolod and I will get along just fine.
I was back at L’Fisher for Alex’s event. She’s assistant technical director which meant she was stationed at the tech booth. Because I was a lurker and not on the official guest list, I stayed beside her at the tech booth. But, after the show started, I had to get up and find a better spot to take photos.
I don’t know their names but the performance of the singers was stupendous. One of them, Alex said, was Rapunzel in last February’s Into the Woods.
The egress after the show would take hours so Alex and I made arrangements for her transfer from the pension house where the crew was staying to the hotel I had booked for us. While the crew dismantled the set, I had dinner with Gary, his son and daughter-in-law. We had been to the Negros Museum Cafe last year but only for a quick drink after the museum tour. This time, we had dinner there.
Negros Museum Cafe
It started with cassava fries topped with salted spinach. The cassava fries were golden crisp outside and light as a cloud inside. I must try it at home, I promised myself. They’re better than kamote (sweet potato) fries. And the spinach… oh, the spinach! Crisp and salty, eating them was like munching on chips right out of a pouch. But better because there were no preservatives nor additives.
The Bacolod sunrise, the cafe’s take on tequila sunrise, was a dream. They make it with a hint of ginger. I wasn’t planning on having anything alcoholic as the sweltering summer heat was sure to make me perspire like crazy but, after one glass, I ordered another.
I had the smoked barracuda sandwich recommended by Gary’s daughter-in-law, Krystle. She’s quite the Negros Museum Cafe authority, it turned out, as she unabashedly proclaimed that it is her favorite restaurant in the whole world. She’s eaten everything in the menu and is there so often that she and her husband, Vince, are well known to the owners.
The smoked barracuda sandwich was nothing short of amazing. Unlike smoked salmon which is soft and almost melts in the mouth like butter, smoked barracuda has a bolder texture — a bit chewy like dried ham. The fish version of Parma ham, if you can imagine it.
And dessert? We had two — chico (sapodilla in Mexico, Central America and the Carribean) pie and buko (coconut) pie.
I don’t eat chico — the smell overwhelms me. But I ate half of the slice of chico pie. The filling tasted like the mildest milk chocolate and had the texture of streusel. What witchcraft made that possible, I don’t know, but I sure would like to learn.
The buko pie was quite unlike the buko pie from Laguna that I grew up with. No top crust and the filling had no custard. The coconut tasted like it was cooked with a caramel which was probably lightened with coconut cream.
And the biggest surprise — the crust of both pies aren’t made with butter. According to the chef-owner, a Swiss married to a Filipina, they refrigerate coconut milk overnight then gather the fat that floats to the top. That is what they use to make pie crust.
I was practically drooling at that point. I wanted to bring home those pies but, unfortunately, the next days’ schedules changed. But, never mind, because that gives me a good reason to go back to Bacolod again soon.
I woke up around 9.00 a.m. Alex was still fast asleep beside me and, having been on the road for four shows over the past two weeks, I figured it was best to let her sleep. I, however, was dying for a hot cup of coffee. The O Hotel accommodation came with a free breakfast buffet so it was the most logical place to get my coffee. I dressed up and went down to the dining room.
The breakfast buffet was the least exciting I have seen in my life. I had an omelet, two pieces of lackadaisical bread, I skipped the butter (because it was margarine, not butter), had two cups of coffee and went back to the room. When Alex woke up, I suggested that she order room service instead.
A little after noon, Alex’s friend, Cleo, who is in the same production outfit that produced the previous night’s show, had joined us.
I suggested lunch at Mu Shu which we could not locate and later discovered to have moved at another location — right next door to Pepe’s. Mu Shu wouldn’t open until dinnertime so we had lunch at Pepe’s instead. We had lunch there during last year’s trip and I declared it the best lunch out we had.
I ordered chicken with mushroom sauce.
Alex had spaghetti carbonara.
Cleo chose beef salpicao.
My chicken and Cleo’s beef were dry. Alex declared her pasta as so-so.
Did Pepe’s have a new chef?
After Pepe’s, we went shopping. Perhaps, it was the disappointing lunch that led us to the grocery. We bought chips, Ritz crackers and a tub of cream cheese dip.
The afternoon sun was scorching hot and, by the time we were back at the hotel, all I wanted was to lie down in the air-conditioned room. No more going out until dinner time.
Cafe Bob’s. Again.
What is it with Cafe Bob’s that has us going back again and again? Alex had been there the year before, I was there just the day before and, before we left Bacolod two days later, we were there again. Part of me wanted to try something new. When I spotted an open-air area with food stalls right across Cafe Bob’s, I suggested we check it out. Manukan Country had a stall there, there was a seafood stall with fresh scallops on the half shell… We almost stayed. But it was just so hot and the air-conditioned dining room lured us back to Cafe Bob’s. No regrets.
We had pasta and pizza…
I had coffee and mini-Pavlova and then I ordered cakes and pastries to take back to the hotel.
That was how I discovered Cafe Bob’s napoleones and how it is the best napoleones in Bacolod.
The morning of our third day in Bacolod started late. We all overslept hoping to fully digest the previous night’s dinner while dreaming of more good food. We didn’t bother going down in time for the hotel’s buffet breakfast (it was terrible). Instead, we rummaged through our fridge for leftovers.
We still had bread from the Negros Museum Cafe. We had cakes and pastries from Cafe Bob’s. And we had Ritz crackers and cream cheese dip from the previous day’s grocery trip. I had coffee sent up to the room and breakfast was done. It was around 10.30 a.m. and… what’s the use of eating too much leftovers for breakfast when we were raring to go out and enjoy more of Bacolod’s delicious food?
We watched cartoons for a while, showered, one after the other, and discussed where we were having our late lunch. Alex was drying her hair with a towel when her phone rang. It was her Bacolod-born-and-raised classmate from college, Clair. She was coming over and taking us out to lunch. That saved us from racking our brains some more trying to decide where to have lunch. If it were up to Alex, I swear she would have chosen Cafe Bob’s again.
Half an hour later, we were walking on the parking lot toward Clair’s SUV. She drove without telling us where we were going for lunch. Secret, she said.
Tucked behind the Bacolod City Hall is a small restaurant that, without the insight of a local, we would never have found. The place is called Krabby Fatty (yes, the owners are Sponge Bob Squarepants fans) and the ribs were fantastic — so tender with just the right amount of fat interspersed between layers of juicy meat.
I don’t normally have milkshake with ribs and rice but the owner said the milkshakes were among their bestsellers. I couldn’t pass up on that. The Black Forest milkshake with a touch of rum was especially good, he said. He had me at rum. And, oh my goodness, I don’t think I had milkshake that good before.
Krabby Fatty’s is owned by a boyfriend-girlfriend team who, before their venture into the food industry, were special education teachers. Nice move, Krabby Fatty owners, because the food is great and the prices are so friendly that I’m sure the food will attract customers from every economic stratum.
From Krabby Fatty, we went to Palmas del Mar where my entire afternoon felt like I was living out a scene from Mamma Mia!
Bob Restaurant’s 50th Anniversary
The day before I flew to Bacolod, I was making a list of restaurants where I wanted to take Alex. I came across the announcement that Bob’s Restaurant would be celebrating its 50th anniversary during the weekend, I figured it would be full to the rafters so I crossed it out of my list. While we were at Palmas del Mar, I got a call from Gary asking what our plans were for dinner. None yet, I replied. Let’s go to Bob’s 50th anniversary, he said, and we should bring Clair too who, it turned out, was a (grade school?) classmate of Gary’s daughter. Oh, what a small world!
The 50th anniversary buffet at Bob’s Restaurant is now a blur of sate babi, lechon, kare-kare, dessert… The sate babi, Gary said, was what transformed Bob’s from a small eatery into the institution that it is today. Decades ago, two sticks of sate babi and rice was a student meal, and Bacolod apparently fell in love with it. I could understand why. The boldly seasoned tender meat in bamboo skewers was addictive. I think I had six of them.
There were a lot of people at Bob’s that night and Bacolod’s crème de la crème was in full attendance. I spotted Peque Gallaga who looked less harassed than he did when I saw him in the audience of Carrie, the musical. It felt strange to be seated at a table in a room reserved for “RELATIVES” when we didn’t know a soul in Bacolod except Gary and his family, and Clair. But Gary and his wife, Isabel, knew almost everyone and it was comforting that we were at Bob’s 50th anniversary as their guests. It was quite an experience seeing Bacolod gather together for a special occasion. There was so much food and everything was so good.
Satiated, we were standing in front of Bob’s smoking when Isabel asked if we had tried the puff pastries at Bob’s bakery. The savory varieties, especially the one with burger filling was truly good, she said. Having heard that, Alex took my hand and pulled me inside the bakery. Naturally, she chose the one with the burger. Not that we were able to eat what we bought from Bob’s that night. We ate them all the next morning. Even without reheating, they were delicious.
Last year, the only time we went to Pendy’s we bought pastries and sweet snacks. It was around 4.00 p.m., a blisteringly hot summer day, and we had just done the Negros Museum tour. We passed by Pendy’s for munchies and for ice cold water. I spied cakes shaped as half circles covered with a soft custard. Half-moon cakes, they were called and a specialty of Pendy’s. But much as I wanted to try one, I was too full and my taste buds don’t always function correctly in extreme heat. So, I passed up on the half-moon cakes.
Fast forward to a year later. On our last day in Bacolod, we were back at Pendy’s — this time, not only to shop for pastries and sweet snacks but also to sit down for lunch. We ordered a lot of dishes, some we shared, other’s we didn’t, but two items stood out.
First, the batchon. I wasn’t sure what it was, Gary chuckled and said I should try it. I did. Sure, La Paz batchoy is good. But batchon — batchoy with lechon — is… Oh my goodness, the amount of chicharon floating on top of the bowl of noodle soup was insane! I dug in with my fork, fished out pieces of lechon between the noodles, and… Let’s just say I could have eaten just the batchon and gone straight for dessert, and I would have been content.
But there were other dishes, there was a succulent meat dish that I can’t recall the name and I ate some more. I didn’t think there was any space left in my digestive system for dessert but I wasn’t going to pass up on the half-moon cake again. I ordered.
Alex and I shared the half-moon cake and we did quite a duet with our ooohsand aaaahs. I should have ordered a box and brought it home. Or, perhaps, what I really mean is that I should have wrapped Bacolod neatly to bring home. The yema cakes that had been sprouting all over Metro Manila the past couple of years are obviously attempts to reproduce Pendy’s half-moon cakes in larger sizes.
The last meal we had before our evening flight was at a restaurant in the newly-opened mall at Ayala Northpoint just outside Bacolod. I forgot the restaurant’s name but they had “squid carbonara” (squid served with carbonara sauce — no pasta) that Alex loved. They also had char-grilled bulalo, a dish that, to my mind, is something that everyone should experience at least once in his lifetime.
Hasta las vista, Bacolod. Until next time.