Sunday, September 7, 2014

Long weekend in Zubu

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The last time I was out of town on a long weekend was in Bacolod during Holy Week, but sadly I wasn't able to enjoy it thoroughly because the Philippine population is 86% Roman Catholic, and Roman Catholics take Holy Week seriously, shutting down their businesses even when they know they can profit largely from vacationers on holiday. National Heroes Day (August 25th) thankfully fell on a Monday this year and since it isn't a Christian holiday, I had high hopes that I'd have a much more enjoyable time on my trip to Cebu. I went with a friend who had already been there a few times but still agreed to do touristy stuff with me. First on our itinerary was Magellan's Cross.

Magellan's Cross is the original cross planted by Magellan and the Spaniards when they arrived in the Philippines more than five centuries ago. It's covered in tindalo wood now, however, allegedly to preserve it, but I couldn't help but think the actual cross may have already been relocated.

I had always envisioned Magellan's Cross and the chapel that houses it to be gigantic structures, but that proved to be just an illusion when I finally caught sight of the place in person. Literally just an illusion because the only reason the cross looks so big in photos is the upwards angle it is almost always taken in, against the seemingly vast ceiling as backdrop, with no other object around it to scale it with. The entire chapel has been under repair for a few months now, because of the damage caused by the 7.2-magnitude earthquake that shook Bohol last year, so in addition to the women in yellow Sto. Niño uniforms peddling colored candles and prayer dances to tourists (one woman's "Para sa love life ni Ate Cheche" dance stuck with my friend and he was imitating it comically throughout the entire trip), the place, including the cross, is also surrounded by wooden support, which at least we can now scale it with in recent photos.

We visited the Basilica Minore del Santo Niño next, as it was just a short walk away from Magellan's Cross. There was a program of some sort going on at the plaza. The church was still closed to tourists though, so we just glimpsed the interiors from outside.

Another short walk away and we were at Fort San Pedro in Plaza Independencia. Built in 1738, Fort San Pedro is the oldest bastion fort in the Philippines, serving to repel invaders during that period and the Philippine Revolution. There were lots of Korean tourists that Saturday and it seemed they were much more interested in what they were seeing than we Filipino visitors were.

After all the walking, we finally decided to have lunch at IT Park. And where else to do it but at the famed Zubuchon.

Zubuchon's famed lechon

Zubuchon's name is a portmanteau of the ancient designation for Cebu and lechon. They make their lechon old-fashioned, without using any mixes or MSG to improve the taste or blowtorching the pigs to get that smooth and evenly caramelized skin we usually associate lechon with. Though they cost a bit higher than your regular roasted pig, I think they're well worth the price. My friend and I ordered half a kilo of it, only a cup of rice each (there were already enough calories in the pig) and a pitcher of iced lime and lemongrass tea to wash it all down. We were able to finish our meal despite our lechon order being enough for three or four persons. Anthony Bourdain was right in proclaiming Zubuchon's lechon the "best pig ever."

Zubuchon's iced lime and lemongrass tea

For dessert, my friend Cams recommended La Marea, a pastry shop also at IT Park with a sea-inspired interior (starfish on their paper cups, a collage of fishing photos hanging on the wall), which makes sense as "La Marea" literally means "the tide" in Spanish. None of their pastries relate to fishing or the sea, however, and despite their use of the font Brush Script for everything, people still seem to flock to their shop, particularly for their warm brownie cup.

La Marea's warm brownie cup, which also comes sugar-free and in other varieties

La Marea's warm brownie cup is literally warmed brownie fudge in a cup with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and chocolate sprinkles on top. It disappointed me, probably because with a cup like what they served my order in, one would expect the contents to be a lot. But they weren't.

La Marea's creme brûlée

We also tried La Marea's creme brûlée, mango pastry a la mode and a slice of carrot bread—none of them special, but hey, I've got a sweet tooth and those were desserts, so no complaints.

La Marea's mango pastry a la mode

Next on our itinerary was catching the sunset at Tops Mountain Lookout, so after we freshened up at our hotel, we rode a habal-habal (for P150 per head, back and forth) to the place for about twenty minutes, and joined about three dozen Koreans and several Filipino couples in taking photos of the view.

Tops Mountain Lookout, more popularly referred to as just Tops, is located in Busay, north of the road that leads to another tourist destination in Cebu, the Taoist Temple. It was cold at Tops, understandably because of the high altitude (around 2,500 feet above sea level), but there were stores there serving alcohol and coffee to help keep tourists warm.

We didn't stay long because we were already getting hungry and we knew it would be too cold riding down the road on a habal-habal come nighttime. But instead of getting straight to dinner after leaving Tops, we had desserts first, mostly because it had started raining and this pastry shop called Country Basket was the first dining establishment we had come across.

Country Basket is tiny and—though I usually refuse to use this adjective—cute. It has two floors. The first is where you see all their offerings and order, and upstairs is where you can get seated. We tried their tiramisu, red velvet cake and Kahlúa walnut pie. It was the red velvet cake I liked best. The Kahlúa walnut pie is chocolate with a hint of the coffee-flavored rum and walnuts, but I didn't like it as much despite it being one of their specialties and bestsellers.

Country Basket's tiramisu, red velvet cake and Kahlúa walnut pie

We had a proper dinner at the famous Larsian, a short jeepney ride away from our hotel. We got accosted by several stall owners upon entering the place but decided to go for the stall that didn't try too hard to get the attention of prospective customers. I had no idea what kinds of foods one can eat at Larsian in general, but apparently they're all grilled. Rice is served almost bite-sized, compacted in coconut leaves, much like suman, but woven in the shape of a triangular pyramid with a slit in the middle so you can take the rice out. Called pusó and priced at P4 each, they're served to tables in a basket where diners can get however many they want and the number of weaves left on the table after will just be counted for the bill.

Pusó and grilled isaw, betamax, chicken breast, chicken liver and barbecued pork at Larsian

The highlight of the trip was spending Saturday morning with nature in Oslob, four hours away from Cebu City. We left the hotel at five and took a cab to "south terminal" where we rode a bus to Tan-awan. We arrived at around nine and headed straight to an unnamed place where people can go swim with whale sharks, locally known as butanding. Or if you're scared of doing so, just watch from a boat while fishermen feed them alamang (tiny shrimp). There's a reason they're referred to as "gentle giants" though. They're harmless. In all probability, they might be the ones afraid of us humans.

I do have a fear of natural bodies of water, as I have mentioned in past blog entries, but having been on a YOLO state of mind for a while now, I was really looking forward to swimming with the butandings. We first listened to a mandatory five-minute orientation which discussed rules to watching and swimming with the gentle giants, such as no applying of sunblock before heading out to the waters and not touching them or even getting within 10 meters of them. Then we paid a fee of P500 each to snorkel for thirty minutes (it's P1,000, if you're a foreigner).

A local fisherman feeding alamang to a butanding

The spot where they take you to watch whale sharks isn't far from the shore. I asked the fishermen on our boat how many of the majestic creatures usually come out in the area and he said about a dozen and only in the morning, which is why whale shark watching is only confined to that time of day. Best to go after dawn when the waters are still calm, but if you'd like to see the gentle giants better (also for better photographs), a later time when the sun is higher up in the sky would be optimal.

I had borrowed a GoPro camera from a friend and thankfully had two good photos (out of many, many burst shots) of myself with a butanding taken by my Cebu companion. About five minutes before our time was up, I decided to remove my vest and snorkel goggles in hopes of getting a better shot of myself with a whale shark, but my friend had already stopped taking photos.

After that amazing swim, we had tocino, eggs and coffee for breakfast, bought some souvenirs and hired a "multicab" driver to take us to Tumalog Falls (for P200, back and forth).

Breathtaking Tumalog Falls in Oslob, Cebu

Tumalog Falls is by far the most magnificent waterfalls I have seen in person. The weather was perfect for gazing up at the cascading waters. The sun hit each drop beautifully. Being used to the harshness of urban life, such a view to me was ethereal.

We stayed at the falls for an hour, because that was the time we told our driver we'd be away for, and then we headed back to the city, collapsed on our beds and stayed in our hotel room watching cable TV until our flight home the next day.

Locals speak either Bisaya or English, or both, but rarely Tagalog. Just like you would if you were in Iloilo or Bacolod, you say "lugar lang" to alight from public transport, which we were mostly dependent on since we were traveling on a budget. I liked how Cebuano jeepneys had an alphanumeric system to them, making them easy to spot even from afar, though difficult to memorize what destination each of their alphanumeric combinations represented. When we needed to take a cab at night, we were able to rely on cabs' roof lights to let us know whether they were vacant or occupied, literally, because their lights will either be on the word "vacant" or "occupied."

Cebu is a pleasant place overall. Our itinerary surely wasn't enough to let me experience all things Cebuano, so I'm definitely going back. Especially for the lechon and the butandings.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Last week, in desserts: sinful cookies and puto flan

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My dad often jokes about my mom being too thrifty, too tipid with everything. When preparing a sandwich and he knows she's within earshot, looking all miserable he'd spoon sandwich spread too thin onto the bread and mumble something about not wanting to get scolded by her if she finds out he had done otherwise. My brother and I, and even my mom herself, would laugh because we all know that's exactly how she makes our sandwichestipid sa palaman. I thought of this after I tasted the cookies my friends Cams and Claire had sent me to pick up in Eastwood last Tuesday, but not for the same reason my dad would mock my mom's sandwich-making. The cookies were from Felize's Baked Specialties, a home business whose proprietress is Liza Valente. They were not at all tipid in ingredients, I tell you. And they're the best homemade cookies I've tasted so far.

Chocolate chip oatmeal and Oreo cheesecake cookies by Felize's Baked Specialties

Cams and Claire ordered two cookie varietieschocolate chip oatmeal and Oreo cheesecake. The chocolate chip oatmeal cookies were sufficiently chewy and had walnuts and big chocolate chips, unlike the ones too meagerly sprinkled on store-bought variety. They have to be consumed quickly (wasn't a problem for us) or else the chocolate chips will melt. The Oreo cheesecake cookies had Oreo filling and cream cheese mixed together and covered in crushed Oreo sandwiches. They were very sweet, just the way I like itand I have a really high threshold for sweetness.

Look at that cream cheese filling. Sinful.

Felize's Baked Specialties got its name from its proprietress' complete first name Feliza, with the "a" turned into an "e" for a twist (her kids' idea). The business started in 2008 as Ms. Liza's solution to her mom's Christmas giveaway problem of giving to about 25 people with only a limited budget of P2,000. Ms. Liza had been baking banana loaves and cookies at home for her kids, so after scouting around with her mom for the giveaways and finding that nothing fit her mom's liking and budget, Ms. Liza offered to just bake some banana loaves for her. They were a hit. Her kids had also been bringing her cookies as baon to work and after they shared them with their co-workers, the orders began pouring in. They've been busy in the kitchen every weekend since.

In 2010, Felize's opened a shared booth at Mercato for a weekend, joined weekend bake sales and started delivering to a theater, a coffee shop and offices. Since 2011, the months of February and December have become dedicated to baking. The rest of the year, Ms. Liza works as a market research translator.

A box of ten chocolate chip oatmeal cookies by Felize's Baked Specialties costs P400, though you may also purchase a box of six for P240, putting the cost per cookie at only P40. The Oreo cheesecake ones cost P410 for a box of ten and P250 for a box of six. Not bad prices at all for such delicious treats.

Felize's Baked Specialties still makes banana loaves, along with food for the gods and four other cookie varietieslemon macadamia, rocky road, chocolate Reese's and Tobleronethough said varieties are usually only available during Christmas season, unless perhaps you place a large order. Can't wait to try them come the holidays. You may visit or contact Ms. Liza Valente herself at 0917-408-5657 for more info.

Another new treat I got to sample this week was something my good friend Hannah made. I'm still sad that she quit her job and I don't get to see her in the office anymore, but she seems genuinely happy, especially having found a hobby she can earn money from: making puto flan. I googled it and apparently it's more known as "leche puto," but one gets the idea with either name anyway, that it's a fusion of puto and leche flan. And "leche puto" sounds like an expletive to most Pinoys.

Hannah's puto flan...or leche puto, whichever you prefer.

I've never been a fan of puto, the classic Filipino steamed rice cake, no matter the color or size. Unless there's a really thick strip of cheese on top. Or a slathering of creamy custard, as it turns out. Leche flan I am very much a fan of. So puto flan works for me.

Hannah has made both miniature and medium versions of the puto flan but says she can't make them big because she'll have a problem with the custard. She plans to experiment with more puto fusions, which I'm naturally excited about. For now, she's accepting orders for the puto flan, priced at P60 per eight medium pieces or P100 per fifteen. If you live in Quezon City, I'm sure arrangements can be made for orders to be picked up. Do get in touch with Hannah at 0998-558-7840.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Boracay first-timer

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After a long, long time of treating with indifference the idea of visiting Boracay, I wanted to finally give the popular summer destination a shot, so when my college friend Mines invited me and another college friend Mark to her colleagues' beach outing there, I said yes.

Almost perfect weather

As is my usual luck, however, and since summer had already ended, there was bad weather involved. There was a typhoon whose name I cannot recall for our Mount Apo climb last August, and there was Typhoon Yolanda for our hike up Mount Pulag with co-workers last November. This time for our Boracay trip, there was Typhoon Florita (Neoguri)...or at least its outer rainbands because it never really made landfall in the Philippines.

Mark and I flew with Air Asia Zest to Kalibo last Friday night, a decision which we regret in hindsight because we could have saved a lot of time flying directly to Caticlan. Island Star Express took care of our bus/boat transfers to our hotel La Carmela de Boracay in Station 3, where we arrived in the evening with the rain already upon us. Mines later on met with us at the hotel after Mark and I have had dinner and asked around for good deals on the usual touristy island activities. The three of us agreed on going with one John of Boracay Tours & Adventures who offered us helmet diving (complete with a CD of our underwater photos and video), parasailing and island hopping in Crystal Cove, Crocodile Island and some place we could go cliff diving, all for P3,083 per head for the three of us, spanning our entire day, with a bounty of fresh seafood provided for lunch. Come Saturday morning, though, it was pouring hard, so despite John's attempts at convincing us through text to still go through with the plan because the activities will be held in another part of the island anyway, we had to cancel.

Having nothing else to do because of the dreary weather, the three of us frolicked in the water, fought the huge waves while playing dugtungan ng kanta, and buried each other's limbs in wet sand at the shore while catching up. After several dugtungan rounds and rule revisions, Mines lost, so she had to treat Mark and me to some McDonald's sundae according to our agreement.

Gloomy weather in Station 3

We decided to reserve some calamansi muffins at Real Coffee & Tea Cafe to take home. The first taste that I had of the muffins was through pasalubong given to me last year—odd, initially, but delicious, almost like lemon, but very distinctly calamansi-flavored. A box has 6 muffins and they cost P320 (individually bought, a muffin is P60). Mark, Mines and I each reserved two boxes for pick-up on Sunday.

Real Coffee & Tea Cafe is in Station 1 of the island and because it was a long way from our hotel in Station 3, the weather was actually better in the area. Made us actually think we should have pushed through with our island tour package with John. I made a mental note to book a hotel in Station 1 for when I go back to Boracay.

Station 1 weather, which was better but still cloudy

Probably the only thing I didn't like about Boracay was the ridiculous number of vendors and travel coordinators waiting to accost you at every corner to sell you tour packages, raincoats, monopods and sunglasses. Mark, I didn't know, was prone to vendor charmspeak, and Mines, always the polite one, often ended up by Mark's side during sales pitches. I, on the other hand, avoided any interaction with vendors because even the slightest eye contact could lead to them covering my eyes with fake Ray-Bans or hanging a waterproof gadget container around my neck. Mark and Mines were accosted by a lady representative of Astoria Hotels who enticed them with a 420-peso 3-for-1 lunch buffet and accommodations at their newly built Astoria Puerto Princesa hotel if they listened to a sales presentation over dinner. The lunch buffet promo was very enticing, but since after seeing the weather improve a bit we had decided to join Mines' colleagues in the afternoon on an island hopping tour they got on their own, we simply had lunch at Hap Chan.

Hap Chan's fried squid with salt and pepper, which was sinfully good especially with their vinegar

The weather turned sour after lunch so we canceled the island hopping tour again and opted to take a stroll. We went past Station 1 and reached Willy's Rock, which had a grotto of the Virgin Mary.

Grotto of Virgin Mary at Willy's Rock

On our way back to our hotel, Mines wanted to buy a cocktail at Beach Hut Boracay. Their crazy-tall drink containers were so cool I considered buying too, especially since you can have them refilled whenever for a hundred pesos less than the original drink price. "Alcohol in the afternoon?" I contemplated aloud in front of the cheerful female staff of Beach Hut. "You're on vacation anyway, sir," she said with a smile. That convinced me enough.

Beach Hut Bar's crazy-tall drink containers

A liter of draft beer for me (only because I wanted the beer bottle which unfortunately doesn't come with cocktails) and a liter of margarita for Mines

We dropped by Mari-It Artworks, a nipa stall that sells native-inspired decor and accessories. Mark saw a beautiful necklace with a small, irregularly shaped, translucent white crystal which she planned to give to her girlfriend. It was P1,500, which immediately made Mark lose interest in it. I can only imagine how much more the animal skull staffs cost.

If you're into native-inspired decor or accessories with gemstones or animal skulls, visit Mari-It Artworks

Skull staffs, gemstone pendants, animal spine bracelets, etc.

I'm normally against staying too long inside the hotel room during vacation because it's a waste of time. But the weather being bipolar, rainy and windy one moment and sunny another (sometimes even rainy, windy and sunny all at the same time), we had no choice but to spend more time inside our executive suites. Thank goodness for cable and the bathtub with running hot water.

Bipolar weather at Stations 2 and 3

Spirited Away on Disney

For dinner on Saturday night, Mines and I tried the Astoria dinner thing offered to them in the morning. As it turned out, it was not at Astoria Hotel but in Casa del Pilar's buffet resto. We were sat down by this really pushy guy and asked to sign a registration form. I was already really grumpy because of the weather and all the earlier salespeople encounters so when I got to the part where the form essentially asked, "Would you agree to attend a 90-minute presentation where we yap about one of our hotel projects while we show you boring Powerpoint slides in exchange for gift certificates to Astoria Puerto Princesa?" Mines and I had to politely decline. Mark was not feeling so well anyway so we just bought pizza and pasta at Yellow Cab for take-out and ate in our hotel room. We didn't get to party at a bar or go pub crawling, although we got to binge on Beach Hut refills and some of my own vodka mix in the hotel. Aside from the hot shower and bathtub, the only other great thing about La Carmela de Boracay was the elevated seating area they had by the beach, so we took advantage of that, hung out by ourselves and slept late.

The next morning, we had buffet breakfast at the hotel again at around 9:30, and seeing that the weather was fairer, we decided to actually allow an island tour coordinator to accost us on our way to pick up our calamansi muffins so we could go helmet diving before check-out. Mines had an earlier flight back to Manila, though, so we didn't have time for parasailing anymore.

We didn't get to try any local delicacies in Boracay—or any food that couldn't also just be bought in the city, for that matter—although right outside Kalibo airport Mark and I got to enjoy a pre-departure feast of fresh mango shakes, binakol na manok (native chicken cooked in bamboo) and grilled boneless bangus. I wasn't able to take note of the restaurant's name, but all the food served to us were delicious.

Fresh mango shakes

Binakol na manok, which was like a better-tasting tinola

A red fish and Flounder from The Little Mermaid staring happily at a grilled boneless bangus (milkfish)

All in all, Boracay was able to redeem my perception of beaches. Sure, I might appreciate subpar beaches even less now, but at least Bora's one more thing I YOLO-ed and could now cross off my bucket list this year.
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