I find Naga City to be a very charming place, having spent time in Bicol during holidays and vacation seasons to reconnect with my Bicolano roots (my mom was born and raised in Naga). While I admit I am very rusty in speaking their dialect, my tongue is surely adept in all the palatable offerings this side of Bicol has to offer. I do not shy on their spicy fare, and I am always game to go cowboy style in the name of delicious food.
On my last visit, I really wanted to go out and about the streets and visit local food haunts: from the more famous and newer offerings, to the old favorites. I sought to go back to the basics, with places where the Bicolanos themselves hang out at. And so, armed with a bevy of Bicolano beauties (a.k.a. my mother, aunt, and cousins), I let my tastebuds travel all around the city. Here are some of my favorite finds.
Bob Marlin will most probably be the first thing in one's mind to recommend to first-timers in Naga. First, because of its catchy name, it's easy to remember and it piques one's interest. Second, it's located along Magsaysay Avenue, which is a prime area that locals boast of its food and nightlife (think of it as their little version of Makati).
Owner Cristy Palma is actually a Batangueno who married a Bicolano, but she confesses to me that she is truly a Bicolana at heart. This proves in her resto's scrumptious dishes.
Bicol Express and Laing
Spice levels skyrocket with the Bicol Express (P69), a hot medley of balaw (salted shrimp fry) and pineapple that will send tongues a-wagging. A personal favorite, Laing (P69), speeds along in the spice race when you chop and mix in the bright red sili that comes along with it. Without the sili, its just as enjoyable for me, with gabi leaves, gata (coconut milk), and pork bits.
It was my first time to try Dinuguang Baka (P179), so I was quite hesitant and dubious if Bob Marlin will be able to pull off one of my all-time favorite Pinoy dishes. But with one bite, I was an instant fan of this take, just like the local mayor. While not as sour the way I like it, the meat chunks were just oh so tender. And the sauce! Oh the sauce, it was grand. We kept on guessing what magic it had: did they add gata, or perhaps butter? Cristy smiled and simply explained that it was slow-cooked.
OMG Crispy Pata
The aptly named OMG Crispy Pata (P299) was oh-my-goodness in proportion and crunch, ever as indulgent as it can be. If you're a big group, this one's a must-order. While the crispy pata was just mouthwateringly good, my mom and I declared the simple Adobo sa Gatang Manok (P189) as the clear winner of our lunch. If you want to taste how coconut milk can do wonders to a simple dish, then this is it. The free range chicken with young papaya and sili leaves stand out among the lot.
If you really want to roll with the locals, mention 'Fiesta Restaurant' and they'll be there. I visited their first branch at the Centro after a round of Ukay shopping to treat ourselves to some of their time-tested dishes at incredibly low prices. Our hearty lunch good for six people was worth only 340 Pesos (and we had leftovers!).
Fiesta is very famous for their lomi, as it is arguably the very first and best one in the city. The restaurant is owned by the Bicharras, the family also known for owning movie houses around the area.
The Fiesta Lomi Special (P35 - small, P55 - regular, P145 - big bowl for 4) is hot, filling and good value for money. Benjie Bicharra explains that what makes it special is their 17 ingredients. Fiesta is also known for their Pancit Canton (P75/P100), a platter of no-frills, simply comfort food noodles which I like to drizzle with lemoncito (calamansi) and patis. While you're at it, indulge in their Chicharon Bulaklak (P95), which is a perfect match for ice-cold beer or Coke.
Aaah, now on to my most magnificent discovery of my trip: the Kinalas. Back then, my mom tells me, they didn't have this dish and they had a simpler version of a noodle soup in the log-log. So off we went to take a trike (once called 'tri-mobil' by the locals) to Dimasalang corner Barlin Street, to dine at the carinderia that serves supposedly the best kinalas: Cely's Eatery.
If you want to get down and dirty with good food in Naga City, then this carinderia is definitely for you: no nonsense food served swiftly for instant gratification! And oh, let's not forget how cheap the food is again. Kinalas is basically a noodle soup with a gravy-like sauce, served with beef that has been separated from its bone (hence 'kinalas'). All of us had a hearty bowl Kinalas with Egg (P35), while my brother ate an entire family's worth in the Kinalas Super Jumbo (P64).
Soft white noodles, beef strips, gravy like log-log sauce, all tossed in a bowl. Squeeze in some calamansi juice and spicy vinegar, and you're in for a real treat. Pair it with a glass of Coke loaded with ice, and it's all the more heavenly. My relatives swear that Kinalas is good with either the Baduya (P9) (fried banana in skewers) or the giniris (maruya). I second the motion!
Next on the list is the Toasted Siopao. There are several places where you can get these in Naga, you can just ask around, or try the ones in Naga Restaurantfor only P15 each.
This isn't exactly a siopao that they just toasted. They use a different kind of bread that becomes beautifully brown when toasted. I liken the texture and sweetness of the bread to monay, only a bit more compact and filling.
This is best eaten once bought fresh and hot, so that when you break open the siopao, steam emanates from the inside. Naga Restaurant's version has adobo filling with hard-boiled egg inside. A couple of these is already filling for a meal! If you plan to bring home some, place them in the freezer to lengthen their storage life, and then pop them in the toaster before serving.
Lastly, one must bring home Bicol's pili nut products as pasalubong. You will find a lot of little stores and kiosks around the city that sell these nuts cooked and prepared in various ways. A popular brand is J. Emmanuel Pastries (e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org).
We were able to take a look at how they prepare and process various pili nut products, and heard about the company's evolution from a simple backyard business to a now booming export enterprise. Aside from pili, they also sell various accessories, bags, and nibblers like Puto Seko, Sesame Balls, and Sampaloc.
My favorite pili sweets is the Pilinut Kiss Choco (P20 - 40g) and the bar of Mazapan, which I think ended up being my midnight sweet snacks instead of pasalubongs to friends. Oops, my bad!
So if you find yourself at this little corner of Bicol, do explore their many culinary offerings. From restaurants to carinderias, home-cooked goodness to street food faves, you will enjoy Naga's masiram na mga kakanon!