It was my first time in Bacolod and I was told to pack loose clothing. Apparently, 90% of the trip would consist of eating (the 10% is for driving to places for eating). While preparing my itinerary whilst asking recommendations from friends who have visited and/or lived in Bacolod, one restaurant appears constant on their lists: 21 Restaurant.
When in Bacolod: 21 Restaurant
Named such because of its location at 21st Street corner Lacson (a main road in Bacolod), this family restaurant has been around since the eighties. Back then, it was smaller and had a shorter menu, primarily focused on serving Negrense favorites, like batchoy. Around 2005, the establishment underwent a major renovation and was even called Bar 21. Now, it is simply called “21,” a name synonymous to delicious comfort food, affordable prices and a family-friendly atmosphere.
The place is owned, operated and managed by siblings Chef Richie Gamboa and Rica Gamboa, along with their cousins, Paolo Araneta and Antoni Espinos---it’s like a family legacy that has been passed from generation to generation.
Take, for example, 21’s Original Batchoy (P80), which they are really famous for--it’s like an heirloom that is carefully guarded and preserved for future generations to enjoy.
Served warm with a fresh egg cracked into the hot broth upon request, the soup is teeming with pork cracklings, fried garlic bits, liver slices, and small pieces of pork. Prepared for 3-4 hours, the broth is the secret weapon, and definitely comfort food for the soul. A bowl can easily fill a hungry tummy, and may even leave some to share to a friend. Good for merienda or a late night snack, it truly is the best batchoy I’ve tasted.
There are less filling fare in 21 Restaurant, for those with less monstrous appetites—dishes that may serve as merienda or pulutan (bar chow).
Crablets with sinamak
Crablets with sinamak (P130), fried whole with their shells. These go down smoothly with or without the aid of sinamak (native vinegar). It’s hard to feel guilty while munching on these since you kind of fool yourself into thinking they’re seafood, anyway. So, indulge, and watch yourself clean an entire plate of it.
Chicken Inasal Lollipop with atchara and sinamak
A more upscale version of the Bacolod favorite, Chicken Inasal Lollipop (P135) cannot be compared to eating -with your bare hands at Manukan Country—a stretch of road dotted with inasal eateries. Nevertheless, the taste is still topnotch and the delicious atchara a welcome addition.
Like a version of ceviche, Tanguige Kinilaw (P210) is made more sublime with the addition of salted egg and black beans to the usual tomatoes and onions. It definitely whets the appetite, making it an excellent start of a feast or a drinking session.
Fried Isul served with mushroom gravy
Fried Isul (P160) was alien to me, not knowing beforehand that isul is actually chicken ass—that plump protrusion on the base of the fowl’s spine. So, imagine how fleshy and fatty a piece of isul is. Literally not for the faint of heart, 21’s version is deep fried into golden brown nuggets and then served with creamy gravy. I, unfortunately, enjoyed my first taste of isul. It’s terrifyingly good—like evil fried chicken and chicharon combined. Sorry, arteries.
Crab Sticks with Talangka Sauce
Another glorious creation is Crab Sticks with Talangka Sauce (P155): crabmeat deep fried into rolls and then served with the very tasty taba ng talangka (river crab fat) sauce. It’s crab on crab, and the result is a decadent show of crab well done.
Curious-looking, or for some, scary-looking, Pinitaw (P175) is simply beef floss. Cooked to crisp, you eat it with sinamak. This dish is definitely a beer match.
For those who want to indulge in heavier fare, there’s a myriad of choices offered in 21. Their menu is huge, it’s impossible to sample all their offerings in one Bacolod weekend visit.
Lamb with Curry Rice
Best start with one of their bestsellers: the Lamb with Curry Rice (P290), which is tender pieces of lamb sauteed in garlic and onions, then served with roasted eggplant.
Porkchop Bicol Express
One of my favorites is the Porkchop Bicol Express (P175), which is deep-fried porkchop in cassava batter paired with mixed vegetables simmered in coconut milk. Eaten with steaming white rice, it is the sort of dish that reminds you of home.
There is a lot of seafood dishes to choose from, if you’re one to shy from red meat. The Fish Parmesan (P285) is seared lapu-lapu fillet with eggplant and tomato sauce, topped with parmesan sauce, The sauce holds the dish together, and it would be great if there’s more of it to mix with rice.
Grilled Squid and Lemongrass
The Grilled Squid and Lemongrass (P180) is comprised of three pieces of succulent whole squid skewered by barbecue sticks and stuffed with lots of lemongrass stalks. The result is a fragrant squid meat nearly plump with its juiciness.
I highly recommend the Moist Chocolate Cake (P115) to cap your meal with. It’s the recipe of Antoni, one of the owners, and it definitely lives up to its name.
Moist Chocolate Cake
The cake is not too sweet, although very rich in chocolate. Inside, there is a light cream filling that looks like milky caramel. Although, it looks cloying, it’s surprisingly not overwhelming. Best share this with a companion, as this cake is heavy.
Since 21 Restaurant used to be Bar 21, they couldn’t let go of their cocktails and other alcohol-laden beverages. Their specialty is the Iced Tea 21 (P70), which looks and tastes like laced orange juice but doesn’t contain a drop of it. The drink is brewed tea, combined with “secret ingredients” I wasn’t privy to. I didn’t need to know, it was delicious, refreshing and a tad intoxicating, just my kind of drink.
Iced Tea 21
Other girl-friendly drinks are the Cosmopolitan (P90) and the Frozen Margarita (P155). The former is strong, with the kind of hit that creeps on you at the last minute, while the latter, is light and a little fruity.
When in Bacolod, thou shall not miss 21 Restaurant—not only for their batchoy—but also for the authentic experience of dining in a family restaurant that has been well-loved by Bacolod locals through the years.