By CJ Juntereal
Paoay seemed an unlikely place to find an American barbecue restaurant, but there it was on the second floor of the Paseo de Paoay building with a great view of Paoay Church—Smoke.
Chris Stolk is the restaurant’s “meathead” and pitmaster. He is American, with an understanding of Ilocano and Ilocanos that allows him to easily drop words like bagtit into the conversation. Bagtit means crazy or insane, which he could possibly be for daring to open a niche restaurant like Smoke in Ilocos Norte. Stolk himself thinks he is bagtit.
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There may be something to his “crazy” though, because the meat that he smokes low and slow using imported hickory and mesquite wood chips can hold its own among the best barbecues that Metro Manila has to offer, maybe even beating some of them.
Smoked meats are the stars of the menu, all of them tender, moist, fall-off-the-bone, and very tasty—baby back ribs, American slabs (larger and fattier than baby back ribs), beef brisket, and pulled pork. The surprising standouts are smoked pulled lamb, smoked longganisa, and bagtit bagnet. The lamb has a hint of cumin, smoked with Applewood chips that lend it a hint of fruit in the flavor profile. The bagnet is crazy good, pink inside, with a distinct smoky flavor and crackling crisp skin.
Smoke also serves buffalo chicken wings with heat levels that escalate up the Scoville Scale (used to measure the spicy heat of chilis and other food). The variations on the wings start with The Shire as the mildest, and move on through Lord of the Wings, Mordor’s Revenge, and The End of Middle Earth. Stolk builds the heat by adding habanero peppers, Carolina Reaper Sauce, and the very spicy “Ghost Peppers.” I love spicy food, but Mordor’s Revenge did me in.
THE BETTER SIDE OF BITTER
On the ground floor of Paseo de Paoay is Rufino’s, which is owned by Chef Nick Rodriguez. The restaurant is a good place to sample some very traditional Ilocano dishes. During our lunch we had sinanglaw, a soup made from cow innards and organs, cow face, and bile, the bitter “juice” extracted by the liver to aid in digestion. The mild bitterness of the soup was tempered by a slight sourness that reminded me of paksiw. We also tried imbaliktad—strips of lean beef, liver, bone marrow, and the spinal column cooked rare with onions and ginger, and often a bit of bile. Ilocanos have an affinity for bitter tastes, which aren’t always popular with a lot of people, but when these Ilocano dishes are done well the bitterness is subtle and intriguing.
The bagnet at Rufino’s is also not to be missed. Chef Nick prepares it the traditional way, with crisp and airy skin and little to no salt. That’s because the eater is expected to eat bagnet with its traditional accompaniment that provides saltiness—KBL or kamatis, bagoong (monamon which is made from fermented anchovies), and lasona (small, red local onions that are like shallots). Rufino’s also sells its bagnet pre-fried, frozen, and packed to carry home. I bought several kilos because at home I just defrost the bagnet and cook it in a turbo broiler until the skin crisps up again. Chef Nick also makes very good brazo de mercedes and fudgy chocolate cake that are worth handcarrying back to Metro Manila.
Across from the Paoay Church, the 13-year-old Herencia Café was the pioneer among the restaurants in the plaza. It is also the most well known. Proprietor Eric Juan says that his family first opened the restaurant so that people would have somewhere to go after viewing the church. Herencia was also the first to come up with Pinakbet Pizza, he says, and they have continued to improve upon their pizzas through the years. The Pinakbet Pizza is best eaten with dashes of monamon to really make it taste like the Ilocanos’ most famous vegetable dish. Likewise, the Longanisa Pizza and Bagnet Pizza are given an extra edge of umami when eaten with monamon.
Herencia also serves the tastiest poquipoqui among all the versions I sampled during the trip. The pinakbet is made in true Ilocano fashion, with no squash and lots of bitter ampalaya.
DINARAAN ON A PICNIC
The day before we left Paoay, we spent the morning swimming at Madongan Dam in Dingras, Ilocos Norte. The water was cold, crystal clear, and when we stood under the rush of water that fell from the top of the dam it was like being pounded by a hefty masseuse. The dam is a tourist spot only during the summer months, when the water level is low.
We picnicked in one of the cottages for rent that line the edge of dam. The food had been provided by two of the restaurants in the Paoay Church Plaza. For breakfast, longanisa and bagnet sandwiches from Strasburg Coffee and, for lunch, another feast of Ilocano food from Spam, a restaurant, which has nothing to do with the famous luncheon meat. It is a play on proprietor Pam Arragoza’s name and caters to a young crowd with value-for-money Pinoy-American meals. Arragoza’s family owns La Preciosa restaurant in Laoag City, which makes a carrot cake that is also worth the effort to handcarry home.
The picnic lunch introduced us to favorite Ilocano vegetable dishes like baradibud, a soupy vegetable dish made with sweet potato, malunggay fruit, eggplant, and a worm-like vegetable called himbatao. There was also dinengdeng, also called inabraw, which is made by adding bagoong and vegetables to a pot of boiling water. Using very fresh vegetables gives the dish an almost sweetish character. Dinardaraan, the local blood stew, is like a dry version of the Tagalog dinuguan, less sour and with a thick, almost chocolatey sauce. Sometimes the meat and intestines are deep fried until crunchy, before the sauce is added.
SAVE UP FOR IPON
It was the season for ipon while we were in Paoay. Ipon, tiny newly zygote fish endemic to Ilocos Norte, appear 10 days after a full moon, for only a few days. Ilocanos eagerly await ipon, and are willing to pay high prices for it. It was served to us wrapped in banana leaves and steamed, but is also eaten sautéed with scrambled eggs, as paksiw, as kinilaw, or fermented into bagoong.
We didn’t spend all our time in Paoay eating. We drove up the Solsona-Apayao road that winds steeply up the mountains and has magnificent views; at 1,050 meters up, the sunset was beautiful. We visited Magdalena Gamayo of Pinili, 94 years old and a Gawad Manlilikhang Bayan Awardee for weaving. Tiny and wizened, she still spends a full day weaving fine inabel cloth and teaching younger generations this dying art. We spent time in a market checking out produce that was unfamiliar to us but local to Ilocos Norte. We lay in the sun on the wide stretch of Currimao Beach. We bought goodies to bring home—bagnet, longanisa, monamon, ipon bagoong, dark Ilocos vinegar, super sweet balikutsa candy made from molasses, and the famous anise-scented biscocho from Pasuquin Bakery—to remind us that Paoay and Ilocos Norte were worth a return trip.
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Smoke. Paseo de Paoay, Brgy. 18, Veronica, Paoay, Ilocos Norte. 63 995 141 1303
Rufino’s. Paseo de Paoay, Brgy. 18, Veronica, Paoay, Ilocos Norte. 63 917 803 1875
Spam by La Preciosa. Paseo de Paoay, Brgy. 18, Veronica, Paoay, Ilocos Norte. 63 917 538 1312
Strasburg Coffee. #01 Hamilton St., Brgy. 18, Veronica, Paoay, Ilocos Norte. 63 922 846 0942
Herencia Restaurant. Marcos Avenue, Paoay, Ilocos Norte. 077 614 0214