By ANGELO G. GARCIA
When you think about tourism destinations close to Manila, Batangas, Laguna, and Cavite would usually come to mind. But there’s one neighboring province that is beginning to be a weekender’s favorite retreat—a province that is brimming with art, beautiful landscape, cool sites, and a surprisingly good food scene. Located east of Metro Manila, Rizal province is your next go-to weekend getaway.
Aside from Antipolo, which is known for its cathedral and resorts, Rizal is home to the rich art culture of Angono, the historical petroglyphs of Binangonan, the award-winning Masungi Georeserve in Baras, the Instagrammable windmills of Pililla, the refreshing waterfalls of Tanay, the green landscape of Sierra Madre, and many more. The province is a favorite among bikers and cyclists because of its good road condition and challenging topography.
But to raise the level of awareness about the province even more, San Miguel Pure Foods Culinary Center (SMPCC) recently organized a familiarization trip. The tour highlighted the relatively unknown parts of the province, particularly the food scene.
“Rizal has become a favorite weekend destination for many because of its proximity to Metro Manila. This tour aims to put the spotlight on some of the most unique culinary, art, and historical stops in the province. We want to remind people that they don’t necessarily have to fly or go to the usual road-trip destinations, to sample new experiences. Just an hour’s ride or so east of Metro Manila, there’s so many things to discover,” says San Miguel Pure Foods Culinary Services manager Llena Tan-Arcenas.
BIBINGKA OF CAINTA
Cainta is the closest city to Metro Manila, neighboring Pasig. One of the city’s favorite food items is the bibingka or glutinous rice cake. It’s not the Christmas bibingka one would think of but rather a biko-like cake that is topped with latik or caramelized coconut milk.
Aling Kika’s Food Products is one of the best in the bibingka business in Cainta. Located along Bonifacio Ave, this shop sells Cainta’s favorite kakanin. It is known for still using the traditional cooking of bibingka in a pugon or brick oven.
It opened in 1976 and has since grown into a big business. Aling Kika used to sell her kakanin in front of their home in Cainta but now, locals and visitors have to deal with long lines when buying the famous bibingka. The shop also sells sapin-sapin, cassava cake, kutsinta, and other native food products.
STONEWARE AND SALTED EGG CHICKEN IN ANTIPOLO
Because Antipolo is already a tourist destination, it is home to many resorts and unique restaurants. One such eatery is Crescent Moon Cafe and Studio Pottery.
It began as a pottery studio by artist Lanelle Abueva-Fernando, niece of National Artist for Sculpture Napoleon Abueva. She started the studio in 1981 until she and her husband decided to open the restaurant in 1997.
“My husband had to stop working as a lawyer because of his kidney condition. Our daughter said you should stop this job that is so hectic and stressful. Being a lawyer you have to go to litigation every day and solve other people’s problems. You have to change your lifestyle. His next interest was cooking,” Lanelle says.
The restaurant is known for its eclectic cuisine, inspired by various types of Asian cuisine. One familiar dish is the salted egg chicken tenders, inspired by the salted egg craze in Southeast Asia.
But one of its unique and popular offerings is the alagaw appetizer. It’s like Thai miang kum, various ingredients like chili, onions, dried shrimps, ginger, kamias, toasted coconut, and a special peanut sauce are wrapped inside a fresh alagaw leaf and eaten as is.
The pottery studio, on the other hand, supplies restaurants, hotels, resorts, and homes around the Philippines. Art workshops are also held inside the space for those interested in pottery and other mediums.
ANCIENT ART OF BINANGONAN
Contrary to its name, the Angono Petroglyphs is located in Binangonan Considered as a “National Cultural Treasure” it is the oldest known artwork in the Philippines. It was named after the hometown of National Artist for Visual Arts Carlos “Botong” Franciscio who discovered the site in 1965.
Visiting the site, managed by the National Museum, is free of charge. The petroglyphs or carvings on rock are believed to be created between 3,000 BC and 500 AD. Stone tools used in this period known as Neolithic Period or New Stone Age were found at the site. This means that the drawings are between 3,000 and 5,000 years old.
“It’s 63 meters in length and most of the drawings are located on the upper portion of the rock wall. They found 127 figures and most of them are human-like figures. There are 51 distinct figures, suggesting that different individuals made the carvings,” explains museum guide Roden Santiago. Experts also believe that the drawings were created and used during rituals.
ART AND EXOTIC EATS OF ANGONO
Angono is known as the Art Capital of the Philippines due to the concentration of artists in the area. It is home to a lot of museums including the house of Botong Francisco that has been converted to a museum that is open to the public.
The family preserved the studio of Botong that contains several memorabilia including an unfinished portrait, his original easel and palette, his national artist medal, his stool, and many more. The house, located along Dona Aurora Street, is filled with bas relief versions of Botong’s murals and artworks.
The museum is managed by Botong’s grandson, Carlos “Totong” Francisco II, who is an artist himself.
“We believe that the reason there are so many artists here is because of my grandfather and the other artists who came before him. My lolo also created a group and their influence spread to other towns and the entire Rizal. The beautiful traditions of Rizal like fiestas are also a factor,” he says.
A few minutes is away is Balaw Balaw Restaurant and Art Gallery. This restaurant is probably the most famous in Rizal because it previously served exotic animals like bayawak (monitor lizard). But because hunting and cooking of exotic animals are now prohibited, the restaurant has just a few exotic items like the uok or coconut wood worm. It also serves traditional food in Rizal like the balaw balaw, a fermented shrimp paste with gruel and angkak or red yeast rice. It’s usually mixed with rice and other dishes or served as sawsawan (condiment ) .
Opened by artist Perdigon Vocalan, the restaurant is full of artworks by Perdigon and other artists. The restaurant is managed by Andre Perdigon Vocalan, who is a cook and an artist. Must try at the restaurant is the minaluto, a fried rice dish topped with various seafood, vegetables, and other meats served in a bilao. Other must try dishes (non exotic) include the kinilaw ng puso ng saging, Mirla’s fried itik, and crispy alamang.
BAMBOO FARM OF PILILLA
There’s this small restaurant in Pililla along the national highway that sells a huge serving of fresh lumpia stuffed with sauteed bamboo shoots. A favorite among bikers and cyclists, this roadside restaurant is a charming place for lunch or dinner.
The Kawayan Farm Restaurant has an open kitchen and cooks dishes to order. It’s famous for its fresh lumpia and pancit bihon. What’s unique about its lumpia is it uses bamboo shoots the staff harvests. The bamboo shoots are brined and preserved for months (and can last two years) before being used in the dishes.
“Bamboo shoots are available, can be replenished, and every year we are blessed with a harvest. Two months in a year, we preserve the shoots to be used the whole year. It’s only available two months in a year and our preserve lasts for two years,” says owner Veronica Olitin.
Guests can also go around the farm behind the restaurant. The farm grows and sells various types of bamboo but the farm covers hectares of land harvested for food, commercial, and industrial use. The farm also has a view area where guests are treated to a beautiful green landscape, a view of Laguna de Bay, and the Pililla windmills.
HIDDEN PIZZERIA OF TANAY
Tucked in a secluded area of Tanay, Lutong Pugon is a garden restaurant that specializes in stone oven-cooked pizza. Owned by artist Jun Tiongco and his wife Aya, the charming restaurant serves some of the best pizzas this side of the province.
“We had no plans of opening a restaurant. I was making a pugon for my pottery but we tried to cook pizza on it and it was good. Our friends suggested that we open a restaurant,” Jun says .
The couple slowly built the restaurant. Every time Jun sells a painting, he would allot a portion to fund the restaurant. It has been open for three years now and serves Italian eats like pizza and pasta cooked inside a stone oven that Jun personally built.
The gambaretto pizza is a must-try. Tomato based with mozzarella cheese, shrimps, chicken in brine, and olives, it is topped with a drizzle of pesto sauce. There’s also the beefy penne pasta and the tomato-based pasta with beef.
Despite being secluded, foodies and tourists go out of their way just to dine at the restaurant. Jun says that they only use social media like Facebook to promote the restaurant and it works. The charming and artsy vibe of the place also helps, making it Instagrammable.