Naga Hot Pot: There’s more to Bicol food than laing and gata

Mention Bicol food and laing, Bicol express, sili and gata inevitably come to mind. While these are still standard favorites, I was pleasantly surprised to see a wide variety of cuisines now available during my recent visit to Naga City.

Considered as Bicol’s financial capital, Naga is a bustling city that has seen remarkable growth in recent years. The opening of the world-class CWC wakeboarding facilities in nearby Pili, Camarines Sur, has added a touch of cosmopolitan air in the once provincial city.

Tourists will find that local fast-food chains like Bigg’s and Graceland are already great food finds.  More than just burgers and fries, these homegrown restos which you’ll find all over the city, have added a taste of Bicol and even a bit of gourmet in their menus.  Visitors are highly encouraged to be game enough to go food-tripping in Naga. Ranging from the very high-end to the family-budget friendly establishments, you’ll find delicious meals that will undoubtedly add a few pounds to your mid-riff.  At least it did to mine in a record two days!

Remarkably, the owners of Naga’s new breed of restaurants are pioneers, bringing in their experiences from outside the province and adapting this to introduce new tastes to local palettes. Entreprenuer Marika Buenaflor, creator of fine dining restaurant Peaberry, explains that Naga is a great place to start a business. “In Manila, you are just another fish in the pond but here, you can really make a difference,” she says.

Here are some must-try restaurants next time you find yourself in Naga:

Green Earth Café

It may still come as a surprise that a small café serving purely vegetarian meals have found its niche in the outskirts of Naga City. And this is not some hoity-toity deli serving fancy diet meals either. Green Earth Café serves the real McCoy – no gluten or vegemeats, just fresh, simple, yet delicious vegetarian dishes.

Owners Nancy and Peping Obias are former NGO workers who now found a new mission:  to preach the benefits of vegetarian eating by first introducing them to the yummy dishes they serve at Green Earth Café.

The Obiases make their own tofu, dips, dressings, beverages and sauces using products that are locally available. From their farm they grow organic lettuce and some vegetables and herbs. A local farmers’ cooperative provides their organic unpolished rice and muscovado sugar.

The menu is an eclectic mix of different cuisines:  pastas, pizza, salads, even adaptations of local favorites like banana heart sisig, pancit with tokwa, and vegetarian dinuguan (using red beans and mushrooms). Be sure to take home their freshly baked breads and muffins. The restaurant is right beside the Obias’ home and is a welcoming place surrounded by a flowering garden. Perfect for enjoying a hearty and healthy vegetarian meal.

Gasthoff

Fans of this ribs place in Boracay can satisfy their carnivorous cravings even in Naga City. Owner Marina Manuel Gerbasch is originally from Pilar, Sorsogon before she married her German husband. From their successful Boracay restaurant, she has returned to her roots in Bicol.

A half slab of pork ribs dripping in sweet-tangy barbecue sauce is good enough to share for two. The resto is conveniently located along Magsaysay Avenue where a lot of new restaurants and hotels have recently opened. While they have an airconditioned room upstairs, most clients prefer to sit in the open area in the first floor. You’ll see people contentedly downing their beer while inhaling the smoke from the nearby grill and from the exhaust of the jeepneys passing by.

Gasthoff also has a small deli where meats and sausages plus food items from Europe (chocolates, biscuits, etc.) are on sale.

Peaberry

Perhaps a reflection of the city’s emerging affluence is the opening late last year of its first fine-dining restaurant, Peaberry.  The cozy resto is located at the ground floor of the Avenue Square where the Who’s Who in Naga society are often seen.

The Cu family, owners of the posh Avenue Plaza Hotel, now manages the restaurant and have maintained the chic ambiance that founder Marika Buenaflor took pains to establish.

The chef and are obviously trained well on the art of fine dining.

Meals at Peaberry can set you back a few hundred bucks – considered already expensive in very-affordable Bicol, but it’s worth it.  Most of their ingredients are sourced locally but meats and other ingredients are imported from delis like Santi’s in Manila. Try their rack of lamb, Angus steaks or beef tenderloin then finish off with divine desserts like crepe du jour and panacota. A selection of fine wines is also available.

Maki Yaki

For authentic Japanese food, Naga boasts of Maki Yaki, a small resto that serves the best sushi in town. Owner Jennifer V. Ugajin is a Legazpi City native who married a Japanese national. “I’m not a Japayuki,” she demurs and explains that she met her husband, who now runs the restaurant kitchen, through the internet. Although not a formally trained chef, Mr. Ugajin grew up in a family that runs a restaurant in Japan.  “His cooking is actually home-style Japanese cooking,” Jennifer explains.

Katsudon is often my standard of measurement of a good Japanese restaurant and Maki Yaki’s Katsudon with rice doesn’t disappoint. It had the perfect balance of crunchy coating and tender pork fillet inside. Other must-trys are the ramen selection, sushi, and rice toppings. Sake is also available.

Naga Garden Restaurant

If it’s real homegrown Naga food you’re hunkering for, the venerable Naga Garden Restaurant near the Centro is the only place where locals go.  I think it’s their version of Mamonluk complete with the aged formica tables and thick-rimmed drinking glasses that never seem to break.

Its staying power may be attributed to the original toasted siopao.  This special dimsum has pork meat and egg filling wrapped inside a yummy toasted bun. This goes perfectly with their piping-hot mami.  You can see that every table predictably ordered this combination. You’d also want to try their pancit bihon – loaded with all sorts of sahog and slick with sesame oil. It’s all the stuff that childhood memories of family meriendas are made of.

Naga hot pot

Happily, there are more restaurants to try for future visits. Sure, delicious servings of laing and Bicol express can still easily be found in every corner, but you won’t be wanting for a variety of other dishes when you’re in Naga. Like a hot pot of gata and chili, the delicious mix of the old and new with a sprinkling of new cultures, have produced a yummy crop of restaurants with dishes to crave for.

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