21 February 2009

The Quest for Laing: Day 1 in Cam Norte

Last February 9, I left for Camarines Norte, a province some 350 kilometers south of Metro Manila and known as the crossroads of the Tagalog and Bicol regions. My colleagues and I were to travel via land to visit different UNICEF-assisted day care (or ECCD--early childhood care and development) project sites in this vast area.

Because land travel time to Camarines Norte, Bicol takes 8-9 hours, we spent the first day traveling to our destination. The road trip was drearily long, uneventful, and consisted of twisting and turning paths up the mountains. I felt carsick at some point but just stayed quiet and concentrated on the music playing on my iPod to keep from hurling on the carpet of our Land Cruiser.

By 5:30 pm, we had reached Cam Norte's capital town, Daet, where we were to stay for the next three nights. Despite its status as the provincial hub, Daet is still a pretty secluded, backwards kind of town, and one ought not to expect any grand hotels in this area--or even 3-star ones for that matter. Villa Mila, our hotel--if you could call it that--was old and shabby and musty-smelling but it was generally clean, and I even felt incredibly lucky that we had aircon, clean towels and hot water in our rooms. In the past, I've been to remote areas where accommodations meant a rickety wooden bed with a mosquito net, an electric fan and a bathroom that had a pail of water and the most basic toilet (read: no flush and no toilet seat). So, Villa Mila was, to me, still a sweet deal for Php 900 per room per night.

We had worked ourselves up to an appetite by the time we reached Daet, so as soon as we checked in our bags, we headed downtown to scout for a place where we were to eat dinner. Our group was craving for Bicol's native fare, laing and the super spicy Bicol Express, and we wanted a restaurant that served the authentic version.

We were in for a disappointment. In a land where we assumed that laing was being served in every street corner, we discovered with great dismay that Daet's idea of "in" dining were Jollibee and Chinese restaurants.

Every time a native-looking restaurant came into view, we'd stop the car and check out the menu. No laing and Bicol Express AT ALL.

Is this a joke? we asked one another incredulously. Are we really in Bicol??

One of our stops was Kingfisher Restaurant, which was recommended by the somewhat zombie-fied staff of Villa Mila. The name 'Kingfisher' alone excited us as it conjured mental images of grilled fish and fresh seafood prepared the native way. One wall of the restaurant showed photos of Kingfisher's six commercial fishing boats, but when we checked the menu, the best sellers were chicken, roasted pork--and Japanese cuisine. And yup, still no laing and Bicol Express on the menu. There were pork dishes cooked in different ways...but no Bicol Express. W-E-I-R-D.

So we headed out of Kingfisher Restaurant, hungry and disillusioned, and stood in the street discussing where to go next. A woman, who had the air of a donya in those parts, approached us and asked us why we were standing outside when there were many available tables inside her restaurant. Oh. So she was the owner of Kingfisher.

We told her, apologetically, that we were hoping for laing and Bicol Express, but we checked the menu and found out that her place wasn't serving these. The woman's back stiffened, and suddenly, she was saying in a very antagonistic tone, that her restaurant was far, far different from the other dining places in town and that she did serve Bicol Express, but it was in the ref, ready for thawing and cooking. And in the same tone of voice, she invited us to dine in Kingfisher.

Well, her brand of customer service was certainly different because she didn't sound hospitable at all. In fact, she sounded like a person about to participate in a bare-knuckled fight.

Michelle, who was really craving for laing, said very politely, "No, thank you, ma'am. We're hoping to try the native laing tonight for dinner and we'll just try looking for it in another restaurant po."

And Dante, who had in the past encountered snakes and other wild creatures in the remotest parts of the country and didn't seem like the type to be intimidated easily, piped in somewhat fearfully, "Maybe we'll eat here next time instead...?" His voice trailed off as he gave her an anxious, we-don't-want-any-trouble look.

And Donya Kingfisher, her chin sticking up, launched into yet another loud, angry litany on the culinary delights found in her restaurant (chicken teriyaki was one of them apparently) and that the Bicol Express WAS. IN. HER. REFRIGERATOR. (She pronounced each word with such reverberating emphasis.)

Where was all this anger coming from?

She was getting scarier and scarier. (And I was thinking wildly in my head that she had a clear, straight path in my direction and could easily pin me down to the ground with her weight if we refused point-blank to eat in her restaurant.)

I don't remember exactly how we managed to escape her; I was too afraid to look back. Haha. I'm sure the others gave another round of hurried apologies and then we all got into the car as quickly as we could. After a few more minutes of restaurant-searching, my stomach was really growling in hunger. Truth be told, I didn't care at that point if we were going to eat laing or some mediocre version of Chinese food; I just wanted some food in my system. But the others were dead set on eating authentic Bicol food--and so the quest continued.

When the next restaurant came into view, my heart sank. It was called Central Plaza Restaurant (or something like that) and from the looks of it, it was another Chinese dining place. But we still decided to ask anyway.

I was the first to go in and I asked the usual question: Do you serve laing and Bicol Express?

The person I approached happened to be the owner--some Chinese-looking dude--but thank God he was the very opposite of Donya in the restaurant owner behavior spectrum. In a pleasant tone of voice, he apologized and said right away that they didn't serve that kind of food but they had other Filipino dishes in the menu, and Chinese food as well (but of course).

Filipino cuisine served in this resto but, er, no special Bicol dish? I was beginning to think that we had stumbled into some sort of gastronomic conspiracy and that the locals' memories had probably been modified by some laing-hating alien.

And then--

"Although if you really want laing and Bicol Express," he said slowly, as if he was thinking hard to himself, "I can come up with something."

My eyebrows shot up. If this guy was willing to give us what we wanted even if it wasn't on the menu, who were we to refuse?

Ecstatic and bordering on ravenous, we sat ourselves down wearily in one table and started ordering rice and stuff. The restaurant was clean and bright, and with many customers eating, so we felt good about our decision to eat here. I could already see Mr. Chinese Magic Man busying himself in the kitchen (which was in plain view) with his staff, and I heaved a sigh of relief. We were going to eat at last.

When the food arrived, I wanted to laugh. Well, in fact I did. I suppose it took a lot of effort on the part of the owner to really produce the dishes we wanted using the current resources he had, because both the laing and Bicol Express came in a small saucer each, looking like such precious commodities.

The Bicol Express tasted more like binagoongan, which was a bit disappointing, but oh well. As for the laing, it tasted different from the kind of laing we were accustomed to, but it was good and the saucer was wiped clean immediately. While we ate, we amused ourselves by suggesting theories on how Mr. Chinese Magic Man conjured up the dishes. Because the restaurant was situated near some houses, he had, in all likelihood, knocked on his neighbor's door and asked for a dish of laing.

And even if the laing he served wasn't spectacular, Central Plaza Restaurant gets plus points for going the extra mile in terms of customer service. (And in price too! Their family-sized sinigang had a generous serving of hipon, and it cost a little over 100 pesos only!)

So when you happen to be in Daet, well, you'll see a lot of gabi trees by the road, but don't expect to find the elusive laing in menus. It's still a mystery that we haven't managed to clear up, by the way.


  1. I came across your blog from our High School website. For someone like me who was born and raised in Daet and is now living in California, your blog certainly hit home. It is not easy to read a description of your hometown as "secluded, backwards kind of town..." but I find your article quite honest and forthright. Most readers would find it hard to disagree about "8-9 hours...drearily long, uneventful, and consisted of twisting and turning paths up the mountains...” Your detailed, albeit entertaining, narrative about the quest for "laing" is certainly something we can relate to. I hope your Day 2,3.. will turn out well, but while you're there, try to visit some scenes that we Daetenos still feel proud of... the first Rizal monument, the Bagasbas beach, the Daet mall, .. Most of all don't let one kingfisher donya 'blind you of whatever virtue there is' among the rest of us; you will find a lot like Mr. Chinese Magic guy who will go the extra mile even for strangers. So enjoy your visit, and remember somewhere all over the world are natives of Daet who keeps everything about Daet dear and precious in their hearts.

    JP Pentecostes

  2. Hi JP!

    Wow, I can’t believe that my small blog managed to reach you. Thank you for sharing your thoughts; it’s nice to know that people other than my friends have taken the time to read what I’ve written here. =)

    I haven’t gotten around to posting updates about my Camarines Norte trip, but I will soon. I hope my blog didn’t make you think that my experience in Daet was totally negative. Day 1 was a strange experience for me (haha) but there were many things about Daet (and its surrounding municipalities) that I really liked—and I will share these in my next blog entries about Cam Norte. =) Actually, I’m also planning to write a separate entry on Bagasbas Beach because the place had a raw kind of beauty that I found irresistible. My group even went there twice just to hang out.

    But the best part about Daet was the warmth and friendliness of strangers. (Donya was the only exception.) For someone who lives at the heart of Manila and sees on the street people of questionable character and intention on a regular basis, Daet was such a pleasant surprise. It’s a shame indeed how Manilenos like me have gotten so used to street crime and the coldness of city folk that small, hospitable acts like the Chinese restaurant owner’s extra efforts may seem natural to them but are actually unforgettable to us.

    Thank you again for reading, and please feel free to post comments any time!

  3. Hi Gina,

    I came across your blog via a google alert I set up for Daet. I was born and grew up in daet too and now living in USA. I just happened to vacation in Daet last month and so I was really surprised that you have not found the wealth of restaurants that really serve good food including the laing and bicol express that you guys are craving... I had the pleasure of having them almost every time I craved for it during my vacation. I actually know the "Donya" you mentioned in your blog, she also owned a beauty salon since I can remember as a little girl...that's where I had my eyebrows plucked for the first time at 15! Anyway, I was glad I read your blog, I can tell you that the hotel where I stayed was quite fine - the Canimog Hotel, almost right across Villa Mila. It used to be a private home converted to a hotel. I found the sheets and towels are clean and white. The manager and the caretakers were all very nice. It really felt like home. For laing and other Bicol fares, you can find K-Sarap, just about a few hundred feet walk from your hotel. It's almost homemade dishes with gourmet flare... visit also Bagasbas and you'll find some restaurants with really good food, Kusina ni Angel, Leo's Cuisine (Calamari is to die for) to mention a few.. I hope the next time your experience will be better... check out this website, www.fuertecamarinesnorte.com on your next outing to Camarines Norte. It might help you plan your day and visit the beautiful islands of the province... By the way, I do enjoy reading your blogs especially the details you put into it... I can just imagine when the time I was single and working in Makati some years ago...hahaha....

  4. Hi Ines!

    I guess my group was just pretty unlucky, because we did stop at every restaurant that we saw, including K-Sarap, and they didn't have laing and Bicol Express at that time. =( We checked with the K-Sarap food servers and they said they only had chopsuey, and not laing, and that they had no Bicol Express but they served inihaw stuff. Which was okay. But we had really bad cravings at that time. Haha. =)

    Villa Mila was really okay for me. And some of my colleagues in UNICEF also stayed in Canimog Hotel in previous occasions. In terms of hotel accommodations, Daet can certainly hold its own.

    As for Donya, yikes! I hope she never comes across this blog. I'm still scared of her. Haha.

    We did go to Kusina ni Angel, and it was so good!! I'm sorry for not immediately posting a follow-up blog entry to my first Cam Norte post, and I promise to do this soon. Thanks for the travel URL and thank you so much for reading and commenting!