In Ilocos Norte for work this January, I suddenly found myself the de facto expert on Ilocano food in a group of foodies (which included three professional chefs!) who had not been to this part of the world and thus did not know much about how good genuine Ilocano food is.
We were billeted in a hotel with painfully lacklustre food so I felt it was incumbent upon me to raise the flag for Ilocano cooking and show them just how amazing local cuisine could be.
I took the group for dinner at La Preciosa in Laoag City -- where I knew they would be impressed by the simplicity and authenticity of the cooking.
The restaurant is located in a converted house along Rizal Street. Racks of baked goods and traditional Ilocano pasalubong like chichacorn, native wine, biscuits and even baking supplies are what greet you when you come in.
There are varieties of cakes in the chiller -- La Preciosa is also known for its pastries and they even do wedding cakes and catering.
Family photos line the walls as you climb up to the dining room on the second floor. It certainly makes you feel at home -- as if you had been invited to dinner.
The feel is decidedly 60's -- think of all those old Filipino movies you used to watch as a child. I felt as if I had stepped back a few decades and half expected Susan Roces in a bouffant hairdo and a party dress to suddenly materialise in the room.
La Preciosa is known for its authentic and home cooked Ilocano food.
Since I wanted to wash away the bad taste of hotel food from our guests' palates I knew I could blow them away by ordering almost all of La Preciosa's specialities. We started with poque poque -- a creamy egg, tomato and grilled eggplant dish and higado -- another Ilocano standard.
How about some sinanglaw -- a soup of cow's innards and some greens. It's the Ilocano riff on pinapaitan.
If I were not vegetarian, I would have finished this small dish of insarabasab all by myself. As it is, I had to sigh and grit my teeth while everyone pronounced this grilled pork, thinly sliced and flavoured with onions, vinegar and calamansi as really excellent.
But then, I knew that already.
Of course, bagnet had to be on the table. La Preciosa's bagnet came with a side salad of tomatoes, green onions, siling labuyo (bird's eye chili) and fish bagoong.
I also made them try dinardaran or the Ilocano version of dinuguan which serves up the meat as pre- fried adding a crunchy, chewy texture to this traditional blood stew.
I had to have something to eat amidst this meat overload so I ordered ipon -- which is dulong in Ilocano. These small silvery fish are sometimes mistaken for tiny shrimp or alamang.
The ipon was very fresh and needed hardly any other ingredients -- just a bit of ginger, onions and finger chili.
I sometimes wonder when I am eating these delicate things if I am not contributing to their early extinction -- sustainability issues come to mind.
Finally -- the fitting finale to this Ilocano feast -- a very western dessert but something that everyone who comes to La Preciosa inevitably orders.
Their carrot cake is freshly baked, moist, meltingly good and just unbelievably delicious.
The pastry chef in our midst had high praises for it.
It was too bad that there were only two slices left to order so the 7 of us had to share.
As the local "host", I had to sacrifice my cravings and sadly declined a second bite.
Reason enough to return and possibly eat a slice or two next time I am in Laoag!