Puerto Princesa: A taste-trek of the city’s culinary ‘hot’ spots.

Traveling is one of the greatest pleasures in life. Apart from breath-taking sights, the company of good friends, and a great host, traveling will not be complete without a traipse through the culinary landscape of the place one goes to. A recent trip to Puerto Princesa gave us more than adequate sampling of the food in this princess of the ports, and left us salivating for more.

            Ka Lui’s is one such place.

            We first heard of Ka Lui in 1993. We were told it was THE place to be, the hang out of the city’s literati. Frequented by artists and their visiting friends, it was basically a native hut made completely almost of bamboo. Certainly one that goes with the woven cloth, batik and other indigenous handicrafts that decorated the then smallish place.

            New acquaintances who had sampled the cuisine said, no, there was no set menu. One went there and waited for the food to arrive. Ka Lui, we were told went to the market every morning and prepared from whatever he thought would be best for dinner.

            Well, 13 years later, we were back at Ka Lui’s. it was our last day in Puerto, and were determined not to miss the fables culinary mecca. So to dinner at Ka Lui we went, this time with Mayor Hagedorn as host. Good thing we went there with the good mayor and his staff, for I, for one, would not have easily identified the place, so changed it was. It was far from the original place that practically had two tables and a lounging area.

            Although it had retained its charm and all-bamboo structure, Ka Lui had grown along with its reputation, proof of which was a packed place on an ordinary Monday evening.

            Locals as well as tourists, balikbayans and families, filled the place so that it was hard, even with a VIP (the mayor) with us, to carve out a niche somewhere. Luckily, a small group just vacated a corner table – which seated just five of us, cramped, but which suited the mayor who, he sighed, may be spared from the constant requests to “please may we have a picture taken with you”. In our years of covering political figures, there was only one – just ONE – person who was as magnetic as Hagedorn: his good friend ERAP.

            Ka Lui now had a menu – and a plethora of new dishes which consisted of basic Filipino dishes cooked with a twist. Like crabs in coconut milk peppered with sliced Baguio beans, squash, and other unlikely vegetables whch however came together very well.

            The mayor ordered, among other things, eel stewed also in ‘gata’ with vegetables. It seemed to be a favorite of the mayor and one of Ka Lui’s specialties.

            For dessert, we had halved buko, with fruit salad on top and ice cream if one so desired to put on a few more pounds. (Well, with all the eating we did, we al went home with tight belts and bulging buttons.)

            Another must in the gastronomic wonder that is Puerto Princesa is the Vietnamese restaurant, the only thing left standing, so to speak, in the still-intact yet uninhabited Vietnamese refugee camp that sheltered hundred of Vietnamese refugees in the era of war torn Vietnam. They have long been gone to the USA to join their relatives, but the restaurant remains a favorite haunt of visiting and local residents, not the least of whom is the mayor, so says our guide Weng.

            We ordered siningang fish, soup with boodles, shrimps that looked like camaron rebosado but with slightly tangy taste, steamed fish, crabs I think, and I don’t remember what else.  What I do remember is everything tasted different. The sinigang was mildly hot and nothing like our sinigang, but with its own yummy goodness. And so with the other dishes. Best of all, for the dishes that groaned on our table, and fed a hungry group of five (with left over for the men who were to escort us around the island on a speedboat), our bill was only P1200. That’s with drinks, green mango and a jar of bagoong.

            Since you are at the Vietnamese camp, take a look at the little souvenir shop where good quality pearl rosaries, with their crucifix imported from Italy, so says the man in the booth. A steal for P300 a piece. They come in three colors (peach, cream and white). I bought only one and I regret it.

            Another must-try place, if only for the experience, is Baker’s Hill. Obviously a family place on weekends with life-like pirates climbing out of the house ( a nice really, lived-in house) and larger-than-life Disney animals. The bakery at the entrance boasts of the city’s specialties – ultra-rich ensaymada, chocolatey cakes that smells like a thousand calories each, and hopia. (You still can’t beat Quiapo’s Eng Bee Tin though.)

            Its coffee shop is no Starbucks, but it does serve sandwiches and other merienda fare for allowance-challenged students. You can’t argue with P30 for a ham and cheese sandwich!

            The local hang out foe those who want to let their hair down, their shot of beer or their caffeine fix after a hearty meal, Kinabuchs is the place.

            An expansive space with separate-but integrated structures – the bar cum restaurant, the billiards place, the private room for hush-hush meetings, and a giant screen on top of the parking lot, you wont miss Kinabuchs. As the name suggests, this happy-hour joint (opened one to sawa) is owned by Butch Chase, a transplanted Manilan who’s one of Mayor Hagedorn’s ardent supporter. “When Edward left (on protest from his gubernatorial bid) for Manila. Puerto’s bisinesses plummeted”, averred Butch, a former motocross champ. With Mayor Hagedorn back in the saddle, Butch has found his personal Shangri-la.

            I loved Kinabutchs’ tinola soup, their ‘killer’ crispy pata and laing. A delightful sur[rise for this coffee lover is that Kinabuchs serves java that will give Manila brews a run for their ground coffee! Their cheesecakes is also no to be ignored.

            One name that kept cropping up when we were trying to get our caffeine fix is Itoy’s, reputedly the local Starbucks. We didn’t get to Itoy’s, but on our next hop over, we’ll surely give it a try.

            I am not an iced tea lover, but when I tasted the divine concoction at Kamarikutan Kape at Galeri, I became an instant convert. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to sample its dishes, so that leaves another for the next trip.

            Visit Kamarikutan with your appetite and a filled wallet, you’ll want to buy up their truly artsy products designed by owner Dingo Conde Prieto and handcrafted by local artisans. I went home happy with their unique flip-flops with upturned toes, a mini bongo drum, and a carved bookmarker. Prices are reasonable.

            Our twinge of disappointment at having missed Kamarikutan’s fare was more than salved by lunch at Badjao Seafront restaurant, where it is said, the like of Prince Philip and Philippines presidents dined.

            This is where we went overboard, almost single-handedly finishing a serving of their crispy nilasing shrimps, every part of which can be eaten. Their crispy pata was also a favorite, as was their kare-kare. But what wowed us was their to-die-for breaded relyenong talong, a twist on an old staple. By lunchend, we overheard the women discussing how this dish was done.

Edward Hagedorn was born on October 12, 1946 in Paranaque, Rizal. His parents were Mr. Alexander Hagedorn and the former Miss Gliceria Solon. He is married to Ma. Elena Marcelo, and blessed with two children Eva Christie and Elroy John. He studied in San Sebastian College-Recoletos and University of the East in Manila. He was elected mayor of Puerto Princesa City in 1992. And at the same time served as Representative of League of Cities of the Philippines, Region IV; Member of National Executive Board of Boy Scout of the Philippines; and Assemblyman of Southern Philippines Council for Peace and Development. With the overwhelming support of the people of Puerto Princesa, he transformed the city as a major eco-tourism destination and model in environment protection. It became a Hall of Fame Awardee for being the cleanest and greenest component city in the Philippines. And has been generously given national and international awards and recognition for various innovative programs and projects – a proof of seriousness of purpose and magnitude of success. Right now, the City Government of Puerto Princesa is busy executing economic development programs…And the man leading its direction is Mayor Edward Solon Hagedorn.....