By Gene Gonzalez
Our trip to Ilocos would not have been complete had we not done a stopover in La Union, whose location would allow it to also serve as the regional center of the Ilocos Region. We have a favorite place that has been well-listed—one I’ve seen when it was only a five-table carinderia. Unfortunately, it was closed. We immediately started searching on our phones for another well-rated place for lunch, as well as one that would be worthy as an entry point to our visit to La Union as a culinary bastion. We found Halo-halo sa Iloko on a site mainly visited by Gen-Xers and Millennials, with some international tourism reviews that put a mark of excellence on its halo-halo.
Famished as we were, we decided to stay in line until almost at 1 p.m.,—we were seventh on the waiting list. We were quite impressed with the shabby chic memorabilia, quite nostalgic, that was around the converted driveway of the house and a mezzanine that had some heirloom tables and fixtures.
As we were really hungry, every plate seemed to disappear as soon as it was served, too soon that we didn’t get to follow the recommended pairings, especially the rice we ordered. The premium purple rice was served daintily in cast aluminum, typical of 1950s-1960s cooking ware, which contained dishes in miniaturized single servings. We ordered a lot of dishes and found a few to be quite worth mentioning as our group only wanted plates that would represent the Hispanized culture of La Union.
Of the four appetizers, we particularly liked the Isaw Fritos or crispy chicken intestines that we plunged into savory Ilocos cane vinegar and chili. The fried chicken offal was well-timed and fried only up to a certain point, so it was neither too brown nor too greasy—a problem with many a chicharon. The other appetizer was Kilawin na Kurita or a ceviche of octopus that might have been a perfect dish to the area, La Union being a surfer’s destination with so many foreigners leaving some imprint in the restaurant scene. The octopus was beaten to tenderness and very light grilled and served with lemon wedges to give it tartness and to tame the briny flavors.
With the specialty red rice, we had the house-made La Unionganiza, a milder style of the garlicky, non-sweet sausages of Vigan and Alaminos. The natural casings gave the sausages a delightful crunch. Next was our soup course of Beef Pinapaitan. I have had several versions of this soup in La Union, where the elitist homes would do it beef broth style, soured with either tamarind or kamias. Throw in a touch of bile and pure lean beef, especially the tender cuts, and voila, the gentle souring of the soup with the light bitter notes of bile would turn sweet on the palate and the beefiness of lean meat would comfort our wearied spirit, given that we had been on the road for five hours. We had also some market fresh vegetables in the Pinakbet nga Nasagpaw anti Bagnet, These three other courses would be most recommended from the five main dishes we ordered.
Finally, dessert arrived and the halo-halo’s were served in large 16- ounce glasses. Almost all the items in their mixed dessert are made and cooked in-house. What gives this dessert its provincial identity would be the crisp pieces of whole turrones de mani. As the late Doreen Fernandez, who inspired several Filipino food writers, would mention in some of our discussions, halo-halo could be a desecration, if any of its ingredients were in exaggerated proportions. And this is exactly why we queued up to get a sampling of one of La Union‘s best halo-halos.
Before leaving, I went to their pasalubong counter to buy some nibbles for our nightcap of beer. What I bought was a couple of bags of Maniakis—Mani, Cornik, and Dilis.
So long, La Union!
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