By Chef Gene Gonzalez
I look at these rather long half-moon fritters boiling in oil on the old fashion carajays or Filipino woks as the front table busily rolls the beige colored dough. This is Vigan and the empanadas here in the Ilocos south are different from its orange-colored cousins in the north.
The filling in Ilocos Sur traditionally uses shredded papaya, while those in the north are made with shredded cabbage. And as I make the rounds in Vigan, starting from the plaza, I suddenly realize that one is not satisfied with just eating empanada when in Vigan, a “don’t-miss ritual” for tourists.
The freshly fried large half-moon by now has a partially blistered shell bearing the marks of a crisp experience. The rather flat fritter has ballooned, showing its steamy insides of a now tender papaya, given an additional saucing with an egg that releases its runny but cooked yolk.
There’s a faint hiss from the cooked empanada, an almost inaudible high-pitched squeal from the air cooling that makes the now hardening shell crisp while keeping the interior steaming hot. Of course, the experience is not complete without the good quality Ilocos vinegar rich in aminos, packed with flavors from remnants of its mother liquid of cooked cane juice, which is given an infusion of fresh chilies and a liberal amount of fresh onions or shallots to foil the rich egg yolk.
Upon biting it, you’ll feel the almost searing heat from the fritter and you spoon more vinegar with its tartness raising your shoulders.
This whole empanada eating ritual sends me on a perpetual search for the best of Vigan empanada. And what better way to start but to go to the heritage area in front of the church to try out each and every version available.
This area fronting the church has the biggest crowd of locals and tourists who want their quick empanada fix. The prices are cheap and it can be quite confusing as each stall makes and sells the same form (but definitely not the same taste). Since the crowd is big, a seller can find a niche with how they prepare the empanada using their own procedures and recipes.
The only thing I find disappointing is how sellers prepare a lot of empanadas, which quickly cool and lose their ideal crispy character. So it is best to buy from a stall with an empty display case and look at your order being prepared to ensure that they will not give you a resurrected version.
Better still, ask for a custommade one with double the meat or double the egg instead of the regular ones to get that well-executed empanada. You only pay a few extra bucks and wait a short while for your freshly-made treat.
So here are the empanadas in front of the church by the plaza:
- Emma Pajar—sweetish interior; crisp coating all the way;
- Helen’s—bold garlic flavor on the sausage, less time on the development of sausage, plus points for eggs that have runny yolks, and a cabbage hybrid—a combination of Sur and Norte style;
- Maridel’s—garlic sausage is well fermented but the egg inside is scrambled;
- Tina’s—sausage has a good fermented flavor of cured sausage and the cabbage based also is a combination of Norte and Sur styles.
Standalone empanada restos
I got to visit two of these free-standing stores. The advantage of this, even if one pays a little more, is that the empanadas are cooked to order, so one can indulge in custommade empanada that has a little bit more filling.
CJ or Casa Jardin Empanada and Okoy seems to be a popular place among residents, workers, and visitors. I heard about this place from my classmate Bob Crisologo, who said this was the best.
So we walk to this place to try out the double, which means double egg and sausages. I agree that this could be the best, or one of the best, as the shell is crunchy, bubbly, and blistered enough I could hear every bite.
This shell has a lightly glutinous finish that seems to set it apart from its cousins in the plaza. The fillings are hearty and the sausage is quite mild with only hints of fermentation. The eggs are a bit welldone but still soft, as my companions like it, though I personally prefer my “lalaking empanada,” a ribald joke of having two eggs and double sausages, with slightly runnier egg yolks.
Bonus points are their okoy, which is ultra-crispy on the fringes with a lightly cooked middle, as well as their fruity, genuine vinegar with great cane flavors and aromas (not earthy) in containers infused with chilies and lots of onions. One pays a little more to get a custom empanada, which is worth it, thanks to the store’s rustic ambiance.
In the outskirts of old Vigan is an ornamental plant farm called the Hidden Garden. Because of the many visitors who frequent the place, it has opened a full-blown restaurant that offers both local and Western dishes. There is a special section in the restaurant where empanadas are made to order. Here, you wait for your freshly fried empanada, served hissing on your plate. This place has the widest selection of accompanying beverages, from sodas and coffees to shakes and juices. Here, we had no mediocre or unsavory experience.
You can email me at chefgenegonzalez@ yahoo.com or message me on Instagram