All sweet here, save for one savory soup.
Stop#1: Casa Carmela
Casa Carmela is a piaya-making factory, albeit one that veers from tradition (the piaya, not the factory). Negrense Millie Kilayko imbues new life into this age-old treat. The thick and flaky piaya becomes thin and crispy kicked up with various flavors (mango, ube, and mint among others) and, as a nod to today's healthy observances, less salt and less sugar varieties are available. There are also piaya tuiles, lean piayas wrapped around metal cylinders resulting in a piaya-barquillo spawn — piaquillos.
The vintage piaya has a muscovado filling but regardless of flavor the process is relatively the same. A lean dough made from just water, flour, and shortening is prepared then shaped into nuggets. The desired filling, usually a mass or paste, is pinched or spooned onto the center of each nugget, re-shaped, and flattened with a rolling pin. Commercially produced piaya are baked on large griddles but for these newfangled creations, which bake up in just five minutes, traditional enclosed ovens will do.
Where to go:
Casa Carmela Kitchen
54 Lizares Avenue, Bacolod City
"21" is so named because it's located on 21st Lacson Street. I'm bowled over by the cool, sleek interiors, definitely not the kind of ambiance I'm expecting to find in Bacolod. I'm even more astonished when I'm handed the menu and the prices that stare back at me aren't even commensurate to the lush interiors. I'm told that the owners intend for 21 to have the "hotel look" sans the hotel prices. I say they strike that balance outstandingly. 21 has been through a few incarnations from simple food stand to bar to family restaurant but it hasn't moved from its current location since its inception more than twenty years ago.
Batchoy (from the Chinese ba chui, ["meat water"]), has its origins in Iloilo, a screamingly decadent broth, the result of simmering bones — pork and beef along with the animals' various innards. Other seasonings are added (Is it guinamos? [Visayan fermented fish paste], or sahog? [that secret something-or-other] and then into this intoxicating miasma is plunged snips of (miki) noodles. It's the pedestal on which to raise a motley of ingredients dedicated solely to knee-weakening pleasure: pork liver, chicharon (pork cracklings), fried garlic, chopped scallions, a (raw) egg, and something I've never seen before in batchoy, bone marrow, still retaining its cylindrical shape.
Batchoy is an exemplar of food for the soul — revivifying, stick-to-the-ribs sustenance, the aroma of which inspires growls in stomachs and sets mouths a-watering. But such edible virtue doesn't come cheap — this is a calorie-bomb-in-a-bowl teeming with all the murderous things that make cholesterol levels skyrocket, and sends men, I'm told, scrambling for their "out with gout" meds. It's an "unwholesome," X-rated dish but like all things that are bad and tasty, titillatingly toothsome to the hilt.
Where to go:
21st Lacson Street, Bacolod City
Behind the display cases here lay embodiments of my sweetest dreams: rows of cakes high and whole, cookie jars filled to the brim, baskets of bar cookies, streusel-topped cakes lording it over on their stands, and what seem like miles of pies and ice cream creations. Like a little kid, I run to the displays and shove my face as close as I can get to the glass without flattening my already-flat nose.
I ask for a slice each of the white chocolate cheesecake, pecan pie (a la mode, please), mud pie, and imported chocolate cake (Calea's undisputed bestseller). I turn to four other friends who've come along and ask, "And what will you guys have?" I ignore their jaws dropping to the floor at my question. I'm in my element and all is sweet in my world. To my order, they add a mango royale, an icebox cake crowned with a mango "aspic", cream puffs, and the French chocolate cake. Surprisingly, the server doesn't bat an eye at the seven desserts ordered for five people.
Truth be told, I'm afraid that all the hype I hear about Calea will not live up to expectations. I'm only too glad to be proven wrong as I alternate bites of each dessert. My favorites are the cheesecake (dense and creamy), the pecan pie (I'm grateful to places that put a premium on pie), and the mud pie ("Sobrang sarap 'to, Ma'm, promise!" says the server. I'm glad I listen). I don't even bother to join in the table conversation, and while I hold up half-eaten desserts for them to try, I'm secretly pleased as one by one, they admit surrender to the sweets and me, the diva of dessert. Hee. When I finally come up for air, it's to bewail the absence of a similar place in Manila that's as sugar-centric as Calea.
Where to go:
14th Street, Bacolod City
Felicia's turns out to be the best part of my day and that's saying A LOT considering the day I've already had. It's a pastry café that reminds me of Bizu, miniature creations as whimsical as they are artful. There's a banana-Nutella cake that catches my fancy as well as the sticky toffee pudding and red velvet. We order the yema torte, a multi-layered dacquoise (meringue discs) "glued" together with yema custard. Impressive it is but it's akin to munching on popcorn — all crunch, no flavor. To make amends, we ask for a slice of sans rival which, on first bite, has us falling to our knees in devotion.
Meringue-nut discs ensconce a buttercream so delicate that it flits on the tongue before dissolving in a cascade of crispness, like a clapping by the mouth instead of the hands. Phenomenal.
And for the love of all that's sweet and holy, I must say that Felicia's macarons are superior. Larger than usual, in fewer flavors than usual — mint chocolate, blueberry, strawberry, and mocha — the flavors are vibrant and true, the fillings subtle as they are memorable. Try them and experience your own epiphany.
Where to go:
Felicia's Pastry Cafe
6th Street Doll Bldg.
Editor's Note: What are you fave food trips in Negros? And what is the secret ingredient in batchoy that Lori's trying to figure out? Share your answer and your own Bacolod must-visits in the comments below!