Find yourself at the night street market just right outside the San Pablo public market, which is popular among locals, and you can see a glimpse of what fills their plates on a daily basis. There’s ginataang langka, laing, and various seafood dishes such as adobong hipon. There’s also street food fare such as fish balls and pork barbecue. If you go in April, you will chance upon vendors selling bright red sampinit or local berries, which grows in the wild near the foothills of Mount Banahaw.
The night street market starts at 4 p.m., but come sunset, you will need to jostle your way amongst locals buying late afternoon snacks or the family’s ulam for dinner.
Needless to say, there’s something interesting to be discovered at every turn if you care to look around, although when you think about Laguna, you always end up with visions of “buko pie, uraro, or the vast UP campus,” shares San Pablo native and baker Nicole dela Cruz. “The truth is, every city in Laguna is different and San Pablo is known as the “City of Seven Lakes” — Sampaloc, Bunot, Pandin, Yambo, Muhicap, Kalibato, Palakpakin—with produce coming from the south: Bicol, Quezon, Lucena, and Batangas. Because of this, our food is an intermingling of the cuisines of these surrounding provinces,” adds dela Cruz.
In the early 2000s, there was Viaje del Sol—a do-it-yourself arts and culture tour with suggested itineraries that start in Laguna and goes all the way to Quezon. It includes some of the notable cultural and food destinations in San Pablo such as Casa San Pablo. We went on a food trip to discover the city’s most delectable eats:
Meals in San Pablo, Laguna are a play on contrasting textures and flavors. Morning meals may consist of sun-dried salted biya from Laguna de Bay, best paired with salted egg and rice eaten with kesong puti (white cheese); and Longganisang San Pablo (local pork sausages). Drop by Casa San Pablo, a bed and breakfast run by Boots and An Alcantara located in the city proper for these and you'll find that their longganisa is a version that the Alcantara family grew up with— sweet and fried until the sugar on the sausage skin caramelizes.
Casa San Pablo's sprawling grounds with rustic and homey cottages amidst lush greens is a great backdrop to any meal, too. In November 2017, they opened the café to non-B&B guests and the menu features some of the most familiar eats locals love. It’s easy to laze around the breakfast table with such a feast.
Don't leave the city without sampling the Pinayti, a dish made with pounded shrimp from San Pablo’s lakes, and simmered in a rich coconut milk sauce. Another popular dish in San Pablo is Kulawo, often made with eggplant or puso ng saging (banana heart). Locals who live in the rural areas eat it as pulutan or beer chow or appetizer, and the dish is ubiquitous because of how accessible the ingredients are. It is a light dish that has sour flavors from vinegar and texture from coconut meat and banana heart.
Find these dishes at Sulyap Gallery Café and Restaurant, a colonial-style two-story house which sits across their museum which houses owners Arthur Reyes and Roy Empalmado’s collection of antiques. Sulyap’s version of Pinayti is lightly sweet with earthy atsuete flavors. Don’t miss Sulyap’s Pako Salad too, a refreshing and crisp bowl of pako (fiddlehead fern) that’s abundant in the rural areas near rivers.
Merienda in San Pablo is all about kakanin, snacks, and desserts made from rice flour or root crops, and usually slow-cooked or steamed with coconut milk. Find these and more heirloom dishes at Patis Tito Garden Café which is currently under renovation. It is set to open again in July 2018 and weekenders will find that it’s one of the best places to grab a plate or two of kakanin in San Pablo, or for their heirloom cuisine paired with their refreshing tanglad iced tea made from scratch.
The compound is home to designer to Manila’s high-society crowd and owner Beatriz “Patis” Tesoro’s garden café. Ilang-ilang vines and fruit trees tower over the compound, while items and structures salvaged from ancestral homes (including some from their previous Metro Manila home) dot the property. It’s a garden hideaway where you can soak in Philippine architecture and artistry.
Venture farther out and you will find farm-to-table cuisine in Forest Wood Garden, a five hectare-farm where owners Joel and Myrna Frago have built a haven for their advocacy on organic agriculture. Opened in 2009, the farm is where they get their ingredients for the food they serve to guests.
They’re famous for their Pansit Kalabuko, a dish they developed and is only available at the farm and their newly-opened restaurant in the San Pablo city proper. It’s a colorful pancit dish made with kalabasa (squash), kabute (mushrooms), and buko meat (coconut meat) as their noodles. It is light and hearty without too filling, lightly sweet instead of savory, and each bite reflects the freshness of the veggies.
Another kakanin, Plantsado Lamang Lupa, is made from the toge root crop and is cooked over a pan and toasted using an old-style iron with hot coals. The thin rice cake is delicious—the taste is similar to Pangasinan’s tupig, but sweeter with more depth of flavor. Think sweet coconut and earthy cassava flavors, the latter being a relative root crop of toge used in Plantsado Lamang Lupa.
Casa San Pablo, Colago Avenue, Barrio San Roque, San Pablo City, Laguna
Sulyap Gallery Café and Restaurant, Cocoland Compound, Barangay Del Remedio, San Pablo City, Laguna
Patis Tito Garden Café, 285 Santa Cruz Putol, San Pablo City, Laguna
Forest Wood Garden, Brgy. Sta.Elena, San Pablo City, Laguna