Some people say Ilocano food is underrated, and maybe there’s truth to that statement. It’s not as well-known as our Kapampangan, Cebuano, or Ilonggo fare. And while we can’t deny it already has its own signature dishes: among them the pinakbet, the dinengdeng, the miki, its very own empanada, there’s so much more Ilocano staples many of us have yet to sample. Which we did during a recent trip to Ilocos—thanks to Cebu Pacific, Travel Warehouse Inc., and the Laoag Tourism Office. We discovered Ilocano food is as unique as it’s delicious, at par with our other regional dishes. That it likes to use fresh, immediately available ingredients, as well as innovative but uncomplicated cooking methods.
If you want to immerse in the traditional Ilocano food culture—Dawang’s is a good place to start. It’s where the locals eat, and according to the ones we spoke to, this is also President Bongbong Marcos’ favorite karinderya in Laoag City.
The place is small but the range of dishes in its menu is quite broad. There’s paksiw (beef soup with papait); lauya (pork soup with cabbage and tomatoes); tinuno (grilled pork belly); igado (pork meat and liver stew); dinardaraan (crispy pork blood stew or dinuguan); kilawen (raw beef, maybe served with or without papait); imbaliktad (medium rare beef sautéed with onion and ginger, with or without papait); pinakbet (Ilokano mixed vegetables with bagoong or fish paste; and kinelnat (boiled string beans or utong and winged beans or pal-lang with bagoong and tomatoes).
According to owner Kevin Dawang, PBBM’s first visit at the eatery was back in 2016, when Dawang’s was still located in the town of San Nicolas. He visited their current location in Laoag City in 2022 and has gone back four times after winning the presidency.
Kevin says the President—who is usually joined by his eldest son, Rep. Sandro Marcos—usually orders paksiw, dinardaraan, tinuno, and pakbet. And from what the owner has observed, the commander in chief is not a rice eater.
We tried Dawang’s paksiw, which is so unlike the paksiw most Tagalogs know—pork or fish that’s simmered in vinegar and aromatics. Theirs is basically beef soup with papait, which Kevin clarifies is not the bile in papaitan but the undigested grass found on the second stomach of the cow. The grass or cud is strained and the juice from it is called the “papait.” Nieves, Kevin’s mother, says they use the original recipe of her mother-in-law who has both Ilocano and Kapampangan roots.
Their kilawen is akin to the Japanese steak sushi, served with sliced fresh white onions. “We use the softest part of the beef,” offers Kevin. Their pinakbet is composed of a medley of string beans, winged beans, eggplant, okra, siling haba, tomatoes, bitter gourd (we were told Ilocanos don’t put squash in their pinakbet), seasoned with fish sauce. We enjoyed it paired with the dinardaraan, which is crispy bagnet slathered in thick blood sauce, and the tinuno or grilled pork belly served with fresh tomatoes.
People come here for breakfast (they’re open as early as 7AM) or lunch. The offerings are freshly cooked every day and gets sold out by 2pm—at least according to the staff.
Located at #8 Paterno street, Brgy.23, Laoag City, Ilocos Norte
The place was previously known as Herencia but was renamed Kusina Valentin by the new owners—after Valentin Diaz, co-founder of the Katipunan and a Paoayeño.
Herencia is the birthplace of the popular pinakbet pizza, which they still serve here. But the spot is also becoming known for their Gamet Seafood Pizza, a thin-crust pie topped with toasted gamet seaweed, shrimp, squid, mozzarella, parmesan and tomatoes. Gamet is a traditional dried edible seaweed from Ilocos Norte and Cagayan. If you’re a first-timer at the restaurant, you may want to try their pizza sampler which is composed of Pinakbet, Longganisa, Bagnet, and Garlic Cheese variants.
A must-try for fish lovers is the Sinigang na Malaga and Gamet. Malaga, also known as samaral in other places, has a very soft meat, which is perfect for a steaming sour soup. The gamet also adds a rich umami flavor to the sinigang.
Kusina Valentin is also known for its succulent and crispy bagnet, Kare-Kare Beef and Ox Tail, and Crispy Tadyang (deep-fried beef ribs). But one of its most popular feature is the view: it’s located across the majestic Paoay Church.
Native Ilocano dishes are given a modern twist by restaurateur Samuel Simeon Blas at Saramsam. Take the okoy for instance, which comes in a paper-thin form—a light and enjoyable appetizer, especially when dipped in sukang Iloko. The cooks use baby shrimps called “kuros.”
Blas also offers a Mango Papaya Salad, which landed in the menu because of an oversupply of papaya fruits in the province. “Since hindi madami ang na-order ng empanada, naisip kong gumawa ng mango papaya salad,” Blas offers. He uses fish sauce as dressing.
We loved Saramsam’s traditional igado, which is from the recipe of Blas’ lolo. The meat is marinated for a couple of hours in vinegar, salt, pepper, and red bell pepper while the liver is sauteed separately to remove its gamey taste. They also put atchuete for color, green peas and a little bit of sugar to balance the saltiness.
We were also introduced to a dessert called Inkalti, which is a fancy way of serving sweet potatoes, bananas, and bilo-bilo fondue style. For drinks, we had enjoyed the tamarind juice.
Located at Brgy. Buttong, Airport Road, Laoag City
There are many empanada sellers all over Ilocos but Glory's Empanada remains the OG, so to speak. The name is almost synonymous with the town of Batac.
Gloria Aduana Cocson, or Nanay Glory, told us she got married at age 15 and learned to make empanada thru her sister-in-law. A couple of years later, she decided to put up her own empanada stand in front of the Batac church to help support her growing family of seven children. She got widowed early and it was thru the empanada business that she was able to single-handedly raise all of her kids.
Now 82 years old, the matriarch continues to man her store at Riverside Empanadaan, together with her orphaned apos. “Yan na ang maipapamana ko sa kanila,” she tells us, smiling. Her other remaining children also have their respective empanada stores, “Pero iba-iba ng taste [ang aming empanada],” she says.
Her empanada, says Nanay Glory, is a “complete food” because the crust is made of rice flour, and it’s stuffed with mongo sprouts, papaya, and meat (longganisa). Prices of her empanada range from P30 to P90. The special ones are the Double Double (2 eggs, 2 longganisa), Double Special (2 longganisa, one egg), and Hotdog Empanada (hotdog, egg, and longganisa). She also offers a Seedless variant (without mongo sprouts and papaya). Nanay Glory says she sells about 300 pieces of empanada a day.
Through the years, Nanay Glory would go from town to town in Ilocos Norte and Ilocos Sur selling her empanadas at fairs and fiestas. Soon, word got out and people from far places would drive over to Batac to have a taste of her savory pastry.
For popularizing and uplifting the empanada culture in the province, and becoming an inspiration to many, Nanay Glory was bestowed the “Kalipi Award” and the “Gameng Lifetime Achievement Award.”
Located at Riverside Empanadaan, Valdez Street, Brgy. 1-S, Batac, Ilocos Norte
Irene’s Native Delicacies
Irene’s is a native kakanin brand that has withstood the test of time. It’s been around for two decades. And here’s why: Irene Suga's tupig has a different kind of linamnam.
According to Nanay Irene, she was initially only selling bibingka. But since she wasn’t earning enough, she tried making tupig. “Itinuloy ko lang kahit mahirap magbenta,” she tells us.
Years ago, she would only sell about 100 pieces of tupig a day at P1 each. She later experimented on the recipe, added milk and cheese to the usual formula of ground glutinous rice, young coconut, brown sugar, and margarine. “Nagustuhan ng mga tao. Unti-unting lumakas,” says the 77-year-old.
Her tupig now costs P10 each, and she makes—wait for it—about 5,000 pieces of tupig daily, traditionally cooked in a wood-and-coconut-shell-fired pugon.
Located at Brgy. 8 Pias Norte, Currimao, Ilocos Norte
Special thanks to TWI, Cebu Pacific, La Playa Tropical, Viven Hotel and the Tourism Office of Laoag
Photos taken using Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra