Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Near the boundary of Angono and Binanongan in Rizal, through a man-made tunnel and up a rocky hill, is a rockwall engraved with prehistoric carvings. These images are known as the Angono-Binangonan petroglyphs, considered to be the oldest form of art in the Philippines and were discovered by Rizal native and National Artist Carlos “Botong” Francisco in 1965 during a field trip with boy scouts.
The story goes that the troop sat underneath the rock shelter to take a break. When Botong looked up, he noticed the carvings overhead. Later on, scientists discerned that these 127 discernable figures of men, women, infants, and even frogs and lizards, are symbols of a healing ritual of sorts.
I and several other writers were visiting the site on a tour of Rizal’s food and art scene organized by the San Miguel Pure Foods Culinary Center (SMPFCC). Over the course of two days, we visited restaurants, art studios, and restaurant-cum-art studios in Cainta, Antipolo, Angono, Binangonan, Pililla, and Tanay. SMPFCC organizes these tours regularly, highlighting exciting local cuisine hiding in plain sight. This particular tour was meant to showcase the inextricable nature of art and food in the province, and the hidden gems waiting to be found.
Among a handful of places we visited were a small pottery factory with a Southeast Asian cuisine-inspired restaurant, an eclectic art gallery that serves traditional Angono cuisine and exotic food, and a garden restaurant in the middle of nowhere, where one can view the artist-owner’s work while waiting for their pugon-cooked pizza.
“In any municipality na puntahan mo in Rizal, there is art to be discovered. Ang mga owners [of restaurants] are [usually] mga local artists who have become entrepreneurial,” says SMPFCC Services Manager Llena Tan-Arcenas.
Moreso, the tour is also an opportunity to let more people know of the province’s potential as a quick weekend getaway destination in lieu of the usual haunts.
“[Rizal] is just a few kilometers from the metro, [so it’s] easy for families to travel to. You don't need to spend a lot also, and the places have very good ambiance,” adds Tan-Arcenas. “Rizal is the next Tagaytay. [The Tagaytay] of the east.”
Indeed, most of the stops on our trip are only an hour and 30 minutes away from Ortigas, and yet the winding tree-lined roads and view of Laguna de Bay down below felt so far removed from the polluted and heavily congested Manila I faced daily. One wonders whether it’s the almost pastoral setting — also depicted in some of the artists’ works — that inspires the many artists who live here.
Upon a visit to Botong Francisco’s former home and art studio, his grandson tells us there are about 300 artists in Angono alone. Many are connected to Botong in some way — late artist Perdigon Vocalan, who established Balaw-Balaw Restaurant and Art Gallery in Angono was at one point a house boy and scholar of Francisco, while Jun Tiongco, artist and owner of Lutong Pugon in Tanay was friends with Tam Austria, a student of Francisco — and it’s easy to see that the National Artist had a hand in the growth of their community.
And yet there is also a tinge of magic realism that hangs in the air. Andrei Vocalan, son and current owner of Balaw-Balaw Restaurant and Art Gallery, says Angono is named so because of the abundance of nuno sa punso. He tells us how his father was known for his mystical paintings depicting fairies and other local mythology, which he would paint in the wee hours of the morning.
He also points to the mysterious engravings on the rockwall on the boundary of Angono and Binangonan.
“‘Yung [petroglyphs ‘yung] pinaka unang artwork sa Angono,” he says. “Siguro ... kaya dito ‘yung pinagpala ng maraming artists.”
Whatever it is, it’s made Rizal a wellspring of talent in both visual and culinary arts. Below are some of the places we visited and enjoyed.
About an hour away from Ortigas is a compound that houses a small pottery factory stacked with different stoneware — the Crescent Moon Cafe and Studio Pottery. Walk down the concrete path mixed with colorful bits of broken up plates and you’ll come across a pond full of massive koi fish. At the end you’ll find the cafe, which serves a rotating menu comprised of Southeast Asian-inspired dishes whose ingredients are mainly sourced from their own backyard.
Before lunch, we’re given a quick tour of the place and are introduced to the owner, potter Lanelle Abueva-Fernando. Sat behind a pottery wheel, she tells us the history of their establishment while creating four pieces on the spot.
Abueva-Fernando established her studio in 1991, while her husband, Bey Fernando, practiced law in Makati and entertained guests on the weekends by whipping up inventions in the kitchen, including homemade suman and alagao salad for which the cafe is known up to today. When Fernando’s health began to deteriorate, he was advised to take it easy, and thus decided to turn to his love for cooking and entertaining guests and soon put up a cafe. Though Fernando passed away two years after the cafe was put up, the family continued the business, and has been up and running for over 20 years.
For lunch, we were served gado-gado, an Indonesian vegetable medley with peanut sauce, grilled pork belly with green mango, and salted egg chicken tenders which are cooked with curry leaves grown in their garden. The curry leaves give an interesting kick to the now ubiquitous dish.
Their food is mostly light and light-tasting, as the chef tells us they don’t use too much salt and prefer natural and organic ingredients. We also got to try the famous alagao salad — a refreshing DIY dish of alagao leaves straight from the tree and an array of ingredients from a secret peanut sauce to onions, garlic, peppers, shrimp, basil, and kamias — and the suman, which came with a choice of sweet and creamy chocolate and mango sauce that’ll have you going for seconds.
After visiting Francisco’s ancestral house in Angono and roaming Doña Aurora Street — a street lined with with concrete murals by Charlie Anorico depicting Francisco’s paintings — we headed to Balaw-Balaw for dinner. As mentioned above, Balaw-Balaw belongs to the Vocalan family. It started out as a canteen put up by the late artist Perdigon Vocalan so that he could feed guests of his art gallery. Nowadays it’s run by his son Andrei.
I first heard of Balaw-Balaw on Andrew Zimmern’s T.V. show “Bizarre Foods,” where he featured their “exotic” dishes like the adobong uok, a type of beetle larva found in coconut logs. They also serve kuhol, frogs, sizzling balut, crispy fried antik, and other “unconventional” menu items, which, to Angono natives are just synonymous with their traditional food.
Balaw-Balaw is in fact the go-to place for authentic Angono cuisine. The name itself references the local dish balaw-balaw, a buro made pinkish in color by the use of angkak, a type of red rice that is cooked to a lugaw-like consistency then together with shrimp paste is fermented for several days. Balaw-balaw is sour and funky, and adds a distinct flavor to the restaurant’s signature dish, the Minaluto.
Minaluto is comprised of an assortment of meat and vegetables (squid, mussels, prawn, crab, kangkong, fried pork, chicken adobo, salted red egg, tomato, eggplant, and okra) circling two mounds of rice — yellow fried rice with Star Margarine and the pink rice with the buro — all place together inside a giant bilao. The result is a for-sharing platter of rich and flavorful Pinoy favorites.
Among their other notable dishes are their crunchy nilasing na hipon and sugary crispy alamang, both of which make great pulutan fare.
Though artist Jun Tiongco’s own little garden restaurant, Lutong Pugon, is fairly new compared to the last two, it has already gained a bit of a reputation for its smoky pugon-baked pizzas. Tucked away in the winding roads of Tanay, the restaurant was designed and built around two years ago by Tiongco himself with funds from selling his artwork.
Originally, Tiongco attempted to build a pottery kiln. However, upon realizing there was a flaw in his design, he took his wife’s suggestion to turn it into a pugon and cook pizzas instead. Friends and studio visitors loved the pizzas concocted by his wife, Aya, and encouraged them to put up a restaurant.
We were able to try two types of pizza: the Pepperoni and Pulled Pork pizza and the Gambaretto pizza, which had chicken breast, basil, and prawns. Tiongco says they often use ipil as the firewood for their pugon. As a result, the pizzas have a smokiness infused in the dough, which itself is crispy and chewy at the same time. They also use a mix of marinara and pesto sauce as the base, tanginess and garlicky flavors bursting through.
Tanay might seem a ways off to eat pizza and pasta, but theirs is definitely worth the visit. You’ll be hard pressed to find pizza that matches Lutong Pugon’s. Maybe it’s the Rizal magic, the touch of an artist’s hands.
We visited two other spots in Rizal — Kawayan Farm Restaurant in Pililla and Aling Kika’s Food Products in Cainta. Neither of these places were put up by artists, nor do they house galleries or anything of that sort. But, they do reflect the culture and heritage of Rizal province in their own ways.
Aling Kika’s is notable for serving the best bibingka in a town that’s considered the bibingka capital of the country. Aling Kika, or Francisca Legazpi Cruz, set up shop on a busy road in Cainta in 1976, and the place hasn’t changed since, nor has their famous recipe.
Its bibingka is different from the usual yellow bibingka served outside churches during simbang gabi. Their bibingka is more akin to biko, with a creamy latik spread on top. The smell of latik wafts out of the small shop, which always has lines of locals any day of the week.
The Kawayan Farm Restaurant is all the way up in Pililla, near the new wind farm. The restaurant sits on the edge of a 20-hectare bamboo farm that supplies giant bamboo to fish farms in Laguna de Bay — the lifeblood of many Rizal natives.
Owner Veronica Olitin tells us that because bamboo shoots, or labong, only grow for two months in a year, the farm harvests everything they can and preserves them in jars. These preserved labong are then used in their Fresh Lumpiang Labong, a huge fresh lumpia fit for two that reminds me of lumpiang ubod, only better. The taste of the labong is milder than ubod, the wrapper is made on the spot, and the secret peanut sauce is just the right amount of sweet and creamy.