Will this be the supranational anthem, then?
Will this be the supranational anthem, then?
James and Boboy were having lunch with friends in Binondo, at a noodle place called Lan Zhou La Mien. We took advantage of the comparatively light (but not by much, since everyone stayed in town apparently, and Edsa was being reblocked) long weekend traffic to drive to Chinatown.
Even with Ricky’s navigational skills (can moonlight as a taxi driver) and Noel’s GPS-reading abilities, Binondo is a maze and we stopped to ask for directions.
“Deretso, tapos kaliwa sa unang kanto, kaliwa ulit. Yung pula, siguradong makikita nyo.” Straight ahead, then left, then left. It’s red, you can’t miss it.
We had not gone 5 meters when we realized that every sign in Chinatown is red.
“Easier if he’d said yung hindi pula,” Noel pointed out.
So we asked another guy who was watching cars.
“Deretso lang, yung pula na sikat.”
By this time we were close to a hysterical giggling fit.
“What does Lan Zhou La Mien mean?” Ricky asked.
“Yung pula na sikat,” Noel translated.
Luckily we were spotted by James.
La Mien is deservedly famous for its hand-pulled noodles, which have the best texture of any noodles we’ve tried lately. Along with the Beef La Mien and the excellent steamed kuchay dumplings, the waiter brought a pair of scissors in a bowl of hot water. These scissors are not for warding off diners hovering by your table urging you to leave (It’s a small place). They are for cutting the noodles, which are very long. We stabbed at our bowls a few times, and were ready to eat.
The Beef La Mien is wonderful: delicately-flavored yet filling. We could only finish half the bowl before throwing down our chopsticks in surrender. Ricky recommends eating the la mien as quickly as possible because the noodles absorb the broth and expand.
Subtle Chinese, and only Php120.
Of course no trip to Binondo is complete without a visit to the Temple of Hopia, Salazar, winner of our Hopia Challenge.
Lan Zhou La Mien is on 818 Benavidez Street in Binondo, Manila.
A searing Saturday afternoon with traffic gridlocked as portions of the highway underwent repairs was probably not the ideal time for making the trip from Makati to Cubao for an early dinner at Bellini’s. You could say that it was a decision rooted in silliness. But if we behaved rationally at all times, life would not be as much fun. Less stressful, perhaps, but not nearly as much fun.
We take a proprietary interest in Bellini’s, having been among its original patrons. As Mr. Bellini reminded us, Today was the first paper to write about the restaurant (You can read the review, framed on his wall). We have seen it grow from a bare room with plastic tables and chairs into a cozy destination restaurant frequented by celebrities (Some of them have their names on the chairs).
And we can compute the rise of the cost of the living by the prices on the menu. In 2001 we had our birthday dinner there with 12 people, and the bill came to Php2500—just 33 percent more than what dinner for two cost last Saturday. In the case of Bellini’s we are happy to pay, because we can see where the money goes.
The quality of the food has been consistently high: pastas, pizzas, entrees, and the best orange cake in the city. If the large selection boggles you, go for the appetizer buffet and ask them to prepare the spaghetti aglio olio with seafood, which is not on the menu. It’s so rich and flavorful, your taste buds will thank you.
And the service has improved since its clunky beginnings. Mr. Bellini pointed out that the staff are all regular employees, not temps, and they know the menu in detail. We believe him because the waiters have been there long enough to pick up the rudiments of Italian so they can speak Tagliano (Tagalog-Italiano).
The wine selection is quite impressive—in the inner room are bottles of vintage barolo and chianti.
Some years ago we saw a Tagalog movie set in Bellini’s and were slightly offended that “our” place had gone public. Still, that exposure has probably been thousands of times more useful to the business than our infrequent patronage (It’s so faaaar). Mr. Bellini says one of their regular diners is the President of the Philippines, and P-Noy’s favorite dishes are spaghetti bolognese, Parma ham and arugula pizza, and scallopine marsala.
Historical sidebar: Mr. Bellini met his wife Luisa at Malacanang Palace in 1986, when she was working for P-Noy’s mother, President Cory Aquino, and he was covering the Edsa Revolution for his paper in Italy. (Roberto Bellini was a photojournalist, though he is sometimes confused with Roberto Benigni the Italian comedian.) “In 20 minutes I knew I wanted to marry her!” he declared. “So I asked her and she called me sira-ulo.”
She agreed eventually, and in 1999 Bellini returned to the Philippines for good. He looked for a spot in which to set up an Italian restaurant, and found the space at Marikina Shoe Expo on Aurora Boulevard in Cubao. The rent was Php100 a day. “One room became two rooms and then three…have you seen the new rooms?” he demanded.
Of course we were familiar with the inner dining area featuring The Mural of the Two Colosseums, Rome and Araneta. One of the charms of Bellini’s restaurant is its distinctive interior decor. Between the indescribable interior design and the effusive proprietor, the place positively radiates character.
Behold the Fontana di Trevi, with Anita Ekberg splashing about. (Where’s the kitten on her head?) There’s a branch of Bellini’s in Marikina, with an upstairs room that can accommodate 100 diners.
Whenever we go to Bellini’s we have to steel ourselves for Mr. Bellini’s expressive manner, but last Saturday he was reflective. “I opened this restaurant 15 years ago last March 4,” he said. “Matanda na ako, I am 74.”
“You don’t look a day older than 64,” we told him.
“I will put your name on a chair,” he announced.
When you go to Bellini’s, could you confirm if said name plate exists?
On Saturday Cookie was up at 0600 for the Island-Hopping Tour of Honda Bay. “You drive to the wharf and get on a boat. Then you go to an island and hang around the beach, swim and snorkel. Then you get back on the boat and visit another island. Then another island.”
“Sounds fascinating. Buh-bye,” we said, and went back to sleep. We were too lazy to go to the restaurant for breakfast or even to dial room service. A few hours later we got up and had an instant coffee. We had bought sachets at a sari-sari store because the hotel does not have complimentary coffee or tea in the rooms. (Or provide extra towels even if we need them for our hair because between us and sister we have enough to make wigs for a barangay of bald people. (They charge Php50 for an extra towel.) Or have a mini-bar so we can store snacks. Or have a tub or wifi at usable speeds. Otherwise it was fine.)
Then we went back to bed and spent the next few hours drifting in and out of sleep and channel-surfing on cable. We decided that we’re not missing anything by having no cable at home. Each station has maybe three programs on repeat the entire day. How much Walking Dead and American Idol can a person stand?
At 1500 it occurred to us that we had not seen any local handwoven fabrics (Binuatan doesn’t make textiles) so we texted our fabric guru Rene in Makati to ask for recommendations. He gave us the address and number of Rurungan sa Tubod Foundation, which operates a weaving center in Puerto Princesa.
Cookie returned a half-hour later and reported that she’d gone snorkeling. “But you do not swim,” we pointed out. Apparently the tour operator had a guy who could take non-swimmers snorkeling: you hung onto him and he went into the water, dragging three or four passengers. Like a human bathysphere.
“The tour was fun!” our sister recounted as we had a room service sandwich for lunch. “The beaches are unspoiled, and the sand is different on every island. You would have hated it.” We told her about the weaving center and she asked if they were open Sundays.
They weren’t. And they were closing at 5pm. We asked them not to close till we got there, then we shot out of the room and jumped into the nearest tricycle. The driver did not know where Rurungan Compound was, but he knew the way to Abanico Road. Thirty minutes later we were on a concrete road in a densely wooded area with few houses. It was like going into the woods, and if we’d been in Manila it would’ve been scary. Fortunately we were in Palawan, so this was normal. Twenty minutes later we saw a lady emerging from a compound and asked her for directions. She pointed to the next gate. We had reached our destination.
According to Laida Lim’s essay in HABI, the guide to Philippine handwoven textiles, a “rurungan” is a group of women living and working in proximity and pooling their resources. The 15-year-old Rurungan sa Tubod Foundation (RTF) creates jobs for women on the island by training them to weave tepiña.
Tepiña is pineapple cloth woven from raw silk and fiber from the Spanish Red pineapple. The weavers learn the textile production process from growing the pineapples to stripping the leaves and knotting the fibers.
We bought several of these pretty wallets and small clutches to give away (and then decided to keep them haha). Prices at the Palawan store range from Php90 to 160. Dammit we should’ve bought more. The large bags cost about Php800. We found baskets with fabric straps that make excellent tote/book bags—we’ll post the photos later.
They also have dresses, blouses, neckties, toys. If you’re in Palawan and wish to visit Rurungan Sa Tubod, call +639178514081 and ask for Beth or Janet. In Manila, you can arrange a private product viewing at their showroom by calling +639175532728.
We’re glad we got out of bed.
Our main event for Saturday was dinner at KaLui, the most famous restaurant in Puerto Princesa, listed among the top restaurants in Asia by the Miele Guide. A reservation is required. As is taking your shoes off at the entrance, so your feet can enjoy the beautiful wooden floors.
Every table was taken. The place is charming—even the washrooms are tourist attractions. There’s a small art gallery and a gift shop selling jams and preserves, bags and wallets…from Rurungan. Same prices, but the weaving center has more merchandise.
For dessert there were slices of fruit, which was just as well because we didn’t have space left for sweets.
A day well spent, despite extreme indolence.
Being complete idiots about geography, we thought we could visit Calauit island and feed the giraffes on this trip. Wrong! Palawan is huge. As Cookie discovered while overthinking our trip, travel time from Puerto Princesa to Calauit is about ten hours. To do the safari thing, we’d have to fly direct from Manila to Coron or El Nido. We decided to stick to Puerto Princesa and its environs—fine by us, because we’re not a beach person. Mountains, caves, dungeons, troll holes, labyrinths: we’re there.
Cookie booked us a tour of the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park, a.k.a. the underground river, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the world’s most important biodiversity conservation habitats. We expected there would be wading involved, so we wore flip-flops. Fortunately we had gotten a pedicure recently so we would not be mistaken for a gorilla escaping the forest. Also, being maniacally prepared, we put all our stuff in zip-loc bags inside our waterproof bags. At the last minute we decided not to bring a flare gun (It would have to be checked baggage).
By the second day we were in total vacation mode, and by total we mean “No Internet”. The wifi in our room could only achieve dial-up modem speed, so we decided to take a break from blogging. And down the slippery slope to sloth and idleness we rolled. It was great.
Pick-up for the underground river tour was set for 0630, so imagine our discomposure when the van turned up at 0600. Getting up at 0530 when your regular sleeping time is 0300 is one thing, but traipsing off to the limestone forest before you’ve had two coffees is another. But Hernan the preternaturally chatty guide did not seem to mind that Grungella the Grouch auditioning for The Exorcist was in the van, and he kept up a steady stream of patter that could not be stopped by our iPod wall of sound.
We learned many things, such as the length of Palawan, the differences between north and south (Primary economic activity in the north, fishing; in the south, farming. Preferred alcoholic beverage north, rum; south, gin), the ratio of males to females in Palawan, and signs of economic development in the area (great leaps in the last decade or so). The ride to the wharf in Sabang took two hours, some of it over rough terrain (“By the way, this is what we call a massage!”). We stopped at the karst (limestone mountain) where part of The Amazing Race was shot; beneath those caves was Smaug the dragon with his hoard of gold. No, the subterranean river.
As we queued up for the outrigger boats that would take us to the caves, Hernan the very knowledgeable pointed out improvements to the tour in the last few years. A system has been put in place so there’s no jostling or fighting for places (or passengers), standards have been set for the boats (the wooden ones used to get scraped on stalagmites and start taking in water), and the orange life vests have to be laundered regularly (the alternative would be gross). A 15-minute boat ride takes you to the trail through the forest, which is populated by monkeys. Visitors are asked not to feed them or open plastic bags, which they associate with snacks.
At the end of the trail we put on hard hats—stuff falls from the roofs of the caves, including bits of rock and bat droppings—and boarded another boat, manned by the effusive guide Piolo. “Not Pascual!” he announced, in case anyone was confused.
Into the bat cave we rode—”The mines of Moria!” Cookie whispered—the pitch black relieved only by the beam of light from the boat’s lantern. Despite our ignorance of geology, we were fascinated by the rock formations. And entertained by Piolo’s running spiel. “Look over there…it’s a T-Rex! Doesn’t that rock look like a T-Rex? And there, see the hair and the beard? It’s the face of Jesus! And there…an angel without wings. Up on the ceiling: bats! To your left, Balin, son of Durin! Next to him, Kit Harington’s abs…” Okay, we made that up. Periodically our boat would meet a boat carrying foreign tourists and Piolo would interrupt his humming of the theme from Titanic to cry, “Annyeonghaseyo! Opa gangnam style!”
The caves stretch for miles, and large sections have not been fully explored. Who knows what we may find in there: hominids, mermaids, dragons, Nessie’s relatives, mithril, Smeagol and the Precious. The Subterranean River cruise alone is worth a trip to Puerto Princesa.
Forty-five minutes later we emerged in dazzling sunlight and pale, powdery sands. Swimming is forbidden on this strip of beach.
Back in the bayan, we stopped at the mall to pay our phone bill. The shopping mall is new; another one is being built. We practically live in the mall, and it’s a great convenience, but we hope Puerto Princesa doesn’t become another Mallville. The laid-back, rustic, stress-free ambience is one of its main charms, and the profusion of small businesses ranging from family-owned restaurants to handicraft stores is another. Most restaurants don’t have air-conditioning, and they don’t need it—the air is clean, the breezes are cool, and motor traffic is light so dust and grime are minimized. Fine, there are too many renditions of the greatest hits of Bread, but they fit the relaxed atmosphere.
We found the Tiangge, a souvenir market crammed with every conceivable type of pasalubong. The cashews and other nuts are excellent.
You can get cultured pearl earrings for ten pesos and mother of pearl charm bracelets for twenty. There are miniature tribal wooden fridge magnets, woven bags, T-shirts and caps, beads in various configurations, wind chimes, dream catchers, wood carvings, and so many accessories, we shut up and shopped. The most expensive items are strands of real pearls which go for Php3,000.
Dinner was at one of PP’s best-known restaurants, Kinabuchs. Go early because by 7pm there’s a queue.
We had the crocodile sisig. It tastes exactly like regular sisig, though the very concept of eating (farmed) crocodile is badass.
Puerto Princesa reminds us of Bali, and like Bali it’s not very big on dessert. We wandered along the main thoroughfare, Rizal Avenue, until we spotted a restaurant called Euro Chef. They serve a Slovenian dessert called struklji—rolls of dough filled with cottage cheese, apple, nuts, raisins. It’s not too sweet, and it goes very well with coffee.
Back to the hotel, where we did absolutely nothing and then slept for nine hours. Vacations are dangerous.
We’d been feeling a little antsy so we decided to go on a trip. Our sister Cookie had vacation time amassed, and after we had agreed on a definition of “vacation time amassed” (“Not exactly, I just have leaves I haven’t used”—Cookie) we convinced her to take a long weekend. Neither of us had been to Palawan, which is always a good reason to go. (Though it must be noted that we’ve never been to the Crimea, either.)
We booked a flight to Puerto Princesa on Tigerair (two round-trip tickets, no checked baggage, total Php6,920). Our flight was at 1010; by 0715 we were at NAIA Terminal 4. Because Cookie is at least three hours early for everything. By 0730 we were sitting on the floor with our coffees, waiting for the counter to open. Fortunately we had trained for sitting on floors by attending UP Diliman.
The counter opened exactly on time, and the whole check-in process was done in 30 seconds. By 0825 we were at the boarding gate. With chairs!
Cookie had booked us at a newish hotel called Acacia Tree, on a leafy street just five minutes from the airport. Immediately after we said “You choose the hotel,” we realized our mistake. The sister is maniacal about cost-efficiency and would happily book us in a lunatic asylum (“It’s been converted,” she assured us). Which she tried to do the last time we took a vacation together, in Prague. Luckily, the asylum had no vacancies.
Our room at Acacia Tree wasn’t ready yet, so we left our bags and went out to explore the terrain.
There are no taxis in Puerto Princesa. You could rent a van, or go around on a tricycle (or as we say in English subtitles, “motorcycle with sidecar”). Rates are negotiated with the driver. Puerto Princesa has clean air and clean streets, so you can take a tricycle without getting exfoliated by grit, dust and wind shear.
Baker’s Hill is designed for entertaining children and taking selfies next to life-size statues of cartoon characters. They also offer baking classes. At the restaurant we had lunch: grilled lapu-lapu and laing. It was okay. Metro Manila prices.
At the store we found all manner of breads and pastries, and stacks of hopia. We’re a bit of a hopia snob and require the crust to be of a certain texture. So this is not purist hopia, but it’s quite delicious. And at Php45 for a box of ten, it’s a steal.
Then we popped into the Butterfly Garden so we could report to butterfly enthusiast Noel. Noel had given us tips for getting photographed with butterflies: Wear bright colors like pink or orange, wear sweet floral perfumes, and stand still. Obviously we were not going to get photographed with butterflies. We did see a lot of them, and
Down the street is Binuatan Creations, a traditional weaving center. The weavers use fibers made of local grass. They urged us to try operating the loom, but we declined in the interest of public safety.