Travelers who love visiting underrated places around the country may know Nueva Vizcaya as a province teeming with natural attractions and history-rich, century-old churches.
Its food, however, is just as unmissable.
In the province’s capital, Bayombong, there’s a place serving Vizcayano food that locals love to enjoy—and tourists can, too.
Called Mrs. Baker’s, the restaurant and pastry shop-in-one is the brainchild of pharmacists-turned-chefs Wilbert and Jehan Damasco.
“We’re a husband-and-wife team here,” Jehan says. “He’s the Vizcaya-born manager, handling the business side of things, while I am in charge of the food and the kitchen.”
Ten years since opening the restaurant, Mrs. Baker’s has become an institution of sorts, so much so that even Vizcayanos from all over the province go to the restaurant to try out the food they serve, including their take on local dishes.
Though their menu offers a variety of food, from Southeast Asian to Italian cuisine, Jehan says it surprisingly works and the locals constantly come to Mrs. Baker’s for it.
“At first, we thought, ‘Will this work?’” Jehan says. “But according to my husband, we have to give the locals a place where they can have what they can’t have since we are here in the province.”
Despite this, their bestsellers are dishes that Vizcayanos know by heart, which they cook, plate, and serve just like how a fine dining restaurant would.
“You’ll be surprised, local food remains our best-selling dishes,” the chef reveals. “When there are tourists, that’s what they also want to sample.”
Inabraw (Php190) is an example of an iconic Vizcayano dish. “Everybody here knows it and eats it,” Jehan says.
Also called dinengdeng or bulanglang in other parts of the country, inabraw is a vegetable soup dish with string beans, eggplant, okra, jute leaves, and bitter gourd, flavoured with fermented fish sauce then served with fried fish. Any vegetable available, however, will do.
“Whatever they want to put in the soup dish, they can. Locals have their own versions,” she says. “Whatever was bought from the market or harvested from their backyard can be included.”
For any inabraw, bagoong or fermented fish sauce is key. At Mrs. Baker’s, Damasco and the rest of the kitchen staff make it more special than usual.
“What made our version special was we simmered our bagoong in fish bones, either fried or grilled, to give it a depth of flavor,” she explains. “It’s like when you eat it in our restaurant, you will think that it’s your mom’s cooking.”
When in season and through a custom menu called Chef’s Table, native clams like bennek and bildat (prices vary) are served, too. Jehan and the rest of the team cooks the clams in two ways: kinilaw or raw with vinegar-based dressing, much like a Latin American ceviche, and inuram or cooked over fire.
These freshwater clams are not included in the menu, so it’s best to ask the staff ahead of time through their Facebook page or landline at (078) 805 3500.
The well-loved bagnet is also available at the restaurant, and because ‘there’s always a touch of Vizcaya in everything we serve,’ as Jehan likes to put it, the deep fried crispy pork belly dish comes with a side of bagoong.
“Unlike others who dip it in ketchup or soy sauce, our sauce for bagnet is bagoong,” Jehan says. “The way bagoong is used in Nueva Vizcaya makes eating bagnet—a typical Ilokano dish—a unique experience here.”
A local wine called tapuy is also available at Mrs. Baker’s. A traditional rice wine from the Cordilleras where part of Nueva Vizcaya is located, the drink is made through fermentation of glutinous rice and a powdered culture starter called bubod.
“We put it in a clear jar to ferment,” Jehan shares. “We then serve it with ice.”
With an alcohol content of 14 percent, the clear, full-bodied wine has a strong alcoholic flavor, as well as a moderately sweet and lingering taste.
It’s currently unavailable due to the liquor ban, but Jehan says once it’s lifted, guests can enjoy a glass or two of tapuy.
For their local dishes, Jehan says they do their best to source ingredients within the province.
Apart from keeping in touch with the Nueva Vizcaya Agricultural Terminal, a farmer-led facility that connects local suppliers to buyers, the restaurant also buys fresh produce from Vizcaya Fresh. The group is a distributor of organic fruits and vegetables from small-scale upland farmers from the municipality of Kayapa.
As a self-confessed lover of farming, Jehan herself manages a small organic farm of her own.
“Here, we grow vegetables that are difficult to find in the province like herbs, and all are organic,” she says. “We even grow flowers that we use for decoration in plating the food.”
On why they source ingredients locally, Jegan says it’s “to let tourists appreciate the flavors of Vizcaya.”
Damasco says they are thankful for the support both locals and tourists have shown them over the years. Mrs. Baker’s, which started out as a 60-seater restaurant, has now expanded to a 120-seater space.
“There’s a waiting line to get in the restaurant which makes me feel lucky,” Jehan says. “It’s rare to be patronized, appreciated by locals, and visited just to have your food.”
Though all of them at Mrs. Baker’s have bigger aspirations for the restaurant, they are, at the moment, focusing on surviving. They, just like many others in the food and beverage industry, suffered during the past year. The restaurant even closed for three months at the height of the pandemic.
“Our focus is to survive,” she says. “Once we are back to normal, we will begin working for the progress of our restaurant again.”
In following the safety protocols, operating at a limited capacity, and doing what they know best in the kitchen keeps Mrs. Baker’s afloat.
“This is really for the locals,” Jehan adds. “We try to make it as authentic and as close to home as possible.”
Outsource the Planning
For a seamless trip, you may leave the planning to DOT’s accredited tour operator in Nueva Vizcaya:
All tourist destinations in Nueva Vizcaya have health and safety protocols in place to protect locals and visitors alike. Everyone is expected to comply by wearing face masks and face shields, regularly washing their hands, and practicing physical distancing.
To check out up-to-date information regarding local destinations that are open and the safety protocols and requirements needed for each location, you may visit www.philippines.travel/safetrip or download the Travel Philippines app at app.philippines.travel or the Google Playstore.