Manila Bulletin Life & Leisure
architecture and interiors by Melinda P. Laudico

Think about food that whets the appetite and stirs the imagination and you think 'Pampanga'.

From this province comes such exotic dishes originating from the richness of its fields and waters. Lahar may have buried many of its historic landmarks but the century-old food recipes of Pampanga remain the province's source of pride.



One of the well-known purveyors of Pampanga cuisine is Maritel Nievera, whose Cabalen chain of restaurants brings to Metro Manilans exotic Pampanga fare such as adobong camaru (rice field crickets), batute (stuffed frog), adobong snipes tapang usa (dried venison), adobong wild duck, adobong ugo, tapang kalaaw, sizzling sisig and inihaw na hito with burong isda sa mustasa.

In 1983, Maritel opened her first eatery along the Gapan-Olongapo road in what is considered the regional center of Northern Luzon-San Fernando, Pampanga. Called "Ituro Mo, Iluto Ko", her restaurant became a favorite food stop of motorists seeking a "taste of Capampangan cuisine".

Maritel then decided to bring Pampanga cuisine to Metro Manila by opening Cabalen Restaurant-first at West Avenue in Quezon City, then at SM Megamall in Ortigas Center, followed by Cabalen at the Glorietta in Makati and now Robinson's Place in Ermita.



MARITEL NIEVERA, president of Cabalen Restaurant



Like the first three restaurants, the newly opened Cabalen at Robinson's Place offers authentic Pampanga cuisine, served in a quaint '50s setting.

"Cabalen at Robinson's Place Ermita was designed by UP architect Popi Laudico to evoke that old Cabalen feel, but with a '50s twist," Maritel elaborates as she explained that each Cabalen resto is reminiscent of a specific period in Philippine history.

To enable Metro Manilans to savor as many exotic Pampanga dishes possible in one meal, Cabalen offers a P198 eat-all-you-can, eat-all-you-want buffet where one can dig into dishes like sinigang na ulang, kare-kare, rellenong bangus, kaldereta, bistek tiyan ng bangus, ginataang hipon, chicharon from Guagua. Desserts include halo-halo, bibingkang malagkit with latik, buco pandan and cassava cake.

A Pinoy Deli counter, inside every Cabalen restaurant, sells delicacies from all over the country such as variations of longganisa, vinegar, bagoong, pickled fruits, fish and vegetables and kakanin sweets such as pili from Bicol, durian from Davao and pastillas from Bulacan.

What is amazing is that Pamapanga's exotic dishes appeal not only to Filipinos. Regular Cabalen diners include expats, particularly the French.

Maritel notes - "They probably see an affinity between Pampanga and French cuisine - after all, don't the two cuisines boast of stuffed frogs and delicate snipes and quails, not to mention escargot for appetizers?"