By Camille Anne M. Arcilla

THE MOMENT we landed at the Iloilo International Airport, our tour guide welcomed us with a promise that we were “up for a different gastronomic experience.”

Out first meal was familiar — a big steaming hot bowl of “the original” La Paz batchoy (noodle soup with innards) with unlimited servings of broth and toppings — garlic, onion chives, and chicharon (pork cracklings). This belly busting meal was just the start.

During the two-day trip hosted by Seda Atria in Iloilo on Sept. 19-20 — part of the hotel’s first anniversary celebration — we had a chance to try the different flavors of Iloilo. Aside from its famous La Paz batchoy, it turned out that the city has a lot more to offer — more than our stomachs could accommodate.

NETONG’s Original La Paz Batchoy with puto

So, what’s the best way to eat batchoy? We were told to keep on ordering more soup, garlic, onion chives, and chicharon until we were full, and then eat all the noodles left at the bottom of our bowls. But Netong’s La Paz Batchoy Operations Manager Patrick Guillergan said the best way to eat batchoy is to eat it right away. “There’s no proper way of eating it — you just eat it the way you want it,” he said. “Batchoy is no secret. You can always find recipes in the Internet, but the real secret here is the broth.”

Mr. Guillergan is from the third generation of the family that pioneered the original La Paz Batchoy restaurant in Iloilo. Netong’s La Paz Batchoy started operations in the 1940s.

Having finished our batchoy, we were led to Madge Café, one of the oldest coffee shops in La Paz market. Madge Café serves affordable coffee, both hot and cold, and chocolate drinks. A tall cup of coffee ranges in price from P35 to P55 depending on the variant. The café has a number of mugs lined up at the counter, each engraved with a different name — if one of them happens to be your name, they will serve your coffee in it.

AFFORDABLE coffee at Madge Cafe — one of the oldest coffee shops in La Paz market

Having just inhaled a humongous bowl of noodles and getting our caffeine fix, we checked in at the hotel and were given a few minutes to prepare for our next food battle — the lunch to be served in house (The batchoy was brunch). With pride, Seda Atria Hotel’s executive Sous-Chef Shabab “Boo” Hesni walked us through his menu.

“We’re trying to showcase a little bit of a classic Ilonggo cuisine, so it’s much more on the authenticity, so don’t expect fine dining,” Mr. Hesni said.

First served was the hotel’s version of minestrone which has a distinct sweet taste, followed by Seda’s unique take on fish and chicken inasal (grill), which was a bit different from Bacolod’s famous version. It seemed to have a hint of batuan fruit, an Iloilo kitchen staple, which has a strong sour taste.

On the side was ensaladang Pinoy, a local favorite, with its mix of local vegetables, bagoong (fermented fish paste), and salted egg. For dessert, we had Seda Atria’s signature banana cake and a variety of other pastries.

“Ilonggos are very picky eaters, so you have to make sure you give them what their palates desire. The food scene here for the past 10 years has grown. Ilonggos back then were more on the sweet side, but recently you would notice it is better than before and they are now demanding for authenticity,” Mr. Hesni said.

A few hours later, we hopped into our shuttle for a tour which gave us a glimpse of both Iloilo’s rich history and its inexorable progress. Our tour guide, Erlyn Alunan, cheerily pointed out all the landmarks and told significant stories, plus some trivia.

Our first stop that afternoon was Molo Church — also known as St. Anne parish church — one of the oldest structures in Iloilo. Built in the 1830s, it is known among townsfolk as “Church for Ladies.” Ms. Erlyn said: “This is where you pray for your ideal man.” Maybe some of us did.

The next stop was Camiña Balay Nga Bato, a well-preserved heritage house built in 1865 and owned by the Avanceñas.

Rather exhausted from exploring the whole house, we were led to the kitchen for an afternoon merienda (snack). Laid down on long old wooden tables were bowls of pancit molo (dumpling soup), biscocho and mamon tostado (varieties of cookies), and tiny cups of hot chocolate, locally called batirol. The combination may seem a bit odd, but it works out well for a Pinoy palate.

An old school barquillos maker in Original Deocampo Barquillos

We returned to the hotel to ready ourselves for a party: Seda Atria was throwing a combination appreciation dinner and Mardi Gras-style anniversary party. We were pretty sure that we are up for another feast.

“We are extremely happy that we were able to open this property and start up in this region. The hospitality we are receiving from the local people is incredible… We are looking forward to more and more cooperation in the future,” said Andrea Mastellone, the Seda Group’s General Manager, before making a toast.

Seda Atria Hotel Manager Joseph S. del Rosario told BusinessWorld that he sees the property performing even better in the next few years.

“Based on our room inventory, we can say we are No. 1 in terms of the number of rooms sold,” he said, in comparison to other facilities in Iloilo. “We have only been here for one year, yet we already have gained the trust and loyalty of the market.”

He added that 42% of total occupancy comes from return guests, and noted they will be giving guests the best hotel experience in the city.

The night was capped with a few drinks and conversation at the hotel’s Straight Up roof deck bar.

MOLO CHURCH, or St. Anne Parish, better known as “Church for Ladies”

The following day, before our late afternoon flight, we took another half-day tour of the city — after having a hefty buffet breakfast at the hotel’s Misto restaurant, that is.

We visited Iloilo’s first makers of barquillos — that crispy biscuit roll — Original Deocampo Barquillos, also in La Paz.

One would think that in this day and age, machines would have taken the place of people in a food factory, but Deocampo’s has kept it old school with barquillos makers who have worked with them for more than a decade. Barquillos batter is flattened and heated on a custom-made pan, then rolled finely by hand with the help of proper metal tools, and cooled down to room temperature. Some of the barquillos makers can produce 1,000 rolls a day — perhaps the reason why humans still rule over machines.

Baked oysters from Breakthrough

We had a quick tour of neighboring Jaro, passing by Nelly’s Garden, visiting Casa Mariquit, and stopping by the Original Biscocho Haus, for our pasalubong (take home gifts).

An Iloilo trip would not be complete without trying the local seafood. For lunch, we were brought to a popular restaurant along Villa Beach in the Villa Arevalo District — Breakthrough.

First served were baked oysters with melted cheese on top that some of us were hesitant to eat, having heard horror stories of the aftermath of eating a spoiled oyster. But our tour guide — after advising us not to eat the oysters with buko (coconut) juice or milk — noted that as long as it is cooked well, there is nothing to worry about.

Stuffed pusit from Breakthrough

Along with the oysters — which also came steamed — we had stuffed pusit (squid), clam, huge prawns, roast chicken, and a whole lot more.

Later that afternoon, we prepared for our flight back to Manila with a heavy heart, but also with a heavy stomach. But we’re not complaining.