Simple & Low-Key

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Sometimes the best places are obscured in simple low-key settings… like this Italian-style pizzeria in a Total Gas Station along the National Highway at Barangay San Rafael. Who would have known that one could find great pizza in Laguna and in a gas station to boot?

Came highly recommended by Boots Alcantara of Casa San Pablo, we set out to search for this supposedly good find.  Orders are taken at the convenience store and one can choose to dine inside the store (a small corner is set up like a bar facing the station) or al fresco just behind the store.

The crust, for me, is what makes or breaks a pizza and this definitely made their pizzas – thin and crusty baked in a wood-fire oven.  The toppings, with special mention to their Pesto, Pepperoni and Margherita, have just the right amount of ingredients, the cheese and the sauce not drenching the crispy texture of the crust.

They’re pasta, likewise cooked al dente with me favoring their Bolognese.

Gone before we knew it!

La Pizzeria made such an impression when we had a slice each of they’re Pesto pizza some years ago, I made sure to have a meal there when I found myself back in San Pablo last year.  It still did not disappoint and my meticulous friends continued to be wowed.

Right after lunch and before heading home, we stopped by to bring home some local treats.

El Mare’s buko (coconut) and chicken pies are popular food to take home with you to remember San Pablo by.

Both pies had fillings filled to the brim, the crust – flaky definitely deserving the thumbs up.

Making Tradition

Birthdays are always a good excuse to get together.  Since we graduated from High School many moons ago, we still keep in touch but seeing each other often is fantasy today, with different lifestyles and priorities as the number one culprit.  Not to mention that 10 in a group means 10 birthdays and busy bodies that we are, it’s complication to the max. Determined to keep the bond, it became a tradition of sort for 5 of us with birthdays close together – if you consider a span of 3 months close – to treat the group to something special, each year transcending to finer and more enjoyable experiences.  It started with extravagant dinners to out-of-town lunches to dinners prepared by a chef to this.

We don’t travel well together.  It’s the difference in travel styles.  That said, the travel planner that I am dared to plan an overnight trip to Laguna and Quezon for the group last year.  They complained – about how far the trip was… that they don’t like airbeds as it is difficult to share the bed… and why were there only 2 bathrooms for 9 of us… fun, isn’t it?   😯

So we had lunch at Ugu’s and so impressed they were, they stopped grumbling about the 3-hour drive.

We then headed to Sitio de Amor, our home for a night.  Again, they oohed and ahhed… until they realized the bathroom and bed situations.  I told them to live with it (for a night).

I have eyed that tree house since I first saw it.  So I booked it.

It had a balcony with seats built all around.

The back of the pool

And beautiful views of the grounds to boot.

A close to perfect setting to gather together and catch up with each other till the wee hours of the night, the only thing is… it had only 1 bedroom which could only fit 4 of us.

Not bad at all.

The rest had to trek back and forth to their room, called Lanzones – a room with a beautiful view of the lagoon that fits 6 and yes, with only 1 bath.   😛

The motley crew before heading back home.

All is well that ends well.  They were happy despite the bathroom and bed dilemmas.  The breakfast was as usual, superb.


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A weekend road-trip just before it ended was capped by a wonderful lunch at a café oozing with charm.  Highly recommended by Jorge and Amor Bondad (of Sitio de Amor), we headed to Sulyap Café and Art Gallery before heading home.

The café is a 2 story Spanish colonial house transported from Quezon and restored piece by piece at the Cocoland compound.

Gorgeous ceiling detail

Lovely window details, a trademark of the old Spanish houses — overlooking the gallery.

Did I say charming inside and out?

Clockwise:  Enseladang Pako (Fiddelhead fern salad), Sinigang na Liempo, Banana crepe, Kulawong Puso ng Saging (an original recipe of San Pablo city).

And the food… quite good and could merit a return in the future.

Across the café is the art gallery, which had pieces in various sizes, from furniture to plates and other collectibles.  This building used to be the Cocoland Hotel before proprietor Rommel Empalmado bought the compound.  He also recounted that prior to it being a hotel, it was a South Luzon College, which explained the school-like structure.

He also disclosed that when he was restoring the old house, being a lover of anything old, he’d use to take a peek (sinusulyap – sulyap in Filipino) and admire the unfinish house from a window of the gallery across, hence the name Sulyap.  Quite an endearing story, me thinks.

Rommel is currently building a bigger house in the other part of the compound, this time a bed and breakfast that he hopes to open by December – so watch out for this new lodging alternative in the Viaje del Sol circuit.

Definitely a gratifying end to our weekend getaway.

Getting There:

On the Maharlika Highway coming from Manila on the way to San Pablo, you’ll hit a fork, take the left road (that’s Colago Ave.), which would take you off the highway and lead you to San Pablo proper. You’ll come to an intersection with a stop light (Puregold Supermarket should be on the right corner), turn left on Cosico Ave.  Turn left 2 or 3 streets after (there should be a sign of Sulyap on the right that points to the street where you should turn).  The road will lead to the gate of the Cocoland compound.

Sulyap Cafe and Gallery
Brg. Del Remedio, Cocoland Compound,
San Pablo, Laguna
Tel no:  (049)562-9740 / 582-9735

Of Preservation and Livelihood

We were running late, directions given were not very clear and so we took a wrong turn and ended up in Sampaloc Lake.

Sampaloc Lake taken from the balcony of Tahanan ni Aling Meding on a previous visit.

When we finally arrived at Sto. Angel, we saw our friends waiting by the roadside.  We turned into a parking lot and hurriedly parked, exchanged pleasantries and off we went, following Mang Tano, on a short trek as lunch was waiting for us.

It was an easy trail and about 15 minutes later, the trail revealed a blue-green lake that is quite captivating.

There were rafts positioned at the banks, one of which was reserved for us.  One can book with Aling Sion, Mang Tano’s wife a tour of the lake for P180 and if you add another P180, you get to enjoy a delectable lunch of

Clockwise:  Ginataang hipon, buko juice (coconut juice), pako (fiddlehead fern) salad, grilled tilapia.

pako salad, grilled tilapia and ginataang hipon (shrimps in coconut milk), all caught from the river and cooked fresh.

All meals are prepared by the fishermen’s wives which make up the Samahang Mangingisda sa Lawa ng Pandin (loosely translates to “Association of the Fishermen of Lake Pandin”).  The association was established as part of a preservation effort and at the same time help the residents earn a little bit of income on the side with the wives attending to the tourists.

With the help of Mandy Mariño, the fishermen’s wives organized the “Tour of the Pandin Lake” personally paddling the rafts.

Today, it is the most pristine of the 7 lakes of San Pablo.  Although there is nothing much of the tour, it just takes you around the lake, stopping at a short uphill trail that leads to clearing where one can take a peek at its twin, Lake Yambo.

Yambo’s name was derived from its famous lengend of 2 lovers, Yambo and Pandin.

Both lakes are teeming with tilapia, carp, catfish, milkfish, shrimps and snails.

They are also suitable for swimming but just to avoid the hassle of changing afterwards, we skipped it and just enjoyed the lake, the company and the delightful lunch.

Note: This tour is likewise part of the Viaje del Sol route.

Getting There:

Along the National Highway going towards Lucena, you’ll reach a fork somewhere along San Pablo, take the left.  This will lead you to the town proper.  Go all the way till you reach the city hall, go pass the rotunda until you reach Sto. Angel.  Watch out for a sign. Ask around if you don’t see the Lake Pandin sign that would lead you to a parking lot.  The residents are very helpful and will point you to the right direction.

Contact detail:

Aling Sion
0929 9789565


Fresh from the Tree

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I am not particularly fond of rambutan, at least not in the same level of fondness I have for lychee and longan – rambutan’s close cousins.  But one glorious day I was given some that was fresh from the tree and it has gained a few notches on my gustatory scale.

This tropical fruit indegenous to Malaysia is a hairy bright red oval fruit about the size of a small hen’s egg.  Inside is a translucent grapelike flesh that is sweet and tastes a lot similar to but slightly acidic than that of the lychee.   The pit is what sometimes turns me off.  It annoys me much if the outer layer of the seed sticks to the flesh.  However after tasting the freshly picked fruit, I found out that a fresh produce does no such thing, and I learned to be less judgmental of the fruit.

July – October is harvest time for these sweet juicy fruit and last August, we were in San Pablo, Laguna for the Rambutan Festival where a kilo can go as low as P20 (US$ 0.50).

On our recent road trip, we checked in at Sitio de Amor, a great place to have fresh rambutans, either by personally picking them from their trees that is sprawled all over their garden or simply have it served right after picking during mealtime.

Our breakfast fare which include scrambled eggs, longganisa (local sausage) and a dried fried fish called Nora Aunor (no kidding!)

Glutinous rice cake topped with cane sugar (panocha) — the best in my opinion.

Sitio de Amor is a sprawling 4.5 hectare landscaped orchard situated near the Maharlika Highway.  Nestled between Mt. San Cristobal and Mt. Banahaw,

traversed by the Balanga River feeding into a lagoon where people can choose to take a dip.

Another option is the infinity pool built by the owners of the resort, Jorge and Amor Bondad.  A weekend home turned resort, the Bondads are very hands-on in expanding and sprucing up this oasis of theirs.  In fact, when in their property, you will chance on Amor working in her garden, claiming the chore to be her stress buster.

Looks like more rooms coming up in the future.

Note: Sitio de Amor is part of the many destinations of Viaje del Sol.

Getting There:

Once you see Jardin de San Vicente along the Maharlika Highway, watch out for a sign that will lead you to the resort.

Sitio de Amor
Km 88.8 Maharlika Highway
Barangay San Antonio
San Pablo, Laguna
For reservations, call:  522-7340 ; 0918-9274346