B/Biyahe: Liliw, Laguna with Chef Justin Sarabia

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Shirt & cap by BENCH
Photography by Ina Jacobe

Words by Margarita Buenaventura

For many of us, the provincial life is an escape—a welcome change from city life. It’s when we stop thinking and simply enjoy. But for Chef Justin Sarabia of Rural Kitchen, heading to the province is more than a chill out jaunt: it’s a muse for his craft.

Justin spent several years in New York to hone his culinary skills, bussing dishes and waiting on celebrities like Pharrell. When he decided to head back to Manila, he knew that he wanted to pay homage to something close to his heart, which happened to be Liliw, his family’s hometown in Laguna. Just 3.5 hours from Manila, Liliw inspired Justin’s Makati restaurant Rural Kitchen, with heirloom dishes from his grandmother and ingredients sourced from Liliw itself.

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Chef Justin drives into Liliw, Laguna

In the spirit of #LoveLocal, B/Blog went on a road trip with Justin to discover Liliw through the eyes of a local: the secrets that make it tick, the food that gives it life, and the slippers that have made an indelible footprint on Filipino culture. After a day in Liliw, we find out that inspiration can be found in every street of this sleepy Southern town. All you have to do is dig a little deeper.

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Pako or fiddlehead fern

Pakô or fiddlehead fern, Liliw’s local lettuce

One of Rural Kitchen’s signature dishes is its pakô salad, which Justin served for lunch with a light dressing. This dark leafy vegetable can be found in many parts of Liliw, and is eaten when it is newly sprouted. The pakô most resembles the watercress in taste, but more subtle on the spice.

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Chef Justin prepares the dressing for his signature Pako salad

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Bonete bakery

After lunch, we headed to Juntaya’s Bakery on MH Del Pilar Street, from which Justin sources the the savory bonete he serves at Rural Kitchen. A different kind of pan de sal that practically melts in your mouth, they are named thusly because they are shaped like bonnets. Justin says that many have tried to recreate these famous bonetes, but that no one has quite lived up to its taste and consistency.

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Bonetes fresh from the oven

St. John the Baptist Church

The beauty of living in a small town is that everything is just a walk away. After scarfing down a bag of Juntaya’s bonetes, some repenting was in order. We visited the St. John Baptist Church (also called Lilio Church), a beautiful adobe and red brick structure that has been around since 1646. With everything in town built as low, sprawling structure, the church stands out as a marker that you are indeed in Liliw.

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Buying tsinelas

Tsinelas is what put Liliw on the map, and you won’t need to go far to find a store chock-full of them. The bayan, where the town hall is located, is lined with rows of tsinelas stores that offer strappy sandals to Birkenstocks-esque stompers. The best part is, anyone with a serious shoe fetish can enjoy these goods for much less than Manila prices.

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Mio Cantina, Los Baños

A day of slipper-shopping and bonete-eating is certainly a trip on its own. But for those in need of something more filling on the way back home, a detour to Justin’s ramen joint Mio Cantina is in order. The university town of Los Baños was where Justin decided to set up shop after he saw how the ramen craze took over Manila. With student-friendly prices and a menu that includes pork buns and shoestring fries, it’s the ideal end to a lazy day.

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The shoestring fries at Mio Cantina

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Mio Cantina’s refreshing raspberry shake

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After this B/Biyahe to Liliw, Chef Justin heads home

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