Monday, May 19, 2014

Flavors of Pampanga: Good Times at Claude Tayag's Downtown Cafe

"Manyaman...manyaman". Words I used to hear my dad say to my mom during weekend meals as a child, words that somehow reverberate in my head as the dishes were served at Claude Tayag's Downtown Cafe. 

Claude Tayag, one of Pampanga's culinary icons, brings back familiar and traditional flavors in his newest restaurant, Downtown Cafe in Angeles City, Pampanga. Capampangan dishes are Downtown Cafe's specialty, comforting classics that bring back so many childhood memories, and flavors that have remained close to my heart.

Located at The Quad, the newest development at Nepo, Downtown Cafe conveys that warm vintage feel with its wooden furnishings painted in light shades, and retro Coca-Cola signage with the Spencerian script for that nostalgic vibe, taking one back to simpler times. And good food. Real food. 

Claude Tayag draws his inspiration from traditional Capampangan cuisine, from family recipes that have been passed down for generations. The name of the restaurant itself is a throwback to those times, when going out simply meant "going downtown."  And having a meal was often enough reason to celebrate. A noted chef, columnist and culinary maverick behind Bale Dutung, Claude Tayag brings his passion for local regional cuisine in yet another restaurant, where every meal is a celebration. As you enter Downtown Cafe, one immediately feels so right at home, like dining in your aunt's place. And when you have that craving for traditional flavors, just let Claude Tayag's Downtown Cafe take care of you.  

The vast and fertile plains of Pampanga have often been called the rice basket of Luzon, and the rich agricultural harvests form the core of Capampangan cuisine. From vast rice plantations and haciendas during the Spanish colonial period, a new ruling elite emerged, creating a melting pot of culinary influences including, Malay, Chinese, Spanish and Mexican flavors into the mix resulting in a rich culinary heritage uniquely Capampangan, flavors you can enjoy and experience at Downtown Cafe. After a serious pork feast at Mila's (see my post here at, Claude Tayag prepared a "light" lunch, starting with some crisp Kamote Chips or sweet potato fries...

Next, Claude Tayag served his signature Ensaladang Pako, a fresh fiddlehead fern salad with red onions, tomatoes, quail eggs and a rich and flavorful dressing made with a combination of sweet yellow, sour green and tart dried mangoes and eggs. Unlike the usual vinegar-based vinaigrette, Claude Tayag's unique dressing is a definite must-try. Seriously good.

Then, Downtown Cafe's Trianggulo arrived, crispy pockets filled with tinapa or smoked fish and kesong puti, a local white cottage cheese with a fresh tomato salsa. The smoky, tender chunks of fish and rich, creamy buffalo cheese combine for contrasting yet balanced flavors.

A refreshing Lumpiang Hubad was then served, a fresh vegetable filling usually wrapped in a spring roll but served without the wrapper, hence the name. Instead, you get to roll the filling in fresh, crisp lettuce, served with a peanut sauce. Simple, fresh, and clean flavors, just the way I remember it.

Crispy Aromatic Duck, deep-fried and richly seasoned and served with a tasty corn salsa. You can also wrap crunchy pieces of duck meat in flat mini-tortillas along with some corn salsa. Tasty and flavorful, and also fun to eat as you roll your tortillas.

Though Pampanga is landlocked, the massive Pampanga river and its numerous tributaries provide a rich bounty of freshwater fish, shrimps and crabs. And Claude Tayag combines all these in the richly flavored Talangka Rice with Crablets, with steamed white rice fried with flavorful crab fat topped with crispy crablets, served with calamansi. This one's another winner.

Bringhe Rice Pizza, a traditional Capampangan rice dish cooked in coconut milk and annatto with a twist. Claude Tayag explained that when it comes to Bringhe, some people prefer the soft rice on top, while others prefer the crisp, crusty bottom. In one masterful stroke, Claude Tayag lets you enjoy both with his unique Bringhe Rice Pizza topped with peppers and quail eggs. Brilliant.

Crispy Hito Sarsiadong Bihod, rich flavors and contrasting textures in one dish, with crispy catfish on a rich sauce made with boiled eggs and tomatoes made even richer with fish roe. Simple comforting flavors with that unmistakeable Claude Tayag touch. Another winner.

It was mid-afternoon, and you just need to cap your meal with a cool and refreshing halo-Halo. But not just any Halo-Halo. It's got to be Claude Tayag's Halo-Halo with Pastillas de Leche. Instead of milk, Claude Tayag uses a sweet liquefied version of pastillas de leche, a milk candy made from carabao's milk...awesome.

Packed in a small squeeze bottle, simply squeeze the crema de pastillas on to your halo-halo and taste the difference. And it's also cool to go old school with a traditional crushed ice instead of the finely shaved ice for a change. And no, I'm not sharing my halo-halo...this baby's mine.

Before we leave, Claude's lovely wife Mary Grace invited us to try their Ice Lolly, another traditional dessert made with frozen fruit salad. Why not...

In another classic throwback, memories of my grandmother's fruit salad come back in this pumped up version made even richer with eggs, just the perfect ending to cap a "light" lunch at Downtown Cafe.

Traditional, comforting flavors with that unique Claude Tayag touch, and it's all here at Downtown Cafe. Special thanks to Claude and Mary Grace for an awesome lunch, and as we continue on our Pampanga food trip, I fondly remember my dad saying those words..."manyaman."

Downtown Cafe by Claude Tayag is located at Unit 1-B, The Quad @ Nepo, Plaridel Street, Brgy, Sto. Rosario, Angeles City, Pampanga or call +63917-676-1689 for inquiries.

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