My hometown, Ballesteros, Cagayan, is renowned for its gastronomic delights. Being a seaside town, the piece de resistance comes naturally with the small shellfish gakka, making the town the “Gakka Capital of the World.” Any gourmet would savor the taste of the pyramid-shaped rice cake patupat, which has a one-of-a-kind sweetness. And at Christmastime, people look forward to tinubong, a rice cake cooked in a bamboo tube.
The ultimate gastronomic experience in Ballesteros can, however, be found only at Hapag-Kainan sa Ballesteros. Meaning the Dining Table in Ballesteros, the restaurant is a popular spot for dining and meeting people. But it is the delectable food that keeps the foot traffic busy.
What is the secret? “None. really,” replies the chef, Aurea Doria Dacasin. “I just make sure I cook from the heart.”
That culinary heart started when she was a child. It was not uncommon for her to assist her mother in the kitchen. Her mother gave her endless cooking tips that she treasures to this day. Accordingly, cooking to her has always been second nature. When it was time to go to college, she decided to follow her heart by studying home economics at Centro Escolar University in Manila. After graduation, she worked at a restaurant in Manila. Then, she went back home to Ballesteros.
She attributes the success of the restaurant partly to the business acumen of her husband, Policarpio Dacasin, whom she met in Manila. He handles the daily aspects of the business, from financial accounting to customer relations, making Aurea concentrate on cooking.
Hapag-Kainan sa Ballesteros started as a hobby for Aurea. To keep herself busy, she cooked at home for friends and relatives. But when the food orders became plenty, she established a bakery. Another question eventually came up: What goes with the bread and cake but pansit (noodles)? So a small pansiterya (noodle restaurant) was added. Business has been so good through the years. Now, it is a full-service restaurant, which includes takeout and catering. The restaurant is in such demand that it does catering even in other towns.
Aurea is tremendously indebted to the customers whose patronage inspires her to cook her very best. “They always compliment us,” she tells me. But the accolades are hard-earned. Not only does Aurea maintain quality food, but she also emphasizes the nutritive value of the foods. “I consider our customers like family. I look after their health, making sure that the foods are fresh and not salty or fatty.”
Customers order takeout by phone or text messaging. But it is social media that have been helping the restaurant. The Facebook page of Hapag-Kainan is a 24/7 menu and advertisement. And the restaurant is never wanting of customers. Because of social media, people easily make instant plans to get together at the restaurant, and many of them love to post photos of what they are eating, which is an additional advertisement. There are days when the restaurant is so crowded you’d think the whole town is there.
Being located in an Ilocano town, it is not a surprise that the most popular dishes at Hapag-Kainan sa Ballesteros are Ilocano dishes: dinakdakan (boiled and grilled pig parts); igado (pork and liver stew) and the classic vegetable stews pinakbet and dinengdeng. Perhaps because it is time consuming to do at home, grilled fish is frequently ordered.
Aurea Doria Dacasin feels blessed to be a native and resident of Ballesteros. She loves the sea and the people and she is honored that Hapag-Kainan sa Ballesteros has become a destination restaurant. She has a big heart and an abiding passion. “I imagine I’m cooking for the entire town every time!”
For a taste of Hapag-Kainan sa Ballesteros' Dinakdakan, click here:
Merlita Usita Campañano is a native of Ballesteros, Cagayan. She would like to invite everybody to visit her hometown, which is the “Gakka Capital of the World.” Her myriad interests include cooking, dancing and gardening.