We are reminded of what Ige Ramos said he gives as a rejoinder whenever he’s asked the million-peso question: “What is Filipino food?” For him, the better question is: “How does food become Filipino?”–a reframing of the story of food and of culinary culture that takes note of history, of practice, of borrowing and blending that characterize much what we understand to be “local food.”
Taking note of that, and taking it into our local context, we thus confront the question: “How does food become Dumaguetnon?”
An answer lies in sandwiches, and it takes the form of two men: Jan Barga and Keith Fresnido.
Both are friends, have known each other since they were mere boys, and both come from Iligan City in Northern Mindanao. Because of some strange twist of fate, both have come to call Dumaguete home. And remarkably enough, both have carried over from their old hometown a particular food culture that they have tried to introduce to the Dumaguete food scene: sandwiches.
Mr. Barga did it first. He has been a resident of Dumaguete since his college days at Silliman University, where he graduated with a degree in Entrepreneurship. While rotating between Iligan, Cebu, and Dumaguete after graduation, he made the latter more of his base while pursuing graduate studies at Silliman, and at the same time–because his other love is music–taking part in the organization [and management] of the Belltower Project, the community of musicians and bands in Dumaguete.
Food has always been a fascination for him, even joining some of his friends in putting up a tocinohan in Dumaguete in 2015. [He was the hot sauce guy of the enterprise.]
During the pandemic, he whiled away his time in Dumaguete doing real estate online for an American company, and it was in the high doldrum days of the lockdown that he decided to put up a sandwich shop. He called it Pan-Q–a perfect name for the business, and for the circumstances it was born in: “Pan” means bread, and “Q” is a stand-in for barbecue, but you can also read “pan” as an abbreviation of the pandemic. It was an immediate hit.
Pan-Q started off as a mobile cart frequently seen on Hibbard Avenue [in Tugas, just a few meters before the crossing to Amigo Subdivision], and it served delicious hotdog buns that could be loaded with a choice of meat, from pork tocino to beef franks to chicken hotdog on skewers–which customers could mix and match, to make a perfectly rendered barbecue sandwich.
Part of the appeal was the concoction Mr. Barga made of the sauce–a delectable mayonnaise blend that unified all of the flavors of the sandwich, topped with a slaw made of cabbage, tomato, and onions.
When it opened in mid-2021, we could not even put in our orders because their inventory regularly emptied out even way before closing time. Because the sandwich was customizable, affordable, and delicious, Pan-Q became a hit. The line in front of the mobile cart became longer–but the idle time was made more bearable with the local music Mr. Barga piped in, and made more entertaining with customers watching his staff singing and swaying to the sound as they prepared your sandwich, for take out or for dine-in.
Pan-Q soon opened a branch in Cebu, and also a branch along Escaño Drive to a bamboo bungalow beside Mang Kaloy’s Fried Rice that seated more people, partnering with Kape Mystica which provided tea and coffee to customers.
Along with the customizable sandwiches came a solid menu, now with rice meals paired with their meats, and a savory saucy condiment of some kind, to be dipped with the barbecued meats. [Perhaps it is palapa?] But it’s a flavorful oil dip with green onions and fried flaked dilis. Whatever it is, it tastes delectable. Pan-Q is where we go to when we need to have our tocino fix in Dumaguete.
Then there’s Keith Fresnido and Apas–Dine & Deli by Hitik. Mr. Fresnido had always wanted to open his own sandwich shop for so long–but not just any sandwich shop: he wanted each and every ingredient to be of the utmost quality, whether that’s sourcing authentic sauerkraut from local distributors to curing his own meats and baking his own bread. With Apas, he is making this wish come true–but it came about because of some challenging circumstances.
Mr. Fresnido worked as a chef in Tagaytay, but when Taal erupted in January of 2020, he was forced to flee back to Iligan together with his wife Marla. And then the pandemic struck. For livelihood, he decided to set up a stall outside his house and sold sandwiches. It was a huge hit for sandwich-hungry Iliganons.
But there was another opportunity opening up for the couple: Marla took a job to manage a luxury hotel in Dumaguete, and they decided to start anew here–with Mr. Fresnido working as chef for another hotel.
That stint, however, made him impatient to realize his dream once more of having his own sandwich shop, inspired by two sandwich shops in New York and in Charleston, South Carolina that he loved. And thus, Apas was born–the name taken from the Bisaya meaning “catch up”–but also to mean having “a food system that is resilient to keep up with the changing times, and having a safe space where everyone is welcome to savor delicious food that will surely make one say, “Apas ko diha!” It is also a playful take on “pass,” that space of time when food is inspected by the chef before it is presented to diners. They opened the doors to Apas along EJ Blanco Street in December 2022.
Despite the challenges, Mr. Fresnido says that the work of running Apas has been fulfilling because of the opportunity to expose customers to new flavors. Apas’s menu leans on a Western palate using ingredients sourced locally, but Mr. Fresnido is keen on having the opportunity to not only expose locals to new flavors, but to also offer comfort to the expats and visitors looking for a taste of home.
Apas offers sandwiches that tackle incredible flavor. The beef pastrami sandwich features Mr. Fresnido’s own cured beef pastrami, complemented with sauerkraut and mustard for that sour, bitter, and spicy kick. The ultimate picnic sandwich pairs locally-cured ham and bacon together for an unbeatable flavor punch, balanced by roasted bell peppers and cheese. Mr. Fresnido tosses his hat into the chicken sandwich ring with his own take on the classic, having an apple slaw set his sandwich apart from the rest.
Besides the sandwiches, he also gives extra care and attention to his flatbreads. They’re called pinsas–or Romanian-style pizzas–but Mr. Fresnido refers to them on the menu as “flatbreads” so his customers immediately understand what they’re seeing when ordering off the menu. However one calls them, they’re delicious, whether one chooses the cheese, the pepperoni, or the other items off the special menu.
On our last visit, we ordered two flatbreads that caught our fancy. The mushroom flatbread is painted with a smooth cream parmesan sauce, with shredded cheddar and mozzarella scattered on its surface. It is topped with fresh oyster and shimeji mushrooms, and drizzled with a mild garlic and chili oil. Savor takes over the palate, whether from the cheese, the mushroom, the bread or the oil.
The other flatbread is called, interestingly, “S.A.N.I.B.” Mr. Fresnido admits the acronym stands for “Such a Nice Iliganon Boy,” a call back to his roots with fondness and whimsy.
The sandwich echoes what Mr. Fresnido knows to be a framework of an archetypal Iliganon breakfast: a rich salty meat, eggs, and a king among condiments: palapa.
Palapa perfumes the palate with herbaceous notes of ginger, and kicks it with a hit of chili. The characteristic ingredient that makes palapa stand out from all its other ingredients is the sebujing: a fragrant spice somewhat like the birth child of garlic and onion, under the guise of a “scallion” in most ingredients’ lists on the palapa jar labels. [According to Mr. Fresnido, a “scallion” is much easier to understand.]
To us, the Iliganons are right to keep the sebujing–this delicious jewel–under this guise, and have it all to themselves. The palapa plays its part on the S.A.N.I.B. flatbread, with the shredded cheddar and mozzarella cheese substituting for the richness that the eggs offer. Ham would be the savory lead on this hit, with the garlic chili oil as a featured character.
After the balls of dough are stretched and flattened, Mr. Fresnido adorns the flatbreads with their respective toppings before placing them in the industrial oven, baking them in minutes. The dough and the cheeses bubble and brown until the cheese melts, and the dough becomes bread. Pockets of air expand the matrix of dough, bolstered by the proteins in the flour, accessible only by slicing the bread, exposing the cathedrals of carb for the eyes to eat.
Although flatbreads and sandwiches are not traditionally Iliganon, neither is Mr. Fresnido, really. He was born in Manila, and lived there until he was five years old when his Iliganon parents brought the family over to Iligan to live. His childhood and adolescence were spent there before he returned to Manila to pursue a degree in culinary arts at the International School of Hospitality & Management. One would presume that these periods of time away from Iligan would take away from Mr. Fresnido’s experience of the city–missing out swaths of his life from his hometown–but being away built on his experience, not take away from it. As logistically as possible, Keith features Iliganon products like palapa and Iliganon beer in Apas, alongside the worldly flavors he stands with.
So are the “elevated sandwiches” of Mr. Fresnido and Mr. Barga Dumaguete food? Of course, they are.
That has always been the nature of Dumaguete anyway: we celebrate this churn of incoming cultures as our paghimamat, embracing all influences until we make them our own, marked in the distinctive air that’s Dumaguetnon.
Mr. Fresnido and Mr. Barga are the instruments of doing that. Both offer their Iliganon food culture up for Dumaguetnons to experience. Their sandwiches become Dumaguetnon because their makers live here. These dishes are enjoyed by the people who live here. Although the flavor and method of cooking is Iliganon, the enjoyment transcends geographical boundaries, and now is suited to fit with the values and the palates of Dumaguetnons.
Author’s email: [email protected]