Vigan Empanada Battle
When the topic of Vigan or Ilocano specialties in general is raised, three dishes usually come to the fore: bagnet, longanisa and empanada. For this entry, though, the focus will be on the humble but glorious (think Strider/Aragorn) Vigan empanada. It is the most variable of the three foods I mentioned, and thus the only one really worth subjecting to comparison from restaurant to sidewalk vendor to plaza stall. While the bagnet is essentially the same throughout not only Vigan but perhaps all of Ilocos (the only difference being in how well it is fried and how much fat is in a serving), and Vigan longanisa adheres to the same basic recipe regardless of where you buy it, there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to Vigan empanada. Hence the quest to find the best empanada in Vigan (albeit limited by the finitude of one’s belly and the time span of one day).
Our first stop was for lunch at Abuelita’s: the quintessential hole-in-the-wall eatery I had previously written about. While they offered a wide range of turo-turo style viands, Abuelita’s was well-known in Vigan for two things: bibingka and empanada. While we were intrigued by the royal rice cakes, they were only available by bulk order. Thus, we had to “settle” for their empanadas. I used quotation marks there because this was more of a revelation than a consolation.
Beautifully fried, crisp, and hardly any grease, and with a good balance of ingredients – the meat was not overpowering, the lettuce inside still with some bite, all brought together by some good Ilocano vinegar. As good as the food was at Abuelita’s, their empanada was the definite highlight of the meal.
The friendly lady at the Ilocos Sur Tourism Office recommended that her favorite empanadaan was Insiang’s, which she claimed was much better the more popular Irene’s. She said that the difference was that the filling included papaya rather than the traditional lettuce and/or mongo beansprouts that are commonly used. We wanted to drop by Insiang’s at around 2:00 p.m., on our way back to the hotel from Syquia Mansion, but they were still closed. We took a brief nap and at 4:30, the place was abuzz with local families in their SUVs and tricycle drivers.
We ordered a couple of special empanadas (with vinegar in separate plastic bags) to go. This had the disadvantage of being eaten after it had cooled, as we had to rush to our last museum stop for the day, Burgos Museum, which was across the heritage village proper and closed at 5 p.m. After our tour of Burgos Museum, we walked to the adjacent Plaza Burgos, sat at the rafters across the Capitol and watched the bustle of the City with our Insiang’s in one hand and Mountain Dew from a sidewalk vendor in another. The crust was thinner than Abuelita’s but just as crispy despite our delay in eating it, and not as greasy either. The papaya was interesting, and was more in line with the Batac-style of empanada rather than Vigan. Nonetheless, the dough in Vigan is much thinner and more naturally-colored.
At Plaza Salcedo, where we had a second breakfast of sinanglao earlier in the day, the afternoon was dominated by empanadas. Full, but not quite giving up, we lined up at the busiest of the stalls, as a good crowd often signifies good food. This was the least sanitary of our empanada visits, as the lady rolling the dough was also in charge of breaking larger bills, which made her too busy to shoo away the flies that tasted the raw empanadas. Insiang’s was a roadside eatery, but the lady preparing the empanadas at least wasn’t multitasking with money. At any rate, I agree with the famous chef (was it Jacques Pepin? Julia Child?) who said (and I’m paraphrasing here)that any bacteria that could survive at the heat I’m cooking my food deserves to kill me. As the empanadas were deep-fried, I didn’t fear getting sick too much.
At this particular stall, they include only egg yolks in their empanada. I’m not sure if this is standard practice in Vigan, but I enjoyed these better than the whole-egg empanadas from Batac. The dough was too thick – it was gummy and stuck to my teeth. and having ordered the special, there was just way too much filling. I think at this point, we were pretty much sure that empanada fatigue had set in. Finally trying okoy didn’t seem to do much good either, as theirs, although sufficiently crispy, was way too salty to enjoy despite the generous dousing of sukang Iloko.
In all, I’d say this was a toss-up between Abuelita’s and Insiang’s. I think Abuelita’s is more in line with the traditional Vigan empanada sold at the Empanadaan near Plaza Salcedo, but much more refined and better executed. Insiang’s on the other hand, is more of a cross between the Vigan and Batac styles, taking the best features of the two and putting them together. If you’re a purist, go with Abuelita’s, but if you want a unique experience that you won’t get in any other stall in Ilocos, try Insiang’s. Either way, you’ll end up satisfied.