Food Encounters at Liliw

crispy biya at Chef Mau Restaurant, Liliw, Laguna

The quaint town of Liliw in Laguna has been known in the past for its cool springs. Sitting at the foot of Mounts San Cristobal and Banahaw, the town is dotted with mountain streams flowing down from those peaks and is surrounded by lush green foliage. More recently it has also become known as the "tsinelas capital" for its slipper and shoemaking industry. During our recent drives into town however, we discovered something else that makes a visit to this town a memorable one: good dining.

We usually do not drive 2-3 hours outside the city just to have a meal at such a distant location but Liliw is one place that could be well worth the effort. There are two establishments here that caught our attention. Both have been listed in various reviews as among the top 5 or 10 in the whole province of Laguna: Chef Mau Restaurant and Arabela Italian Restaurant.

Chef Mau Restaurant

After our brief adventure at Nagcarlan's Bunga Falls on a recent Laguna road trip we were hungry and decided to check out Chef Mau. It wasn't a long drive to Liliw although the staff at Chef Mau were waiting for a big tour group when we arrived and therefore took a little longer than usual to serve us. When we finally sampled our order we realized it was well worth the wait. First on the menu was the paco or fiddlehead fern salad.

paco or fiddlehead fern salad at Chef Mau Restaurant
Chef Mau's paco or fiddlehead fern salad.

Paco is common in these parts due to the relatively cool weather and you will encounter several vendors selling it in town. The salad included red eggs and was a good precursor of things to come. Next on the table is a favorite at Chef Mau's: stuffed eggplant fried to a crisp and served with a nice sauce. The stuffing is pork longanisa or sausage.

eggplants stuffed with pork sausage
Stuffed eggplants.

An interesting and tasty dish is the crispy biya (loosely translated as goby fish in English). This a fish that used to be quite common in the rivers and lakes of Rizal and Laguna. Leo is quite familiar with it since he comes from Pateros where a once clean tributary of the Marikina River used to be a source for gobies. Practically non-existent now in that town, many of this fish may fortunately still be found in the more pristine waterways of Laguna.

Chef Mau's crispy biya or goby fish
Crispy biya or goby fish.

Meat lovers in our group ordered humba – a sweet pork dish that is popular in the southern Philippines. It is braised pork belly sweetened originally to make the meat last longer and is somewhat similar in appearance to pork adobo. A waiter passed by our table with a serving of pansit lechon for another group and one of our friends couldn't resist ordering the same for our group.

braised pork belly
Humba or braised pork belly.

Besides the salad for our obligatory vegetable fare we also had a traditional laing or taro leaves in coconut milk with chili peppers and fish.

taro leaves in coconut milk
Laing or taro leaves in coconut milk.

Our biggest surprise though was the price. For a hearty meal that included drinks and fruit shakes (plus tips) our group of seven paid less than P200 each. Now that's very affordable for the kind of feast we just had.

Most of the dishes we ordered were local fare but a great deal of the stuff here is fusion cuisine – Filipino with other Asian and even Western influences. Their Thai Tilapia is highly recommended although we did not get to sample it. From the restaurant's wall hangings and after a brief talk with the restaurant manager (the owner's sister), we learned that Chef Mau is Chef Mauro Arjona, Jr., a Liliw native and award-winning executive chef who co-owned and operated 18 restaurants at different times. Chef Mau is rarely in town these days, overseeing his restos in Metro Manila. His is an inspiring story of starting out as an employee of a local slipper-making store, then becoming a dishwasher in a restaurant before moving on and becoming a chef and restaurant owner.

Thai Tilapia at Chef Mau
Thai Tilapia (photo taken on our second visit to Chef Mau)

Chef Mau is not at the town proper of Liliw; instead it is located in Barangay Bungkol on the road going to the town of Magdalena. To find your way around simply ask the locals.

Arabela Italian Restaurant

We first went to Arabela in 2012 after reading about it online. An Italian resto in such a remote town in Laguna? It was so intriguing we just had to see this. And to our surprise the food was quite close to the real thing. Arabela is known for their pasta and pizza as well as steaks and sweet treats. Owners Bobby and Tonet Camello turned the place into a charming hideaway with cozy, vintage-style interiors in shades of green and yellow, works of art adorning the walls and stained glass lamps lighting each table. Watch out for that low ceiling though. This restaurant sits on the ground floor of a renovated early 20th century home where the first floor is traditionally used as a bodega or storeroom.

interior of Arabela Restaurant in Liliw town
Arabela's cozy interior.

Our real business here however is the food. On our initial visit we got to sample their Italian dishes. Their eggplant parmigiana was impressive – perhaps the best we've had so far.

Arabela's eggplant parmigiana
Eggplant parmigiana.

For pasta we had their pesto spaghettini with anchovies, black olives and tomato fusilini. Perfect for a light dish which is how Leo usually likes his pasta.

pesto spaghettini with anchovies, black olives and tomato fusilini
Pesto spaghettini with anchovies, black olives and tomato fusilini.

One of the ladies in our group ordered the shrimp fra pomodoro. She found it a little bit sour for her taste. But of course, we remarked. This is a bit different from the sweet pasta most Filipinos have been used to.

shrimp fra pomodoro
Shrimp fra pomodoro.

Meat lovers can opt for Arabela's steaks and other meat dishes. Another person in our group went for their sirloin fettuccine, a creamy pasta dish with servings of beef on top.

sirloin fettucine
Sirloin fettucine.

The next time we visited Liliw we were back at Arabela but since we already had lunch at Chef Mau we hopped over for coffee and sweets instead. We knew Arabela would be packed for lunch, this being a weekend, but at 3PM? We were barely able to get a table when the next group came in and filled up the place. Some of our late-arriving friends actually had to find their seats at a table outside. Inside we started to order our delayed dessert to go along with coffee. Leo had the dulce de leche cheesecake, the first of its kind that we've had. This confection goes perfectly well with coffee.

dulce de leche cheesecake
Dulce de leche cheesecake.

Arabela initially became known for their brownies, fudge and pudding. But their collection of cheesecakes may actually be better. Their strawberry mango cheesecake is an interesting and pleasant combination.

strawberry mango cheesecake
Strawberry mango cheesecake.

And of course an old favorite…

Arabela's blueberry cheesecake
Blueberry cheesecake with a cool presentation.

Arabela is located along Rizal Street, the road parallel to and next to Gat Tayaw Street, the home for most of Liliw's tsinelas shops. They're open everyday from 11AM to 7 PM except Mondays. Prices are reasonable. It's best to arrive here early for lunch as the place can get packed during weekends.

Penne Arrabiata and Seafood Pesto Spaghetti
More dishes at Arabela – Top: Penne Arrabiata; Above: Seafood Pesto Spaghetti

Getting There

Go to this section for directions going to Liliw town proper. Note that Liliw is the next town after Nagcarlan on the way to Majayjay

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