After driving 8+ hours from Manila to Vigan, with a few pitstops, we finally made it to Vigan (for last June’s roadtrip). We quickly located our hotel, dropped off our bags, and decided to grab some lunch. Nearly everything you read about Vigan mentions Cafe Leona, so we figured we couldn’t go wrong by starting our Ilocos adventure there. Located on Crisologo street, right near the heart of town, it is best described as appearing quaint and old from the outside. Inside, there are several rooms but only one dining room was open to guests that day, and it was filled with smokers. That, to me is a serious STRIKE NUMBER 1; trying to enjoy any food while several neighboring diners are puffing away on cigarettes in a stuffy low ceilinged dining room is NOT something I usually tolerate. But we were hungry, so we decided to stay anyway…
Once seated and given a menu by a waiter, we were instead directed to view the dishes on offer at a nearby buffet. Now that is almost certainly STRIKE NUMBER 2. Any restaurant that is so well-thought off for its food but serves it turo-turo style, with fat coagulating and other vegetable dishes continuing to cook, WHEN IT DOESN’T HAVE TO, speaks volumes of laziness and a lack of understanding what makes any dish delicious…coming right off the flames fresh. We decided NOT to have the buffet and insisted on ordering from a menu, at which point they told us it would all come from the buffet anyway and they wouldn’t be cooking to order. We should have left then but didn’t.
Instead, we ordered some bagnet, which was brought to the table barely tepid, with a side dish of KBL (tomatoes, onions and bagoong)… the KBL was more interesting that the bagnet, and frankly, I made better tasting bagnet at home on my FIRST attempt. We also ordered monggo which had small dried shrimp and ginger and sili (chili) leaves. This was delicious and didn’t suffer much from sitting on the buffet. We also ordered pork igado, a native specialty with innards et al that was not particularly memorable.
We also got a plate of the famous Vigan longannisa that frankly, reminded me more of a “travel poop” (that inevitable first bathroom visit after a 20-hour transpacific flight) more than a vaunted food specialty from Ilocos. It was wickedly hard, wickedly overcooked and wickedly solid. We ate much better longannisa elsewhere on the trip… The last dish we ordered was some fried bangus which was just so-so.
The bottom line? Buffet may be the modus operandi for lunch but it was horrible. HORRIBLE. The food was lifeless, flavors unremarkable, and arrived at the table tepid if not cold. I would NEVER send anyone to Cafe Leona after that experience, and considering the number of wonderful meals we got elsewhere on the trip. I think the restaurant is a victim of its travel book and blogger popularity and nothing more than a tourist trap, though I must say there were oddly a lot of locals eating there that lunchtime. At PHP1,100 for 4 people, the price was not bad, but the food left a lot to be desired.