Moderno is the first-ever food park in Pampanga, and being the first has its up and downs, especially in a region where most of its inhabitants are a bit skeptical to begin with. Moderno as the first food park in Pampanga was a problem before it was a source of pride. When it started, only half of the park was filled. However, it took off when Kapampangan foodies noticed the rise of food parks in Manila. They were more than happy to accommodate new food concepts and are loving it until now.
Makings Of A Food Park Pioneer
Nicole Aquino was a young woman with several skills and expertise. After graduating from Ateneo de Manila in 2010 she enrolled in School of Fashion and The Arts and started a styling company and online shop. The fashion stint was a big part of her growth but she eventually said goodbye when she enrolled for her master’s degree in entrepreneurship in DLSU. She knew she wanted to start a business but she couldn’t pinpoint what.
One thing’s for sure—she wanted to contribute something new for the Kapampangans. The culinary center of the Philippines was where she grew up and got introduced to the business world via her parents’ venture in the oil industry. The people here are known for their world-class, home-cooked meals and rich heritage. Naturally, they are tough to please.
The food park idea started when she saw it sprouting everywhere in Manila. There was StrEAT in Maginhawa and The Yard in Xavierville. Those were the two pegs. It was during her trip to New Zealand when she got her light bulb moment. In the famous land of milk and hobbits she saw shipping containers. The containers were used in Christchurch as a low-cost business solution for the earthquakes that happened continuously there from 2010 to 2012. They were small but could be designed as a useful space. Thus the use of containers as food stalls in Moderno.
“It’s something for me na parang ang astig for people to come in and say na it looks like something they’ve seen from somewhere else pero it’s very local,” Aquino said.
Holding the title of being the first-ever food park in Pampanga was too much pressure. Starting out was rough and their biggest enemy was the concept itself. It just wasn’t what the food industry was accustomed to. Tenants were skeptical and they weren’t sure if it would work. Thankfully, the rise of food parks in Manila spread like wildfire and tenants realized what they had turned down. They came rushing back to Nicole and the rest, as they say, is history. Or, at least, history in the making.
“I wanted it to be the go-to destination talaga in Pampanga when it comes to the food park industry,” she admitted.
Indeed, one of the perks of owning a food park is that you’re known to serve food but you don’t have to cook food. There’s no hassle of ingredients, cooking the dishes, and serving the food. Those are all handled by the food stalls’ tenants. However, Nicole also went beyond that by having her own food stall within her food park. She had her sideline with Pipeline Co., a stall that serves local craft beer, interesting cocktail mixes, and flavorful alcoholic popsicles.
For Nicole, this food park isn’t just a hippiefied food court. It’s a creative, collaborative space for the locals. It’s a symbol of breaking the chain of traditional and carinderia-type restaurants. It’s something Kapampangans can talk about when they discuss the timeline of Pampanga’s food history.
Keeping Up With The Kapampangans
What does one have to do to satisfy the impeccable taste of the Kapampangans? Moderno was named as such exactly because it was something new. Kapampangans are very picky with their food. If they can make a dish at home, or worse, if their version tastes better than yours, you can bid your restaurateur dreams goodbye. With Moderno as a food park that houses up to 19 food stalls owned by fellow Kapampangans, we’re sure that there’s a dish a two that they can’t recreate at home. For one, the concepts are different per stall, and two, there are various cuisines—from Middle Eastern, to Japanese, Vietnamese, and Filipino. The overflowing number of options is its greatest strength. The Kapampangans were impressed and went back as they craved for more.
“It was something relatable to the Kapampangans and medyo guaranteed naman na talagang yung mga store owners know how to cook or have good taste in food,” Aquino shared.
The same was true for us. Aquino served all her best sellers from the 19 Moderno food stalls to make sure we’d want to come back and experience it again despite the long trip from Manila to Pampanga. The most memorable for us was Mila’s Tokwa’t Baboy. Aside from the perfectly cooked tokwa and the strange but addicting texture of the pig ears, what got us off our seats was the sauce. A mixture of soy sauce, vinegar, sugar, and some magic ingredient that we’ll never know was the perfect dipping sauce (or sabaw if you’re into that kind of thing) for the notorious Filipino appetizer and pulutan. A close second would be Mila’s sisig. Kapampangan sisig is known to have tons of chili, liver spread, butter, onions, and pork parts—ears, mask, and belly. In short, it’s not for the faint of heart. It doesn’t have mayonnaise too, which is a common ingredient in sisigs from Manila. Mila’s sisig was different, it was the type of sisig you don’t need to add seasonings to.
Another Filipino dish that gets a two thumbs up is Urban Crunch’s Kare-Kareng Bagnet. It’s exactly what you think it is—white rice topped with pechay, string beans, and a huge chunk of bagnet swimming in kare-kare sauce. There’s bagoong, of course, but with the richness of the sauce, crunchiness (and oiliness) of the bagnet, the bagoong might be too much. At least for our palate, the dish hit the Filipino classic right out of the park. This is THE dish you’d let your foreigner friends taste and be proud of.
On the other side of the spectrum we had Racks & Ribs’ Whole Rack Baby Back Ribs. For PHP 620 you get a humongous slab of fall-off-the-bone ribs grilled to barbecue perfection and four side dishes of your choice. This was actually one of Aquino’s favorites and the crowd’s favorite meal to share.
For breakfast lovers we recommend Sunny Side Up’s Pancake Taco. The concept itself is simple, but it’s a fun take on the breakfast dish. Instead of eating it flat on your plate with a side of bacon, eggs, and a dollop of maple syrup, you eat it in the shape of a taco. They use the pancake as somewhat of a sandwich to cradle the ingredients. Simple, right? But it’s a light breakfast meal enough to make you smile.
Japanese food is always in demand for the Filipino food market. Thus the existence of Tokyo Tempura and Moderno’s newest addition to their line-up, Gohan. Tokyo Tempura is known for their California Tempura. Imagine a plate of shrimp tempura placed side by side and topped with Japanese mayonnaise, diced ripe mangoes, and strands of surimi (imitation crab). It’s basically like California maki without the rice, cucumber, and nori. We recommend this if you’re looking for a classic dish with an exciting twist. Or, if you want something more fishy (literally) your go-to Japanese food stall is Gohan. Gohan is known for their Volcano roll, Poke Bowl, and Octopus Takoyaki. Seriously, you can’t go wrong with Japanese.
For Mexican food lovers there’s always Benjamin, one of the first food stalls that signed up with Moderno despite all the skepticism it was getting from other food stall owners unfamiliar with the food park concept. Naturally, Benjamin holds a special place in Nicole’s heart—and ours too. With Mexican dishes customized specifically for the Filipino palate, it was destined to be a favorite. Order the Chicken Burrito for a Mexican dish that’s sure to fill you up. It’s a mix of marinated grilled chicken, special Mexican rice, sour cream, and cilantro tightly packed and rolled in a grilled flour tortilla.
To wash down all the savory flavors you have three food stall choices. Run to The Daily Detox and get a refreshing cup of either Cucumber Calamansi or Lemon Orange. If you want something dessert-like, have a go at Tazza’s frappes. For something more relaxing, get a bottle of local craft beers from Pipeline Co.
Overall, the Kapampangans fell in love with Moderno for the same reason we did. Aside from the food options, it prizes itself as a space where people can collaborate. On the second floor there’s an area where musicians can perform and serenade the crowd. At the side, there are empty containers that host creative workshops and sometimes, personal finance talks. As Aquino said, ‘’When you go in, it’s very homegrown, it’s very personal.’’ You’re not limited to one menu and you’re not limited to one activity. You get to enjoy the food, the company, and the whole experience.
This article was originally published in Issue 16 of Explore Philippines Magazine, titled “Food Park Culture.” Minor edits were made.
Photos by Tomi Koshikawa, Raniel Juanico, and Kevin Tankino for Explore Philippines Magazine