Across the iconic Naga Cathedral on the historic street of Barlin stands Que Pasa, a new restaurant that is becoming a haven for local artists and a showcase of a thriving new art scene in the province of Camarines Sur in the Bicol region.
Growing up in Naga City, I don’t remember there ever being anything as artistic as this. According to local artists, most locals’ idea of “Bikol art” are paintings of rural scenes and Cagsawa Ruins in front of Mayon Volcano. Unlike other places in the country which are known for a distinctive art, like Angono’s folkloric style, or Baguio’s indigenous crafts, Naga City is not exactly known as an art hub.
But stepping into Que Pasa, you get a glimpse of the city’s and province’s evolving artistic identity.
Que Pasa is a new restaurant owned and created by the same people behind Biggs Inc. who manage the popular homegrown Bicol fastfood chain Bigg’s Diner. While Bigg’s has been serving Western favorites in numerous branches of the classic diner for over 30 years, Que Pasa which opened in late May 2015 feels more modern, laid-back and artistic.
Named for the Spanish expression for “What’s Up?” Que Pasa is a specialty barbecue restaurant that offers “Bicolonial cuisine” or Spanish dishes with a Bicol flair. The open-air interiors, high ceilings and ceiling fans complement the “street-forward food concept” DIY style of service. The whole dining experience is elevated with the choice offerings and artistic ambiance of the places. A handy infographic serves as the unofficial guide at Toro-Toro (turo-turo), the main dining outlet.
Diners first pick out their choice of meat, which includes Freshly Grilled Chicken, Pork, Baby Back Ribs or Tuna Kebabs. The sauces include Que Pasa’s signature sauce (Garlic oil + paprika-lime sprinkle), Chili Chocolate, Cerveza Negra and Bicol sauce. For the sides, there are the usual offerings like Corn on the Cob, Grilled Veggies, Paprika Mashed Potatoes, Mac & Cheese, Judias Blancas , as well as Bicol favorites like Laing, Bicol Express, Pinangat, and Tinutungan Mashed Potatoes, which are served in tin cans. For the rice, diners can opt for plain, Pimenton Garlic Rice or Laing Rice. The meal is served on trays lined with specially coated paper.
Other spaces in Que Pasa are still being developed including a customizable Arroz Caldo corner and a closed-off semi-fine dining section hidden by colorful sliding doors made from recycled wood boards.
Meanwhile, Encanto Bar by Que Pasa (which opens at 6 pm) serves tapas like Gambas, Salpicao and Sisig which go great with their selection of imported Spanish, Mexican and local beers including 1906, Estrella Galicia, Corona, Cerveza Negra and Maeloc Sidra Dulce (a sweet organic cider).
They also have a few unique cocktails including a killer Aswangita, a margarita spiked with chili, which I found had a pretty sharp bite.
The food itself is delicious. Imagine rich, smoky flavors of grilled meat with the spicy and heartwarming side dishes. This is comfort food at its best. But what makes the place really stand out is the artistic vibe and ambiance. Every corner of the restaurant seems to be Instagram-worthy. Knowing today’s modern clients, the owners and artists made sure of that.
By the entrance is an eye-catching mural of two heads symbolizing Bicol (a Naga snake, Mayon Volcano, etc.) and Spanish influence (Galleons, a bull, a church). A brick wall at the back of the restaurant displays a colorful tattoo-style logo of Que Pasa, Ciudad de Naga surrounded by cherubs and flowers. In another concrete space is a beautiful mural of a bull filled with floral patterns inspired by a bull painting made by Pablo Picasso. Even the water station is covered in Frido Kahlo-inspired artwork.
According to Bikol artist and illustrator Stephen “Pen” Prestado, before Que Pasa was put up, there wasn’t really a venue for local artists to showcase their work. Pen designed many of the murals that can be seen on the walls here and illustrated the elements in the menu of Encanto Bar. Owners Rica and Carlo Buenaflor tapped local artists like Pen, GP Priela, interior designer Ben Nasayao and Boyet Abrenica (who is responsible for the Filipino-Spanish iconography that can be seen in the cups and tray liners) in the restaurants’ conceptualization.
“We’re trying to promote a culture of art here in Naga City. We want to take art out of the museums and bring it to public spaces so that people can appreciate it more,” said Pen.
The restrooms are a work of art in itself. Quirky paintings cover the entire doors with labels Que Gayon (Bicol term for beautiful), Que Gwapo (handsome) and Querebels (gay lingo wordplay for “whatever”). The hallway leading to the bathroom has a map of the galleon trade, a collage of old plates, while you can find upcycled items like old window frames and recycled wood used for tables and walls. Que Pasa has the kind of aesthetics that will appeal immediately to customers who are always on the lookout for something new and trendy and who can appreciate the beauty of handcrafted work like paintings, calligraphy, typography and modern art in all its forms.
In keeping with the restaurant’s theme, all the artwork has a Spanish-Mexican vibe. Customers can take home their own hand crafted “Que Daba” Muñequeta or little dolls in jars, which are reminiscent of the Mexican holiday Dia De Los Muertos as souvenirs for P250/piece. Interestingly, these cute dolls are a livelihood project by women inmates through Karaw ArtVentures, a social enterprise that empowers Naga City Jail residents to create artistic products from upcycled materials. For that reason alone, these dolls are worth buying.
Another ongoing art project is the Siete PaObras, where seven Bikol artists will decorate seven arched doorways or “portals” around Que Pasa visualizing literary work originally written in Spanish. So far, there are two completed portals.
The first doorway was painted by Nagueno artist Dennis Gonzaga who used graphic line art to depict the poem “Detente, sombra de mi bien esquivo” (Stop, shadow of my elusive goodness) by Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, a poet and nun who lived in a colonial era when Mexico was part of the Spanish empire.
The second portal was painted by Bernadette de los Santos (popularly known as Bidibidi), an artist from Baao who is best known for her colorful paintings of flowers and for the lovely La Huerta Farm. Bidibidi took on Como Agua para Chocolate (Like Water for Chocolate) by Mexican novelist Laura Esquivel, with whimsical figures of women surrounded by flowers and ingredients signifying the book’s culinary theme. I love this book and all the recipes in it, so I was immediately drawn to this portal. In keeping with the sensuality of the book (yet still making it family-friendly according to Bidibidi), she infused the mural with local ingredients believed to be aphrodisiacs like bignay, passionfruit, and pako (fern), to add a Bikol touch.
The five remaining portals will be decorated in the months to come by other Bikol artists. Frank Penones will be tackling the work of Nicolas Guillen, a Cuban poet and activist while Pen Pestrado will be visualizing the poems of Chilean-poet-diplomat Pablo Neruda. According to Pestrado, there’s an open call for Bikol artists to submit their proposed design for the rest of the portals. Each featured artist is given a month to complete his/her assigned portal and will have the opportunity to exhibit and sell their other work in the restaurant.
Que Pasa also aims to be a venue for visual, musical and performing artists to hold workshops, have poetry performances, practice or exhibit photography and hold other artistic endeavours.
Expect good food, good art and good vibes all around at Que Pasa. This family-friendly art and food destination is definitely something Naguenos can be proud of. I look forward to seeing how the place will evolve in the years to come.
Que Pasa is located along Barlin Street (across the Naga Metropolitan Cathedral next to the Porta Mariae Triumphal arch), 4400 Naga City, Camarines Sur, Philippines.
- Business hours: Open from Monday to Sunday 11:00 am to 11:00 pm. Encanto Bar by Que Pasa starts serving drinks at 6:00 pm
- Contact info: 09175053613
- Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Facebook page: Que Pasa Naga