Across the august Naga Metropolitan Cathedral, now painted in handsome charcoal black, the restaurant Que Pasa was alive with lights and sounds with conversations in a mix of Filipino, Spanish and Central Bikol. On Barlin Street, in front of the Porta Mariae (a huge arch in honor of Our Lady of Penafrancia), horse-drawn carriages waited for passengers for a free tour of Naga City’s heritage area.
The city, the commercial and educational hub of northern Bicol Region, was celebrating Philippine-Spanish Friendship Day on 30 June, and Que Pasa was at the core of celebration for four years now. This year, the celebration was doubly momentous because the Spanish-food restaurant, perhaps the only one in the Bicol region, was launching its more sophisticated and grand reincarnation.
Being at the center of the city, it is hard to miss Que Pasa. But aside from the strategic location, the restaurant attracts with its interesting mix of old and modern designs. The stone wall fence and entrance archway are old and crumbling, with its brick insides showing in places, but the building is modern and imposing — unpainted and gray, but punctuated by painted window arches and delightful graffiti art on some of its walls. Inside, the ceilings are high and there is more graffiti art. The large name of the restaurant in neon light seems to float on one end. The place is a lovely mix of the industrial, the artsy and old world.
The birth of Que Pasa is tied with Philippine-Spanish Friendship Day, as its owner Carlo Buenaflor reminisced. Buenaflor is the chief executive officer of Bigg’s, Inc., which owns and operates Naga City’s homegrown fast-food chain, Bigg’s Diner, which has many outlets in the city and other parts of Bicol. He is a descendant of one of the founders of the Naga dining fixture.
“Three or four years ago, we wanted to do something else. At the same time, an honorary consul of Spain opened in Bicol,” he related.
He recalled that Spanish diplomats came visiting.
“We thought there was a need for something Spanish in Naga. At that time, there was no decent restaurant that serves classic Spanish cuisine,” he said.
They scouted around for a location to put up a Spanish restaurant. “We want to be in this area because this is the historic district of Naga. We were looking around here and we saw this corner property.”
The Abella family property was an empty lot except for remnants of posts, floors, wall fence and the entrance archway.
“We found the owners and found out that there was once an old house here from the 19th century. It burned down, and the owner of the property put up a small house on the side but kept most of the property empty. We thought it was an ideal place to erect something,” Buenaflor related. “This is right across the church. This is a historic area. You have the Universidad de Santa Isabel, the country’s oldest normal college for girls. Then you have the Archbishop’s Palace, and then the minor seminary, which just celebrated its 200 years. So, very historical district, perfect for something like this.”
They worked with a local architect, specializing in “historical design,” Gian Paolo P. Priela, who also designed the Porta Mariae, which was inaugurated in 2010.
Que Pasa started out as a barbecue place, al fresco and very casual. For the name, they played with the word cue from barbecue and “Que Pasa” came out. “It’s like ‘what’s up?’ It’s catchy,” Buenaflor said.
It was more of a “drinking place” with a simple menu, but customers asked for more items such as paella until they decided to become a “proper” Spanish restaurant.
“We really wanted a venue and the food followed, a venue to hold cultural events, art events, and it started from there,” he related. “I sat down with local creative people, people interested in history, interested in the arts, interested in culture. Then we came up with the concept, food, the kind of place [it is going to be].”
Buenaflor sought out local visual artists, who interpreted Spanish literary works, including Filipino works in Spanish such as Jose Rizal’s novels, and their works can be seen prominently on the window arches and are splashed on the walls.
Now, Que Pasa can seat about a hundred people, sharing space with a branch of Bigg’s Diner, which features an old tunnel, discovered while digging for a place for the septic tank. Although uncertain of the origin, it has always been rumored that there was a network of tunnels in the area created during the Spanish colonial times.
Then, Buenaflor met Jet Sumayao in Metro Manila, when he was then chef de partie of Gallery Vask, the acclaimed Basque restaurant of chef Chele Gonzales. Sumayao was a fellow Bicolano, from Iriga, Camarines Sur, and has worked at a number of restaurants including Mr. Jones and Chelsea Kitchen of Raintree Group of Restaurants and Gaggan in Bangkok, Thailand.
Buenaflor invited Sumayao, who had training in Spanish cuisine with his experience at Vask, to be part of Que Pasa, and Sumayao took the plunge.
Buenaflor admitted that they made the flavors “bolder” because he believes Filipino cuisine has “bold” flavors, and the dishes are adjusted to the Filipino taste.
“In Que Pasa Naga, we are introducing a Spanish restaurant to the Bicolanos, but we are injecting these dishes with the Bicol heritage when it comes to the cooking,” Sumayao said.
Most of the ingredients are sourced locally but the spices, chorizos and some cold cuts are imported.
Right now, the paella is the most popular dish, offered in three varieties — the familiar Valenciana, Negra and De Mariscos. For tapas, they offer Croquetas de pollo (chicken croquette); patatas baravas (potato fries); Verduras Fritas (fried leafy vegetables); Huevos Rancheros; Calamares Fritos (fried squid rings); Alitas de Pollo (chicken wings); salpicao (beef tenderloin cubes); Tortilla de Patatas (potato omelette); Callos; and Gambas al Ajillo (shrimp in garlic and olive oil).
Other specialties include homemade Corned Beef Pochero, Caldereta, Pollo Asado, Pollo a la Pecuaria, Guiso de Pescado and Pecado al Horno. For dessert, they have Bunuelos de Platano and churros con chocolate.
Sumayao wants diners to learn how not just to eat the food, but to understand it as well: “I would like our diners to understand the components of each dish, its ingredients, even the way it was presented and realize how these affects the way they perceive their meals.”
Buenaflor admitted that it is a challenge to market Que Pasa.
“We knew it would not be easy to execute it here, and it would not be popular to the masses right away. It would take time,” he said.
He found out that it is easier to sell Que Pasa to visitors than to the local market, and he has learned through the years that “first, it has to be accepted by the visitors.”
“The visitors have to like it. They have to talk about it. They have to accept it,” he said.
“Once the visitors and travelers like it, the locals would follow. That is what we’re trying to do here because it is aspirational. Locals stick to what they know, but something like this is getting buzz from travelers and visitors, then the locals would start visiting.”
Aside from offering a good place and dining experience, he made Que Pasa “Instagrammable,” drawing visitors and visibility.
Despite the effort, Buenaflor sees Que Pasa as a “trailblazing” and “pioneering effort.”
The restaurant is an excellent addition to the attraction of the area, which is “the creative hub of Naga,” and Spanish cuisine is not really alien to the Filipino.
“This is part of our heritage and we want to let people take their time to appreciate it,” said Buenaflor.
Que Pasa Naga is located on Barlin St., Naga City. For reservations, contact 0916-3322258, 881-6134 or 473-3048 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @quepasanaga on Facebook and Instagram for updates.