When Antonio de Morga Sánchez Garay described the food of the indios in his book Sucesos de las Islas, published in 1609, highlighted was our supposed fascination with “rotten beef and stinking fish”. But just as emphasized was the ignorance – for the very assumptions of supremacy of the supposed knowledge – on what makes Filipino food, well, Filipino. Particularly when discovered per province, the country’s numerous offerings can at times be Chinese-influenced (think of all the gisa/sautéing done), Spanish-influence (tapas, anyone?), American-influenced (think burgers, among others), and so on…
Weird they may be for some (such as that Spanish historian), but for the open-minded, Filipino food can be… enticing.
And it is this open-mindedness that Balaw-Balaw Specialty Restaurant is banking on, as it (continues to) makes waves as a small-ish venue somewhere outside of Metro Manila – specifically in Angono in Rizal, promoted as the nation’s “art capital” – offering the “exotic”. After all, it is this – the appeal of the peculiar – that continues to define this resto cum museum in the home of the “Higantes Festival” (also known as the feast of San Clemente, celebrated every November 23).
The venue, in itself, is nothing grand. There are numerous subdivisions – the main hall, which can hold approximately 100 diners, a conference center good for 30 people, and another private area for 10 or more. On the tables are miniature versions of the higantes (giants) paraded in town during the “Higantes Festival”, their arms stretched to contain the messages and signatures of past clients; and all around are masks (they are for sale, the smallest ones usually costing P150) also signed by past visitors and then hanged for posterity by the venue’s proprietors.
At the back portion (past a mini-mini-bamboo forest) is a museum, highlighting the works of the owner and the local artists (they aren’t cheap, I tell you). The gathering of artworks continues to the second floor, which houses more artworks (painting, carvings, et cetera) and religious artifacts. This addition to the venue makes waiting for the orders to arrive definitely interesting.
And then there’s the food.
There are “regulars” in the menu – to be completely honest, nothing worth writing home about, e.g. Ginisang Kangkong (water spinach sautéed with onion and garlic, and then seasoned to taste), P130; Kinilaw na Puso ng Saging (banana heart marinated in vinegar, added with pork), P220; Bicol Express (pork cooked in coconut milk, with garlic, onions, green and red chilis), P230; and variations of sinigang (soup, whether using guava, tamarind, taro, et cetera), from P180.
But what are worth having when dropping by the place are the exotic dishes.
Yes, Soup No. 5 (soup with butt and balls of cow), P250, is no longer “exotic” for us (even if this is listed as such by the resto), but there are numerous offerings to be had. There is the Sinabawang Balot (duck embryos cooked in soup), P220, rich not just in taste but also in texture – somewhat reminiscent of the Kapampangan dish of Balot a la Pobre (balot cooked a la adobo). Since the same is not widely available in Metro Manila, the Tapang Usa/Baboy Damo (cured dried venison or wild boar), P300/P380, can be a treat – though on a more personal note, I continue to have issues chewing on the kin of Bambi and Pumba (LOL). Then there’s the Nilasing na Palaka (deep fried frog legs marinated in gin), P250, easily bringing to mind the “tastes like chicken” analogy. And then there’s the Fried Antik (fried ants), approximately P120, not at all maanghang (as I remembered accidentally tasting them when eating rambutan, tambis or macopa as a kid), but somewhat… bland – they need to be paired with vinegar for them to have taste.
Only available seasonally is the Kamaro (crickets cooked in garlic and seasoning), P300 – to be honest, this is but a glammed up version of what can be had in the streets of Bangkok. The Uok (wood grubs cooked as adobo or steamed with tamarind), P300, nonetheless, was interesting – not at all disgusting if you can get through the initial yuckiness in your head (for eating worms).
Vegans may want to try Crispy Alagaw Leaves (herbal mint leaves dipped in batter and then deep fried), P125 – though the venue needs to think of a better dip (than just mayo); or either the Rose petal salad and Bougainvillea flower salad, at P140 each – their bitterness denying their floral beauty.
This isn’t a place for everybody, that’s for sure.
But for those searching for something… different, this may well be worth a visit.
Balaw-Balaw Specialty Restaurant is at #11 Don Justo, Dona Justa Village, manila East Road, Angono, Rizal. They may be reached at 651-0110.