Bulalo and the Art of Bus Maintenance
Nothing is more comforting than a steaming hot bowl of bulalo. If anything, bulalo is my favorite Filipino dish. I’d go to many places to look for it, to eat it, and to warm my heart and soul with its quintessential simplicity and taste.
Because bulalo is served on almost every bus stop or travel stopover in the Philippines, the proverbial hat is overflowing with all sorts of places where “the best” bulalo is served. But if I have learned anything from eating late dinners at greasy spoons, the best bulalo is not the stuff served at Michelin-starred restaurants, or in places where it’s a mortal sin to take soup with the wrong spoon.
But allow me to add another place to that long list of bulaluhan, where a bulalo addict like me should go in the search for the best-tasting bulalo in all 7,107 islands of the Philippines.
It was 3 AM today when me, Jayson and Inin decided to cap off the night with a feed of bulalo at the 3H terminal at Abanao Road. I’ve eaten bulalo in all sorts of places, and figured the bulk of them to be tasteless, chewy, sinewy, and expensive. The bulaluhan where we ate was characteristic of the many places where I’ve eaten bulalo: dank, dark, musty, and smells of diesel oil. This was different: it was deep inside a bus garage. There was no sign: this is a place that you go to by word-of-mouth. Because it was unlighted, I expected a hobo sleeping under a bus chassis or a woman being raped and snuffed out on a very dark corner of the place. It looked like a scene straight from Wes Craven when he started out making horror films.
The place was well-lit enough for you to see the comfort room-green paintwork, the cracked tiles, and the tattered linoleum floor. This place had no menus or menu boards: the old signs made out of cigarette boxes or used white folders made it blatantly obvious that this place served bulalo, and nothing but bulalo. For P60 a bowl and a P7 plate of rice, this was a cheap place. There were no glass cases that showcased other food served. There were no frying pans in sight: there were just dilapidated gas burners where big cauldrons of bulalo continued to simmer away. This was a bulaluhan, in its strictest, most honest sense.
Not exactly a family-friendly environment, either: the people who ran the place aren’t the cheery people of McDonald’s who have smiles literally sewn on their faces from serving Happy Meals. I doubt that they would break out tambourines to sing the “Happy Birthday” song when a birthday is celebrated there (if there ever was).
But for all the unappealing things you can say about this place, the first thing you should notice is that this place is crowded. This is not the kind of “crowded” that there is in coffee shops in between shifts at call centers, or “crowded” Sundays at Jollibee. This is the kind of “crowded” that says that the food here is good. The people in there encompassed and represented a broad spectrum of society, from bus drivers to call center agents to clubbers from Legarda Road looking to stall a hangover.
I think I know the reason why this place is crowded: the bulalo tasted damn good. Unlike other bulaluhan‘s that cheat the flavor by adding beef boullion cubes, the bulalo soup had that unmistakable flavor of bone marrow and beef that has simmered for hours, and imparted its flavor on the stock. The beef was extremely tender, but still retained its texture and its character.
The most impressive thing about it is that it didn’t need any side condiments like soy sauce or patis: it was perfectly seasoned. You won’t see the smallest packet of Ajinomoto in the place: it was simply stock and beef garnished with young onion leeks. I think that the bulalo was an old family recipe that wouldn’t be sold even to the Sultan of Brunei himself.
Yup, Jayson was right. Best. Bulalo. Ever. Don’t mind the screaming woman.