Bale Dutung – Angeles City, Philippines
After aimlessly driving around Marcos Highway, asking several tricycle drivers, and bombarding people with texts and calls, I finally arrive at the Tayag’s residence, Bale Dutung.
About a two-hour drive north of Manila, this is where Claude Tayag and his wife Mary-Ann open their home to the public for a relaxing ten-course lunch that stretches into the late afternoon.
Upon first sight, you wonder if Tayag’s home is centuries old. Everything –from the wooden beams that stretch across the ceiling, to the limestone posts, to the sculpture and artwork that adorn walls– seem coated with decades of patina. If you are Filipino and have an ancestral home, it likely resembles Bale Dutung.
From looks alone, you would never expect this eclectic space to entertain the likes of Anthony Bourdain or more importantly, to be responsible for changing the way many people look at Filipino cuisine.
Did I leave with a new perspective on Filipino food?
Yes, I did.
But only towards the end of the meal, thanks to a few excellent courses that redeemed earlier pitfalls.
As such, it’s no surprise the last savory dish Claude served is what stood head and shoulders above the rest: seafood kare-kare, a supplement course I specially requested from the Tayags. Kare-kare is a rich peanut-based stew traditionally made with oxtail that is near and dear to my heart. Gorging on my mom’s kare-kare lashed with bagoong (fermented shrimp paste) over steaming mounds of rice is one of my fondest childhood memories.
But Claude’s version is different. Shrimp, mussels, and squid stand-in for oxtail, and his peanut sauce is lighter, sweeter, and not as rich as most versions. Whereas the vast majority of people (my mom included) take shortcuts and use peanut butter to concoct the rich stew, Claude’s peanut sauce is made from scratch (raw peanuts) and thickened with some coconut milk. This is what Claude Tayag does best: brilliantly referencing the familiar while pushing Filipino cuisine forward.
But today’s menu revolved around lechon, that whole roasted pig that Anthony Bourdain famously decreed the best roast pig he’s ever had. Claude stuffs the pig’s cavity with garlic, lemongrass, leeks, pepper, and salt, roasts it whole, and transforms it into a slew of separate dishes. But not before serving us squares of everyone’s favorite part: the burnished crisp skin.
In seconds you will have inhaled the cracker-thin shards, leaving your fingers, lips, and face covered in grease. Even if you forgot your Lipitor at home, you will reach for seconds, in hopes there is some left.
But imagine my surprise when I found Claude’s lechon entrees to be just as good as the skin. This is rarely the case.
Consider his sisig, a dish native to Pampanga that consists of the lechon’s face, ears, snout, and cheek sautéed with onions and garlic. You’ll find it in every Filipino restaurant -in Manila and abroad- but not served like this: with bits of chicken liver and a smear of pig brain.
As I later learned, pig brain is not normally used due to the high cost (I was surprised what a tiny brain a pig has), but it adds a wonderful creamy richness to the dish. I was not alone in wishing Claude let the sisig get crispy at the bottom of the pan (similar to the crunchy rice at the bottom of a paellera – ie. soccarat/tutong) but no matter – Claude’s sisig is still stupendously good.
Out of that same pig also came lechon ribs, simply grilled with salt and pepper. Served with a smokey blob of grilled eggplant, the clingy tender meat, fragrant from being cooked next to the lemongrass-garlic-leek stuffing, made for some delicious bites.
But perhaps my favorite of all the lechon dishes was the sinigang, a classic Filipino soup flavored with a souring ingredient (tamarind is often used) along with simmered meats and vegetables. While pork belly is often the meat of choice, Claude tossed in the roasted trotters from the lechon instead, lending a rich savor to the broth no amounts of boiled meat could replicate. If you are lucky, you will get chunks of gelatinous skin and collagen floating in your soup – my favorite part.
Sadly, the dishes that preceded the lechon were a mixed bag. Amongst a trio of dips, only the talangka (shore crab fat) stood out. Balo-balo (fermented rice with fish) wrapped in a mustard leaf was pungent and delicious, but the accompanying “sushi”, made with crab fat standing in for uni, felt gimmicky and suffered from soggy seaweed and mediocre rice.
There was also a delicious chicken inasal, fragrant from being grilled over hot coals and basted with achuete oil. It was served with crab fat rice, and I savored every bite; but then there was a dish of lechon belly shredded, fried, and placed on a tortilla along with kimchi and pico de gallo. Was this Claude’s riff on the ever-popular Korean taco? It felt like a dish coming from a chef interested in transient trends than someone with Claude’s prodigious command of Filipino cuisine.
My least favorite dishes were the pako salad and lumpia ubod. It was refreshing to see native fiddlehead ferns playing the salad’s starring role, but the greens were drowning in dressing!* I couldn’t taste the fiddlehead ferns at all. And while lumpia ubod (deep-fried spring rolls filled with heart of palm) is one of my favorite Filipino snacks, this specimen suffered from having a wrapper to filling ratio of 1000 to 1.
So then this begs the question: why travel all the way out of Manila and spend what many locals find to be an expensive meal for food that is a hit or miss?
I find two reasons:
1. It would be remiss to talk about Bale Dutung without mentioning the company of Claude’s wife, Mary-Ann. She’s a breath of fresh air, the consummate host, and if you don’t follow her well-intentioned advice, you may find yourself kicked out of her abode. I wish I had half her vivacity, humor, and charm.
2. Despite the food being far from perfect, there’s no doubt Claude is trailblazer. He’s putting regional Filipino cuisine on an international platform, upending expectations of it being oily, stewed, brown, and fried. Why do we have Thai, Indian, Vietnamese, and other cuisines well-assimilated into mainstream culture –even alighting on tables in fine dining restaurants– but Filipino food stubbornly remaining in home kitchens?
It is comforting and delicious and deserves to be treated with equal finesse and care. Claude is changing this and to a large degree, succeeding. That alone is reason to go.
And if you’ll indulge me, I will step out on a limb and say I believe the path to recognizing Filipino cuisine lies not in modernizing, embellishing, or adding gimmicky bells and whistles, as some chefs in Manila are prone to do. Foie gras in my adobo? No thanks. Instead let’s work on cooking existing Filipino dishes with more finesse. Claude’s kare-kare is a shining example. From focusing on ingredient quality to cooking with a more delicate hand, I’d love to see Filipino cuisine move from good to great.
Perhaps the Philippines is still a ways off from this. Maybe I’m being too idealistic. After all, most diners in Manila still can’t get themselves to order Filipino food when they go out. In their minds, that is “food I eat at home”.
So thank you Claude for helping change this mentality, one meal at a time.
Villa Gloria Subdivision,
Angeles City, Pampanga
* I am finding overdressed salad to be extremely common in Manila. Literally every leaf is dripping with dressing. What is up with that? Can anyone explain this phenomenon?