Bulacan has a wealth of culinary figures: former White House chef Cristeta Comerford is from San Rafael, Rockwell Club’s Chef Jessie Sincioco hails from Angat, and queen of ready made sauces and spice mixes Mama Sita Reyes is the pride of Malolos. Apart from these stellar names, Bulacan is also known for its many heirloom recipes, but one usually only gets to discover and enjoy them when one is fortunate enough to be invited to the home of a Bulaqueño.
So thank heavens for Casa Bulaqueña, a private dining destination in San Rafael, Bulacan, an hour and a half drive from Manila. According to its owner—who prefers not to be named—he wants to serve good Bulaqueño fare here, like the province's own version of lechon (roasted native pig seasoned only with salt), or a dish called menudong bukid (a meat stew using only fresh tomatoes).
On a recent lunch, we were served a trio of appetizers that included chicharon bulaklak, inihaw na Calumpit longganisa and kinilaw na malasugui (the owner says he likes to add non-Bulaqueño dishes just because they would go well with the rest of the menu). This was followed by a sour kamias sorbet as palate cleanser, leading to a Sinigang na Ulang sa Sampalok. Our mains included Tinumis, a dinuguan that also uses tamarind as a souring agent (surprising and refreshing); an Arroz Valenciana a la Bulaqueña (using regular rice instead of the heavier-in-the-belly malagkit), and a fantastic Crispy Pata (the house specialty, with thin crispy skin and sticky fat that clings to the roof of your mouth).
As we enjoyed our lunch, our party of eight was surrounded by lush greenery, a beautifully orchestrated gathering of acacia trees and giant ferns, Monstera deliciosa and kaluchuchi, yucca and heliconia, coconut trees and mango trees. To our right, a charming four-year old house stood guard, done in the style of the bahay na bato—made of adobe and recovered wood from an old house in New Manila—and to our left there’s a viewing deck that overlooks a fish pond. A few steps away, more food was being prepared in an open kitchen. From a safe distance, the neighboring property, a couple of ostriches were observing the feast.
The owner’s friend, Ian Carandang of Sebastian’s Ice Cream, created a pièce de résistance especially for the occasion—it’s our friend and former boss Ces Drilon’s birthday —an ice cream cake inspired by Bulacan’s version of ginataan called paradusdus. The cake was a delicious white confection topped by candied slices of bananas and orange and yellow kamote. It’s a fantastic ending to a delightful, unhurried afternoon that began with a refreshing glass of gulaman (made with a special sweet syrup boiled for hours) perfect for a sunny day.
Casa Bulaqueña is as its Instagram account describes it: "a private hideaway that reflects the rustic charm and pure simplicity of provincial living." There’s nothing overdone about the food and its presentation, nothing contrived about the setting. It’s like coming home to the house one spent many school breaks in, where one only expects the warmest of welcomes and the heartiest of meals.
We were not even done with the party and the owner was already insisting we return for dinner some other time, because the whole place, he said, turns magical at night, with the tree lights aglow, and the moonlight reflecting on the pond. But while we certainly wouldn’t mind a trip back, our afternoon repast was far from unremarkable. If evenings at Casa Bulaqueña can be magical, we’d say a long lunch amidst this tropical splendor is dreamlike.
[Casa Bulaqueña is at Brgy. Pinacpinacan, San Rafael, Bulacan. Book weekends for lunch or dinner via firstname.lastname@example.org or send a message thru 0917-8361718.]