The restaurant — run by a team that includes a nurse, a physician assistant in interventional radiology, and an industrial engineer, all moonlighting here — is a touch fancier than its neighbors, with a long, broad dining room, black banquettes, bamboo-hooded lamps and a galaxy of rainbow twinkle lights above. And while the menu focuses on the same homey fare found throughout this area, known as Little Manila, the kusina (kitchen) is also attuned to newer developments in Filipino cooking at home and abroad.
Bulalo is traditional, almost folkloric in its depth, a heavy stew of beef shank cooked bone-in, so the collagen melts into the broth, and served intact, with its marrow — to be sucked, not spooned out. But here, too, is bulalo steak, an innovation of a couple of decades back, in which the meat is simmered for two hours with lemongrass, bay leaf, black peppercorns and celery, then slaked with a gravy of thickened bulalo broth and crowded with mushrooms and lopped disks of corn cob on a sizzling plate.
Bicol Express is another classic, pork grown indolent in coconut milk and needled by chiles. The dish is named after the overnight sleeper train that once ran south from Manila to Naga City. (Service has been suspended for years because of typhoon damage.)
Here, ordinary pork is swapped out for bagnet, a specialty from a different region, Ilocos, in northern Luzon. This is pork belly, boiled and then deep-fried in its own leached oils, with the skin pricked before frying, creating little escape routes for the liquefied fat, to maximize crunch. It’s flesh and chicharrón at once, defiantly crispy even submerged in coconut milk.