I had always been curious about the restaurant called Balai Ilocos in BF Homes. Situated next to an art gallery and near my favorite Greek place, the little-restaurant-that-could is making waves in the south for its affordable and delicious bagnet-based cuisine (you’ll see what I mean in a minute). Owned by his mom, but run by restaurateur and chef, Niño Mendoza, he looks like a one-man show, doing everything from brining the pork bellies down to baking them in a pugon – a brick oven commonly used to bake pandesal.
My half-sister that has been living in Johor Bahru in Malaysia for most of her life has recently relocated to the Philippines for college, so I saw this as an opportunity to have her experience Filipino food… the crunchy, fatty, delicious kind!
The restaurant is cozy (although I hear they plan on expanding it to include next door soon), and walking in feels like stepping into someone’s home in Calle Crisologo, complete with window panels made of capiz shells and a wall filled with family mementos of trips to Vigan, wedding photos, children on holidays, and Niño’s parents. The place was packed that Sunday, and with the owner making everything from scratch, it understandably took a while for our dishes to come out of the even tinier kitchen.
I liked the texture of the restaurant’s Bagnet Sisig (Php 200), a mix of crispy, crunchy, tender and soft, served with sliced chili peppers and a dollop of mayonnaise. This makes for a great plate to enjoy with friends, over few cold beers on a long weekend. But for the meantime, Balai Ilocos doesn’t serve alcohol, so a glass of soda would have to do.
Even the Pinakbet (Php 140) isn’t safe from the crisp, crunchy pieces of porcine. The vegetables are steamed in fish sauce, accentuated with sliced bagnet meat. The vegetables were a nice breather from all the meat we were eating that day. But then again, we weren’t really there to eat vegetables now, were we?
Our favorite dish that afternoon was definitely Balai Ilocos’ Hahanap-hanaping Binagoongang Bagnet (Php 250). Niño makes the bagoong (shrimp paste) sauce himself – something we urged him to bottle and sell – sautéed with onions, tomatoes, garlic, and a few other ingredients, served underneath the crisp chunks of pork belly, with extra chopped onions and tomatoes added for extra texture. I loved how crispy and crunchy the skin was! Separating it from the rest of the fat, I would pile the binagoonan onto it – like a little shovel – before scooping up a spoonful of rice and taking a bite. The crackling and crunching made a melodious sound, a sign of my appreciation for the well prepared bowl of happiness. And yes, even after we overloaded on all that bagnet, I was still looking for it the next day.
There were a few dishes I had never tried before, and I’m glad to have had my first taste of Dinakdakan (Php 165) at this particular restaurant. I find the Ilocano appetizer something Andrew Zimmerman would take to, not me. When I think of dinakdakan, I think of boiled and grilled pig’s parts – ear, tongue, face and liver (i.e. mascara), blended with pig brain, to help the dish thicken up. This was a cleaner version, with the pugon-baked pork once again being the star of the dish (and not the ‘original’ ingredients) and served with its signature, vinegar-based sauce. No mushed brain in sight.
I have also never had Igado (Php 170) before, as the texture of liver makes me feel rather queasy – something I’d rather feed to my dog, Mr. Wiggles (he goes gaga for liver!) rather than to myself. Balai Ilocos’ recipe warranted a try, as it uses a century -old family recipe (Niño’s grandmother’s to be exact), using ground pork and liver. Weirdly enough, the mix of ground pork and liver made this taste a lot like eating ground beef, with the chopped tomatoes adding some juiciness to the otherwise dry meat. Yet another beermate best had with friends after a long day at work!
Aside from feeling stuffed to bursting at the end of our bagnet-filled dinner, we left pretty happy. My half-sister – who also happens to be Muslim – took to almost everything like a duckling to water (she didn’t like the Igado, which is understandable)! When value for money and quality is concerned, this is most likely the best place to head to in the south when craving for crunchy, crispy pork dishes executed with love and care. I’m definitely heading back to Balai Ilocos… mostly because I am still craving for the binagoongang bagnet!
Balai Ilocos is located at 188D Aguirre Avenue, BF Homes Parañaque and is open from Monday to Sunday from 11am to 10pm. For inquiries and reservations, please call +63 916 267 6188.