By Sol Vanzi
Images by Noel Pabalate
For balikbayan guests or foreigners who want a taste of real Filipino food, I always recommend Cabalen. It has an extensive and varied buffet of dishes from all over the country, cooked the way our grandmothers did when we were kids.
For 30 years, the brand spread to over two dozen branches all over the Philippines plus one in California, while keeping the quality and the authenticity of the dishes true to their roots.
Cabalen entered my life after Edsa 1 when I joined friends at a new restaurant that promised authentic Pampango cuisine. I was hesitant. Born and raised in a Caviteño household, I had grown up with very strong food prejudices mostly strengthened by ignorance and cultural biases.
That first encounter with Cabalen’s all-Filipino buffet changed my outlook and taught me to taste before judging.
With one meal, Cabalen gave me a thorough education in Pampango food. I fell madly in love with mustasa at burong hipon (fresh mustard leaves folded around pickled shrimp in fermented red rice) paired with grilled freshwater fish: dalag, hito‚ and bangus.
The main courses at Cabalen were, and continue to be, what I consider fiesta food: morcon (stuffed rolled beef) caldereta (spicy beef stew thickened with liver and cheese), pork estofado (stew sweetened with saba bananas), kilayen (Pampanga-style dinuguan), and bringhe, a sticky paella tinted and flavored with turmeric.
Kapampangan food, I realized, was akin to Cavite’s but a bit sweeter from caramelized muscovado sugar that colors and flavors the meat dishes. Even their embutido is more colorful and more richly flavored.
Rice field frogs, which Cavite folk love to sauté in young garlic leaves, get meticulous star treatment in Pampanga. They are skinned, stuffed with langonisa, and deep-fried. Batute, as the dish is called, is a must-serve during special celebrations.
After that first Cabalen experience in 1986, I never again avoided Kapampangan food-related events. In fact, I look forward to them.
It was with thus anticipation that I went to Cabalen for a reunion last weekend with Japan-based grandchildren who were being familiarized with the food of their parents’ homeland.
In my heart I was worried that the upper-class ambience and clientele of Glorietta might have influenced Cabalen’s cooks to go fusion the way many young chefs have. My worries turned to joy and relief. The original dishes were still there, joined by other well-loved original specialties from distant towns of Luzon and far-flung islands in Visayas and Mindanao.
The most popular item on the buffet was Cabalen’s special lechon, prepared in a secret way. It seems like a skin-on shoulder or belly is roasted, cooled, sliced, then deep-fried, rendering all fat, and leaving the skin crisp while retaining the flavors and juices of the meaty parts.
In addition to greaseless bulalo, the second soup of the day was Bas-Uy, which could have been the roots of bachoy, using freshly slaughtered pork and liver with hints of garlic, ginger, and lemon grass. As the menu changes daily, the soups also vary from day to day.
On our visit, there were 10 meat (beef, pork, chicken) dishes in addition to tokwa’t baboy, crispy kangkong, pancit puti, and six kinds of sisig. My grandchildren loved the dessert bar: chocolate fountain, fresh fruits, biko, a halo-halo corner, and a tray of tibok-tibok made with fresh carabao milk.
The restaurant is so popular it fills up almost immediately after its doors open at 11 a.m., and is consistently busy up to closing time at 11 p.m. Aside from the bountiful offerings, one big attraction of Cabalen’s buffet is the price: P298++ or P333 including VAT.