By the time you get 45 kilometers up the potholed and traffic-choked Emilio Aguinaldo Highway into the Cavite highlands south of Manila, and your knuckles are locked onto the steering wheel so that your companions have to get the tire iron out of the boot to pry them off, it’s probably a good time to stop.
Just at the south entrance to the pleasant little town of Silang, off to the right and into the forest, there is an oasis that will relax those knuckles. It is called Balingsasayaw. Translated, it is named for a wondrous little dancing bird that is the first creature to appear after a typhoon, of which the Philippines is blessed or cursed with many.
Balingsasayaw is just far enough off the Aguinaldo for the forest to muffle the roar of the steel-pack mufflers on passing jeepneys. It is a series of small kiosks, or bahay kubos in Tagalog, that climb the side of the hill, made of rustic tree bits and capped with palm frond roofs.
But it’s as much the atmosphere and the restaurant’s juxtaposition to a grim highway that make it worth a stop. Back in the forest, it is clean and studiously rustic. Although the occasional hen, followed by dutiful chicks, clucks, scratches and seeks bugs in the grass, it is clear that Balingsasayaw obeys its tourist origins. At night, strings of lights dapple the trees like fireflies. The waiters, dressed in colorful tunics, are attentive and knowledgeable.
The menu is relatively simple, one that can be found in probably half the beach restaurants in the Philippines, leaning heavily towards grilling although there are the usual lumpia – known to all consumers of Chinese food as spring rolls – and adobo. There are three major trays for four, six or eight people. Each starts off with a bowl of corn soup leavened with red capsicum and crab. The trays include “drunken shrimp” – small prawns allowed to swim in wine until they are groggy, then lit afire. The resultant conflagration makes them small enough and crunchy enough so that you can eat them whole, without bothering to peel the shells. There is a very interesting squid, stuffed with salsa and barbecued. Half a chicken, barbecued with the classic Filipino sauce of vinegar, soy and kalimansi.
The Cavite version is an offshoot of a beachside restaurant in Puerto Princesa, hundreds of kilometers to the south in Palawan. If you can’t get all the way to Puerto Princesa, this is a good substitute, and it is an especially good substitute along the Aguinaldo Highway, where serenity and style are hardly options. Pry those crabbed fingers off the steering wheel. The beer is cold and the green mango shakes are brilliant.