In a conversation with a friend the other day, I remarked how I felt oddly “at home” during my short visit to Japan in all its glorious neuroticism; a nation of rules, propriety, and arbitrary rituals. Completely unlike the “Bahala na” vibe of rural Antique, Philippines or the frenetic obsession with the new of New York City, Japan felt like a thick tome of step-by-step instructions accumulated over centuries of what one can and cannot do. One must not eat in public. One must not refer to someone of a higher status solely by their name. One must not sit on a tatami mat in a tea house with their shoes on. There were signs on how to properly eat your onigiri, signs on how to sit in the subway, signs on how to flush the hostel toilet (hold down for five seconds, then pull up, otherwise not enough water will flow), and signs on how to properly make a bed (put one sheet over the mattress, then another over that, then sleep in between the sheets). I adored the liberating restrictions. There was no guesswork as to how to act and where some saw an overly stuffy way to live, I saw order in an otherwise chaotic world. The steps one had to take in order to get a glimpse of the Tsukiji Market auction were no less onerous.
Communal dining has always been a fave of mine. From grilling Korean samgyupsal (pork belly) to sharing 10 heaping plates of food on a Lazy Susan for Chinese New Year, there’s something about partaking from a shared table that just feels right. In fact, I don’t know of many places in the Philippines (excluding the more modern establishments of course) that cater specifically to individuals. From soups to entrees, everything’s about sharing the love and so I was excited to try the food at Bilao at Palayok during our short trip to the islands of Palawan. A bilao is a large, woven, tray-sized “plate” meant to hold several dishes at once to serve multiple people. A palayok on the other hand is a large clay pot used for a variety of dishes from stews to soups and even rice. The name itself implied that this was a place for large servings and large groups.
And there it was: smack dab in the middle of Rizal Ave stood a giant palayok; more kitsch than grandeur. True to its love for all things large, the place was a sprawling complex, complete with faux bridges, huts, and walkways that made it seem more like a resort stop than a restaurant. We had to trek through winding pathways to finally reach the bar area where several waitresses were lounging around, texting on their cellphones.
We requested seating near the outside (where a hostess should’ve been waiting for us) and only this second time through the place did I notice that a place that could’ve held hundreds was only occupied by a table of French tourists and a family of locals.
We cracked open the menu and I was pleased to find favorites: Sisig (pork innards), Pusit (Squid), Kinilaw (Filipino ceviche), and various barbecued meats were well-represented and the prices reasonable. We attempted to order the “Ihaw-ihaw sa Bilao” (Ihaw means “grill”). And I say attempted as almost half the dishes were inexplicably unavailable. No baked clams, so we added a tuna filet. No squid, so we added 2 extra crabs. When asked if we could substitute with similar items from the rest of the menu, the waitress replied by saying that the food was already “portioned off”. Well good lady, if it indeed was “portioned” off, then why is this particular dish missing some of its “portions”? And are you then saying it’s difficult to “portion” the other dishes as substitutions? Is it that much harder to maybe add a few Calamari in there? Seems like this was one bilao that wasn’t going to be full.