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Casa Rap: More for the Soul than the Belly

About 500 yards or so from where the road forks into two if one is driving from Lipa City, one branch leading to poblacion San Jose and the other bypassing the municipality for a shorter drive into Batangas City, there is this relatively unknown restaurant named Casa Rap. The word ‘unknown,’ of course, is entirely subjective; and indeed, when I arrived with a colleague last weekend, there were about 20 or so people who were apparently winding up what must have been a sumptuous lunch.

The place is easy to miss. There are wooden signs outside – one nailed onto a hapless mango tree; and another right above the front fence. Both are obscured by vegetation, so are easy to miss. Not that one would even assume that there is a restaurant inside insamuch as – from the outside – the houses look like they are all residential.

In fact, even as I walked through a garden tunnel with a colleague last weekend, it was impossible to tell where the restaurant was. As good fortune would have it, though, the lady who we asked directions from just happened to be none other than the waitress herself.

It was immediately apparent that the group of people winding up their meal was not made up of locals. There were foreigners with them; and a few locals in the group were helping themselves to tours of the restaurant, clicking here and there with their digital cameras.

The tables and chairs almost seemed incidental; as though food was an afterthought to the restaurant. Even the word ‘restaurant’ seemed inadequate, I thought to myself as I let myself through the screened door. I quickly took in the subtle light permeating through the transluscent roofing, the abundance of ornamental plants and the antique furniture. ‘Garden’ seemed more appropriate; ‘park,’ even.

In between looks at the menu, I asked the waitress some questions. Yes, she answered, they have ‘some’ advertisement over the Internet. That is how, she told me, patrons discover the place. So that was why, I thought to myself, the patrons we saw all did not seem to be from within the neighbourhood.

From my place to Casa Rap is just a little over minimum fare. Yet, just a couple or so weeks ago, I had not even heard of the place. My colleague, who used to live in San Jose, had seen the sign; but had not known that there was a restaurant inside. More so, one as lovely as we were experiencing.

Since it was mid-afternoon, my colleague and I ordered canton and bihon as well as the mini halô-halô. Then, with our digital cameras, we went our separate ways to explore the place.

I loved the capiz windows and the wooden furniture. I walked up a flight of stairs to explore an herb garden. I even walked a steep staircase all the way down to a creek a hundred or so feet below in what looked like a fault in the earth, regretting the walk back up which had me panting and sweating profusely.

The restaurant, I learned from a magazine clipping proudly framed and hung on one wall, was started by a former Good Shepherd nun by the name of Emma Alday with her sister Sonia Alampay. It used to be the family’s ancestral home; and the 1,000 square metre property had organic herbs and vegetables planted here and there. The restaurant takes pride in not serving any chemically-preserved foods. The recipes are all from the sisters’ mother Ka Trining, tweaked here and there.

Anyone who visits, a blog I read before going warned, has to be prepared to wait. Casa Rap is no fast food; and this is to be taken literally. That is why the patron is advised by the blog to explore the premises while the food is being prepared. Indeed, I was panting and sweating from the walk up when the bihon and canton finally arrived.

The canton, perhaps, flattered to deceive. It looked good enough on the plate; but it was too oily for its own sake and tasted about as good as the countless instant noodles that are ubiquitous on convenience store shelves. The bihon was an improvement on the canton; but tasted as bihon would anywhere else.

It was the halô-halô which saved the day. It rocked like a Bon Jovi number one hit ballad and made the trip well worth it. There was macapunô, ube, pinipig and the little things one usually finds in the halô-halô; but it was the intricate blend of the flavours with creaminess and sweetness that made it excellent. I will gladly return if just for the halô-halô alone!

To be fair, perhaps short orders are not the restaurant’s speciality. Indeed, the waitress told me, the beef kaldereta is the house bestseller. I need to return if just to try the luncheon fare. There is, the menu showed, quite a variety: an assortment of pork, tilapia and prawn recipes to choose from. There are also salads with vegetables freshly picked from the surrounding gardens. There is fresh lumpiâ; ditto rice toppings.

A bit pricey, perhaps, for students; but should be affordable for office workers and may even be considered cheap by those with money to spare from the Big City. The way I look at it, Casa Rap is less about the belly and more about the soul. Food apart, the restaurant offers a tranquility and insulation – brief, though, it may be – against the rigours of the world that we live in.

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