We’d been on the road for maybe an hour and a half when we ducked into an unassuming subdivision somewhere in Pampanga. We’d driven off the highway and into a road following a river, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, before we found the subdivision. It didn’t seem like a suburb that would house the place we were headed to. We made our way into the community until we found ourselves looking at a forest trail.
This was the place we were told; following the trail led us to a home nestled among trees whose thick canopies almost completely covered the ground below. There were no signs at the gate that told us we made it, except for an old arch that greeted us halfway through the trail. Going deeper showed us huts and a house, and tables set amid nature. Now there was no denying it—this was Balé Pampanga.
If it seems like Balé is more than a little tricky to discover, that’s because it was meant to be that way. Owner William Panlilio, a Singapore-based lawyer who says he commutes to the Philippines every other week, wanted Balé, his home—“balé” means “home” in his native Kapampangan—to be both welcoming and mysterious. It is treated as the label says; it’s a home, and “you can’t have too many people over at your home,” he says.
Owner William Panlilio, a Singapore-based lawyer who says he commutes to the Philippines every other week, wanted Balé, his home—“balé” means “home” in his native Kapampangan—to be both welcoming and mysterious.
Balé’s social media presence gives up few secrets; there is no address, there are no details, there are only beautiful photos of the forest you’ll bathe in and an email address to contact. Once you make your reservation, Panlilio himself talks to you online and guides you towards the Balé experience.
Escaping definition at Balé
Balé is not a restaurant. That much Panlilio makes clear to us. Even if the main attraction of the place is the food, calling it a restaurant would be downright inaccurate. We ask him how he’d describe what he’s built and the answer he turns to the most is that it’s an “escape.” Other close labels would be a farm, an experience—but also, it’s simply home, as he mentions from the get-go.
The food they serve is authentic Kapampangan cuisine. The recipes are from his mother Wilma (who also serves as the welcoming party at Balé, especially as Panlilio isn’t always around) and they are also records of Pampanga’s heritage, as it is the food that’s been developed by and shared among the people.
We were served their local delicacies, such as asadong matua, tidtad (a Kapampangan version of dinuguan), the undefeated kare-kare, suwam (a corn soup), burong hipon, lumpia, and of course, the iconic sisig. For dessert, there were sans rival and fried saba drowned in carabao milk. Everything was delicious, cooked traditionally over a wood fire, and, not to mention, plenty, which is simply natural for a people who loves to cook and eat. “It’s just food that we ate every day growing up,” said Panlilio.
Balé is best enjoyed as a small group; it’s not ideal to come alone or as a couple. You would need to reserve your spot as the crew would need to prepare for your visit beforehand, which can take most of the day because it’s just a nice place to be in. They will cook a big batch of the different food of your choice from their set menus, and once you arrive, you’ll dine buffet-style.
And there’s no need to worry about leaving leftovers, as you’ll be encouraged to take what you didn’t finish home with you. “I make people pack and take the leftovers home with them. They bring lots of Tupperwares,” says Tita Wilma, when we ask if “Sharoning” is allowed. That’s what Balé—and Kapampangan—hospitality is like: They want to make sure you’re well-fed, even beyond your stay.
The notion of home
Panlilio also created Balé as a way to come back home—to Pampanga—and share it with other people, including his friends from Manila.
“For me, it’s a personal journey. I’ve been away from the Philippines for 19 years. I’ve been in the Netherlands, New York, and Singapore,” he says. “I’ve been grappling with the notion of home.”
That’s why they bought the land where Balé stands on and built it from the ground up, planting the trees that have shot up from what was once a sugarcane plantation. The huts and houses around the property are full of found objects and pieces from all around the province. It may be a little too on the nose, but everything comes together to create a cozy vibe that you can just relax in when you need to get away from your real life.
For Panlilio, it’s not just a business venture; it’s the place and the home that keeps him coming back when he’s making his life abroad. He celebrates with his friends here as he’s turned it into a place where they—and anyone else who might want to—can simply enjoy life.
While Panlilio has plans to eventually grow Balé’s scale, eventually allowing for overnight stays at its small resort area, he says he wants to keep it low-key and small for now.
“The best guests are those who are adventurous,” William Panlilio says. “Those who want to try everything, to eat, to talk, to enjoy music.”
“The plan is it will ramp up at some point,” he says. “But we’re at the very early stages. For our small crew, it will take time.”
But while Balé is still small, know that you’re always welcome to try it out, especially if you like living. Even if it’s shrouded in some mystery and takes a bit of effort to reach, arriving there is well worth the time and distance.
“The best guests are those who are adventurous,” Panlilio says. “Those who want to try everything, to eat, to talk, to enjoy music.”