Beefing up at Mer-Ben (restaurant review)

Confession time: in all of my 30 years on earth, I have never had bulalo. Never. Everytime I say this to my friends, jaws drop, questions of “whyyyyyy?” echo as if I’ve been consciously avoiding the beef and vegetable soup my entire life. Yes, it’s a popular Filipino dish, but for some reason, I’ve never had the pressing need to order it even when it’s readily available in restaurants I visit. Which is why I’m grateful to my brother-in-law for giving me my first-ever taste of the brothy concoction in a backdrop most associate with it: Tagaytay.

It was about two in the afternoon when he and my sister decided to skip their supposed trip to SM Mall of Asia and go to Tagaytay instead. I was too lazy to join them for the mall, but a semi-roadtrip to this literally cool city got me out of bed and into the car. After a couple of hours of driving and an attempt to warm up at Starbucks, we found ourselves in front of Mer-Ben Tapsilogan sa Tagaytay.

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Although primarily known for their tapsilog – that’s tapa (fried beef strips), sinangag (fried rice), and itlog (fried egg, usually sunny side up) for the unoriented – Mer-Ben supposedly has really good bulalo, according to my brother-in-law’s online search. The place is pretty big; aside from indoor seating, you can eat at one of the many huts they have outside. If you want a more scenic view while chowing down, do what we did: head to the roof deck, which overlooks the gorgeous Taal Lake. A pretty sight indeed, but a little tip: if you plan on coming here at 4PM when it’s about 24 degrees and very windy, bring a jacket or two. A minute after we sat down and ordered, I was already shivering.

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Mercifully, the waitress came to our table with bowls and a pitcher of the sacred broth that we could nurse until our food arrived. The soup was hot, warmed me up well. It was salted just right too, so prospects were looking good.

We asked for a plate of calamares to start with. Nicely crunchy and not gummy but a bit overpriced to me, considering the portions.

We also ordered a whole medium fried chicken. The skin was thin and really crispy, which had me and my sister quickly undressing the poor, defensless bird as we ate. The meat, while tender and juicy in the thicker parts, was a bit overdone in the others. I didn’t mind though; it was kind of like eating lechon kawali. For Php 300, I thought it was pretty good.

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And finally, the bulalo. As I’ve never had it before, I have nothing to compare it to, so I’ll describe it the best way I can. The bulalo was much like nilagang baka in ingredients and taste. As established earlier, the broth was delicious. The meat was so tender it fell apart as we were ladling servings into our bowls.

One of the things I hear about eating bulalo is the sacred marrow. To be honest, I have my reservations about eating the supposed gelatinous gold inside the cow’s bones, so I didn’t have any. Didn’t matter, though; I was happy slurping down the soup and chowing on the meat and vegetables. Oh, and a squeeze of calamansi really elevated the flavor of the dish. Among the three of us, a medium order costing Php 390 sufficed, which is a bit pricier when I compared it to other restaurants. Here’s another tip: if you’re ordering a lot of different dishes, attack the bulalo first and eat fast, as the cold weather will have it larding up pretty quickly.

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So my first experience with bulalo was a pretty good one. Not only did it involve one great dish, it also included one of my all-time favorite things: a road trip, albeit a short one. It might’ve been partly the fact that we went all the way to Tagaytay for the soup, but either way, Mer-Ben’s worth the trip.

Overall rating: ★★★✭☆

Mer-Ben Tapsilogan sa Tagaytay
Aguinaldo Highway, Tagaytay City

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