Bulwagan restaurant, which marks its 36th year, in Karama offers traditional Filipino delights. Image Credit: Facebook

Highlights

  • Bulwagan, which opened in 1983, is one of the oldest Filipino restaurants in the UAE
  • It is known for home-cooked-dishes-away-from-home fare
  • Offers a buffet of Filipino dishes for Dh31.50 in Dubai (VAT included)

Dubai: If you want to relish some Filipino delights without blowing a hole in your pocket, Bulwagan in Dubai could be just the place for you.

Bulwagan's staying power is rather simple: It's home-cooked-dishes-away-from-home story goes back to 1983, when Filipino expats Atanacio Bigalbal and his wife, Iluminada, opened Bulwagan in Dubai’s Karama district.

Today, 36 years later, this small but cozy grub hub is going strong.

Surprisingly, the restaurant is not so well-known even among Filipinos in the city, especially the newcomers who are spoilt for choice with many kabayan-themed diners.

Daing na Bangus (marinated milk fish, left) and "Kare-Kare", part of the buffet at Bulwagan Filipino Restaurant in Karama. Image Credit: File

Authentic “lutong bahay” (home-cooked food) makes Bulwagan a gem of the Filipino palate (and some non-Filipinos, too): Customers also rave about the rather simple ambience and cleanliness.

Dh31.50 buffet

Today, the restaurant is better known for its Filipino buffet (Dh31.50 per head) — which entitles you to a smorgasbord of some of the most mouth-watering fare loved by Kuyas and Ates here.

The buffet table at Bulwagan Filipino restaurant in Karama Shopping Complex, Dubai. Image Credit: Facebook

Some of Bulwagan’s signature dishes are “Sisig” (spicy chicken, usually served on a sizzling plate); “Daing na Bangus” (marinated milkfish); “Kare-kare” (meat and vegetable stew in peanut sauce); “Sinigang” (shrimp sour soup), Kaldereta (beef stew) and Pinakbet (vegetable stew with fermented shrimp fry paste), among others.

On a recent visit, we also saw some “Kilawin” (Filipino sashimi) as an appetizer and “Buko pandan” for dessert.

No wonder it’s been a chow hive for years for some groups of friends out for a treat. Many families hold parties in the upstairs room (Bulwagan seats about 70 people).

Besides food, loyal customers rave about the friendly (and loyal) staff.

The resident head chef, 52-year-old Jerry Ardina, started with Bulwagan when he was only 25, after a brief stint at a restaurant in Puerto Azul resort, in Palawan.

The head waitress, Edelwin Bansil, has been with the restaurant for 19 years.

Bigalbal couple

The Bigalbals met in their hometown of Naic in Cavite, some 40km south of Manila.

Ilumunada "Luming" Bigalbal and her husband Atanacio "Tanching" Bigalbal at Bulwagan restaurant in Dubai. Image Credit: Facebook / Edelwina Bansil

Atanacio, 78, still clearly remembers the day he arrived in Dubai: November 10, 1977, two years before Jebel Ali Port, the world’s largest man-made harbor and the Middle East’s biggest port today, was opened.

Before he landed in Dubai, Atanacio worked as a technician for the logistics company Sealand in Vietnam.

His wife, Iluminada, known to most customers as “Nanay Luming” (Mother Luming), joined him later in Dubai.

The Bigalbal couple opened Bulwagan in November 1983 — two years before Dubai launched Emirates airline.

Keen to share her culinary skills, Nanay Luming managed the restaurant herself.

Bulwagan was one of the two Filipino restaurants stablished in Dubai’s Karama district. The other is Tagpuan, established by Jesus Galang in 1982, a Filipino geologist who was then working for an oil drilling company.

We've had the same sponsor since we opened the restaurant. We’ve had loyal customers who visit our restaurant regularly. We’re thank them for their patronage.

- Atanacio Bigalbal, owner, Bulwagan Filipino restaurant

While Tagpuan has changed hands and had been recently rebranded, Bulwagan has remained the same.

Along with his restaurant, Atanacio also opened a car repair shop in Umm Ramool, near the Dubai International Airport.

Same spot in Karama, Dubai

Nearly four decades later, Bulwagan remains in the exact spot at the Karama Shopping Complex, marked by low-rise apartment blocks, which form part of a vibrant Dubai retail experience today.

Menudo and Chicken Sisig: Nearly four decades later, Bulwagan remains in the exact spot at the Karama Shopping Complex, marked by low-rise apartment blocks. Image Credit: Facebook

“We wanted to introduce authentic Filipino taste in Dubai, and also help some of our kababayans (countrymen),” Atanacio, 78, better known as “Tanching”, told Gulf News in Tagalog by phone from his native Cavite.

“We've had the same sponsor since we opened the restaurant,” he said, adding: “We’ve had loyal customers who visit our restaurant regularly. We’re thank them for their patronage.”

And since then, loads more of Filipino dining outfits have sprouted in Dubai, and across the UAE.

“It's a small place, but will definitely recommend their food. For Dh31.50, (you get a) variety of foods are there. I like their “Kare-kare”, chicken “sisig” and “Ginataang Pusit” (squid cooked in coconut milk) …the rest are good too. The staff are nice and friendly…will be there again for sure.”

- Jamicca Noche, Bulwagan customer

As fate would have it, Tatay Tanching recently had to go back to the Philippines to bury his wife, Nanay Luming, who died in January at age 74, following a bout with cancer.

What are his plans for Bulwagan?

"I have no immediate plans," Tatay Tanching told told Gulf News.

“We love our customers, we want to keep them happy,” he said. “Right now, I need to let 40 days pass from the day my wife passed away. Then, I‘ll think of my next move. Our plan is to keep the restaurant going for as long as we can, with the help of other people.”

Our verdict:

If you're in Dubai and want a taste of traditional, authentic Filipino food, especially dishes popular in the Tagalog region (which also happens to be fresh and affordable), Bulwagan in Karama is the place for you.

Pros: Good quality, authentic Filipino food, budget chow, friendly staff.

Cons: Access is a bit of an issue, it’s about a 5-minute walk from ADCB Metro station. Parking can also be a problem, especially in the early evenings.

One to try (if you’re a vegan):

Preskong Lumpia (fresh spring roll, with peanut sauce)

Location:

18B Street, Block G, Karama Shopping Complex, Dubai