10 September 2010

The Lady at the Eatery

Quick! Examine that empty dish just below the title of this post and tell me in about two seconds exactly what food used to be in it!

But we will get back to this later…

Late afternoon yesterday, in anticipation of today’s non-working holiday, a colleague and I thought we would begin the long weekend with a few cans. I should not be making an issue of the rain because it is – after all – the rainy season. Yet, it fell at an awkward time, just before students and office workers were about to egress from schools and work places. That, invariably, ends up in a traffic jam.

I thought we would get some pizza at Shakey’s; but there was a queue of vehicles waiting to turn right from Robinson’s rear exit. It appeared that there was a bit of a build-up where the pizza parlor is located.

So, we doubled back to Villa Lourdes in an impromptu Plan B, thinking we would take the country road to Pangao – and thus, avoid the inevitable bumper-to-bumper along the Tambô stretch of the national highway – and onto Bulate Avenue to have dinner instead at the Eatery. It seemed like a good idea until we came to a standstill trying to get to Lodlod.

Apparently, many other drivers were thinking what we were thinking – albeit, they were going the opposite way – and tried to get unstuck from the Tambô-Paninsingin traffic build-up by going into Lodlod via Sin City – i.e. motel row – to get uptown to Lipa. To make a long story short, we crawled at a snail’s pace just to be able to turn right into Lodlod, the short 500-meter drive to the corner taking us close to half-an-hour.

Having stood under the blazing midday sun watching the high school boys play in the Division Meet, and sitting stuck in traffic in the early evening on what really ought to be an empty country road, I was therefore feeling very, very low on energy. That was why, getting to the Eatery was like finding an oasis in the middle of the Sahara.

For those who have never been there, the Eatery is this turô-turô joint just past the municipality of San Jose on the drive to Lipa that is a favorite stopping place for road travelers. I have been there on more than just a few occasions; and it is not uncommon for office people to make the short drive from the city at lunchtime if they are looking for a cheap lutong-bahay alternative to the fare served by mall restaurants.

I have been told that the joint used to be this humble barong-barong that has since become one of the province’s entrepreneurial success stories. It is always teeming with people eager to get some good chow and be on their way with little fuss.

There is little in the way of innovation as far as the food choices are concerned. I think the place’s secret for success is that very lack of innovation. Everything on offer – in fact – is immediately recognizable – inihaw, bulalo, adobong posit, sisig – and is reasonably priced. The fact that the restaurant is turô-turô also means that there is no wait time to get one’s food.

In true turô-turô style, the diner picks up a tray and points at whatever food catches his fancy. He gets served immediately. He moves along the queue and can simply ask for whatever else may catch his attention. He gets served rice at the end of the line.

Now, this is where the Eatery deviates from most other turô-turô restaurants. Unlike in most other joints where the cashier collects payment before the diner can take his tray to the table, here he is allowed to immediately go to any table and start eating. I do not know if this amounts to a competitive advantage in a business sense, but the practice is – at the very least – considerate.

The diner, thus, pays after eating. Now, this is where it becomes fun! Once done, you call one of the waiters specifically assigned to calculate the cost of your meal. She looks at your empty plates and dishes and starts reciting, as one did last night, “Tatlong kanin, isang pusit, isang calamares, isang pinakbet, isang sisig…” – while scribbling the numbers on a receipt with her ballpen.

Huh???

The moment the young lady last night said sisig, my eyebrows immediately shot all the way up as I looked first at her and then at the empty dish. Unable to contain my surprise, I just had to ask, “How could you tell that was sisig?”

Having been in the joint before, I knew there was a plate coding system. But, as my companion found out last night by also asking the same young lady, a similar plate did not necessarily mean the same price. For instance, the young lady explained, one of the purple plates was priced 35 pesos; the other was at 45.

So how could she tell? “I just look at what is left over,” she told us with a smile.

Huh??? But there was nothing on the sisig dish except one microscopic slice of onion and equally small crumbs of whatever. I thought she was brilliant! Embarrassed, she blabbered on, “Sometimes we just ask the customers what they had…”

Namannnnn… In each of the previous times I ate at the joint, the assigned waitresses got all my orders right…





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