Late last year, armed with map and compass, I journeyed into the depths of Pasig City on a quest for Café Juanita. Our diligent driver turned out to be better at following his nose than I was at map reading, and we eventually arrived without too many wrong turns.
Parking is not plentiful, but we fluked a spot right in front of the restaurant, where the car toasted nicely for the next three hours. I had arranged to meet a friend, and sat admiring the unusual décor until she arrived.
Cluttered with ornaments, antiques, woven hangings and Christmas decorations, the dining room is an amalgam of Victoriana and the Middle East with a twist of the Philippines: fussy but fun, and wonderfully cosy. The floor is a profusion of Persian rugs. Beautifully carved wooden dressers and sideboards encircled the room. Every table was decked out in a lace tablecloth, and many of the chairs are dressed up in tulle and bows, Chinese paper parasols and lampshades adorn every surface, and the centerpiece is a vast orange layered chandelier, an imaginative creation that looked like an upturned wedding cake hanging from the ceiling. A courtyard tucked away at the back displays an abundance of old-fashioned bird cages and wrought iron garden furniture.
The eclectic décor is reflected in the menu: an interesting mix of Filipino, Vietnamese, Laotian and Thai, as well as a predictable selection of pasta. I am told Café Juanita has a great Sunday buffet, but we wandered in on a Friday afternoon, and enjoyed the offerings of the à la carte menu. The service is efficient and friendly. My bottomless iced tea never bottomed out, and we even got a visit from owner “Doc” Dr. Boy Vasquez, who calls himself Doctor Cisionaría. Obviously there is way more fun to be had delivering good food than small babies, as he gave up the one for the other more than seven years ago.
We ordered several dishes to share and were very happy with our choices, although next time I’ll invite a larger group so we can explore the menu more fully. My friend ordered a Thai catfish and mango salad (mouth-puckeringly sour with light crispy crunch) and chunks of deep fried lapu lapu (a local white fish) with tamarind sauce – my latest favourite condiment. The ubiquitous Filipino coconut oil had the day off, thank goodness, and the food was much better for its absence.
Keen to try out the Filipino cuisine, I chose a very snappy sigadilyas salad with chili jam (that’s wing beans) and a rich beef caldereta with rice. Locals praise Café Juanita as the closest thing you’ll get to Filipino home cooking. The serves are unexpectedly hearty for a Filipino restaurant and we ordered far too much as it turned out, but the staff cheerfully packed up the left-overs to take home.
We shared one dessert – well how could we say no? I have always wanted to taste the Spanish dessert and local favouite Sansrival, and finally had the opportunity, but sadly this cake is much too rich even for this Dairy Queen. Layers of sponge fingers bound together with a thick coat of butter cream were undoubtedly for those with a sweeter tooth than mine.
Last week, I discovered the second Café Juanita in Burgos Circle. Smaller than the Pasig restaurant, it still sported the kitschy frills and furbelows but in rather less profusion. An upper floor is apparently available for private events.
We were a larger group this time, so we were able to try a wider range of dishes. Sadly, the Global City restaurant doesn’t have the sigadilyas salad on the menu, but the catfish and mango salad was a must and one everyone enjoyed. We also loved the gambas al ajillo (stir fried shrimp in garlic with button mushrooms), in a spicy red sauce and the fresh lumpia or goicon (fresh spring rolls), filled with a medley of meat and fresh vegetables.
There are many local offerings on the menu: tinuktok (crabmeat) wrapped in taro leaves with coconut milk; oxtail and tripe kare kare, and deep fried tanigue tail (Spanish mackerel) with green mango salsa and bagoong. Attempting to maintain the Filipino theme, we finally decided on three dishes to share: the two way pork adobo ribs with garlic rice; the lightly battered lapu lapu topped with a fishing net of egg, and a vegetable dish which sounded like ratatouille with the interesting addition of dried fish.
Pausing for thought – and to settle the abundance of food we had already consumed – we debated the desserts and decided on a mouth-watering, nostalgic sticky date pudding and mango jubilee (ice cream with caramel sauce and balls of mango). Neither dessert was particularly Filipino, but more Victorian nursery food with a touch of the tropics, but it was a lovely dash of sweetness to complete the meal. I will be going again, especially now I have one Café Juanita around the corner and won’t need a compass!