Armed with map and compass, we journeyed into the depths of Pasig City on a quest for Café Juanita. It was a surprising find to say the least. Cluttered with ornaments, antiques, woven hangings and Christmas decorations, the dining room was an amalgam of Victoriana and the Middle Eastern with a twist of Filipino: fussy but fun, and wonderfully cosy. The floor was a profusion of Persian rugs, there were beautifully carved wooden dressers and sideboards encircling the room and every table was decked out in a lace tablecloth, many of the chairs dressed up in tulle and bows. Chinese paper parasols and lampshades adorned every surface, and the centerpiece was 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 displayed an abundance of old-fashioned bird cages and wrought iron garden furniture.
The eclectic décor was reflected in the menu: an interesting mix of Filipino, Vietnamese, Laotian and Thai, as well as a predictable selection of pasta. Apparently there’s also a great Sunday buffet, but we wandered in on a Friday afternoon, and enjoyed the a la carte menu. The food, like the décor, is Filipino with a twist.
Service was 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 seven years ago.
Parking is not plentiful, but we fluked a spot right in front of the restaurant where the car toasted nicely in the sun for the next three hours.
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. The ubiquitous Filipino palm 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. They are unexpectedly hearty serves 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 wanted to taste the Spanish dessert Sansrival, and finally had the opportunity, but unfortunately this cake was 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 of everyone’s favourite. We also loved the gambas ala jillo (stir fried shrimp and button mushrooms), in a spicy red sauce and the fresh lumpia or goicon, filed with a medley of meat and fresh vegetables. The lightly battered lapu lapu topped with a fishing net of egg.
There are many local offerings on the menu: beef caldereta; oxtail and tripe kare kare, and deep fried tanigue tail (Spanish mackerel) with green mango salsa and bagoong. We finally decided on the two way pork adobo ribs with garlic rice 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 shared – 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, perhaps - more Victorian nursery food with a touch of the tropics, but a lovely dash of sweetness to complete the meal.