The Little Red Cafe that Could

By franco on 15 April, 2007

(from top left, clockwise) Crispy Pork Binagoongan, Interiors,
Laing Bicolano, Catfish Mango Salad

The place? Cafe Juanita. The day? Payday Friday. The time? 9:4o p.m. Parking? Improbable but not yet impossible.

This is actually our second attempt at getting a table at Cafe Juanita this evening. Our first attempt, at around 8 p.m., was surprisingly futile. The place was packed. Packed!

Maybe I was an idiot for not thinking that it was payday, not to mention the last Friday before Holy Week. People will be out. I knew that Cafe Juanita was popular during lunch service. But at night? On a weekday? No way!

I read the other food blogs, warning me of this. I should have made reservations.

Apparently, things have changed since the last time I dined at this out-of-the-way cafe in the little barrio called Kapitolyo years ago.

This little cafe has grown. Once a living-room sized dining area has now expanded to occupy its sister Japanese and Chinese restaurants.

The interiors? What can one possibly say about the interiors?

For the uninitiated, let me explain. Do not be fooled the subdued and somewhat unassuming entrance. Once you enter this cafe’s door, be prepared for a shock. A. described it best, “It’s like being invited for dinner at your crazy, artsy fartsy auntie’s home. A home she interior designed herself with every knick-knack she bought from here, there, everywhere in between. And oh, she has a thing for the color red.”

If you check the dictionary under the word eclectic, there would probably be a picture of Cafe Juanita, in all its reddish glory.

Dark brown, antique narra and wicker chairs from your lola’s home. Tables covered by white doily mantels and on top of them, vases of fake ceramic and glass flowers. Up above you, crystal chandeliers encircled by red and white feathery boas. Ceiling lamps of every shape, color and size wrap in a red crocheted shawls. Red and white Christmas lights strategically swathed around the room.

It would seem that empty wall space is design no-no. The walls are covered by everything you could possibly hang on a wall. Tarnished, wooden mirrors. Javanese Ramayana masks. Japanese and Chinese wall hangings. Malayan brass gongs. Large blue-and-white ceramic plates. Three feet long, faux cloth red roses. In one corner, a Tiffany lamp, beautiful on its own but decidedly wrapped in crystal laced shawl. The cherry on top? A fully functional, marble fountain with a little cherub dancing upon it. In the background, someone is playing old standards on a piano that has heard better days.

Did I fail to mention everything is covered in a reddish hue?

My head is starting to spin.

But enough about the place, let us get to the food.

After being seated by the ever congenial restaurant manager, Jun (who earlier, patiently listened to me rant about how important it was that I eat at his place that very night. Thank you, Jun), he hands us their bible of a menu.

If there is one thing you can say about Cafe Juanita, they are consistent with their theme. Not the red part, the eclectic part.

Like the decor, the menu is a hodge-podge of cuisine from here and everywhere else. The menu is the Filipino buffet mentality in book form. Filipino, Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Mediterranean, like Shoemart, they have got it all. A menu like this would normally not make me a happy camper. Its thickness and endless varieties of cuisine may and can frustrate some first-time diners and may point to a lack focus on the part of the kitchen staff. Consider yourself warned. When in doubt, seek help. Call for Jun.

Needless to say, it takes A. and I awhile to go through it.

At this point, you might be getting the idea that this impression of Cafe Juanita is not going well. Well, you’re wrong. Read on.

We first order the Catfish-Mango Salad (P152). This is Cafe Juanita’s version of a very popular Thai dish. Long strands of thinly sliced catfish fried, placed on a bed of equally thinly shredded green mangoes with a lime-chili vinaigrette. Not original but very well done. The Thai have truly mastered the art of harmonizing different tastes and textures in their food. The kitchen staff of Cafe Juanita have captured this art in this dish. This dish was a great start.

Two dishes quickly follow. The Crispy Pork Binagoongan (P242) and Laing Bicolano (P114) are two very commonly served dishes in every Filipino home and restaurant but here in Cafe Juanita, they do them both slightly different.

As many of you know, Pork Binagoongan is pork belly, cut into cubes of meat, fat, skin and all, fried to a golden brown then mixed with a fermented shrimp paste or bagoong. Fairly common, yes but in this case not quite. What makes it a must-try dish is the distinctively tasting bagoong. It’s sweet, sour and salty, almost like a hoisin sauce but still very much a shrimp-based paste. I asked one of waiters about the bagoong. He was not very forthcoming, obviously a secret not to be shared with customers.

Generally, I love laing. I love anything cooked in coconut milk actually. What makes this experience with Cafe Juanita’s Laing Bicolano different is how it is served. Normally, laing is a basic regional vegetable dish of taro or gabi leaves, pork belly and shrimps stewed in coconut milk. But in Cafe Juanita’s version, ground pork and dried anchovies are carefully wrapped in taro leaves like little spring rolls slowly stewed in coconut milk, chilis and other spices. I enjoy biting into these lumpias (spring rolls) of laing goodness as I spoon the sweet and spicy coconut milk over my steaming hot rice. Yum.

Still hungry, A. and I decide to try their Laguna Fish (P189). This dish is a deep fried Tilapia served with a dipping sauce of tomatoes and unspecified ingredients. The fish is such a staple of every Filipino household that I almost wonder why we bothered. When it arrives, we are not disappointed. The whole fried fish is plated on a bed of fried sotanghon or glass noodles with a small bowl of tomato relish and a dark vinegar-chili based sauce. A. and I love looking at it; the fish looks like it’s swimming in a bed of coral. Pretty. The taste? The fish is fried to near perfection. The outer skin is dark and crisp. The flesh is fresh, soft, tender and almost without any oily residue. Someone in the kitchen knows how to cook fish.

Whether it’s a slick, hotel-operated Italian trattoria or a streetside, chicken inasal hole-in-the-wall, dining out should be an experience. The experience should be total, from the look, the feel, the service but most importantly, it should always be about the food.

I am not a big fan of the look of Cafe Juanita. But I will admit, it can be entertaining to look at the kitschy decor. If one gives it half the chance, you may even feel a sense of comfort and warmth in this room of composed madness. I believe that any restaurant that serves dishes that are well known to their diners but is still able to elevate their food to the point where the familiar becomes different, and where common is transformed into an experience, deserves to be enjoyed, shared and praised.

Cafe Juanita is the Little Red Cafe that has, can and, hopefully always, will delight and satisfy.

Cafe Juanita
No.2 United cor. West Capitol
Bo. Kapitolyo, Pasig City
Telephone Number: (o2) 632-0357
Mobile: (0916) 554-8107

Many thanks to Sharky, Doctor Vazquez and Wysgal for the use of their photographs.

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Post a comment
  • APRIL 10, 2007 1:45 AM

    Anonymous said...

    I love Sticky Toffee Pudding. Did you try it?

  • APRIL 11, 2007 7:34 AM

    ChiliLady said...

    Hey. your blog is very interesting! can we link our blogs? please write back in my blog "everyday glamour" ( theres a shoutbox)
    This would be nice!

  • APRIL 11, 2007 8:22 AM

    ANNE CASTRO said...

    i agree...hands down, cafe juanita is the best pinoy resto in the city

  • APRIL 12, 2007 11:55 PM

    Franco said...

    Hi Anonymous,

    No, we didn't try the pudding on this visit. But we did on our next. :)


    Hi Anna,

    I'm not sure if its the best but definitely one of the best.

  • APRIL 17, 2007 3:37 AM

    Mila Tan said...

    A friend introduced Cafe Juanita to me 3 years ago, and we just fell in love with it. Food - good, charm - high, and it combines shopping for antiques/kitsch and eating! At times the service providers can be overwhelmed, but they are kind and do their best. I've had several memoral meals there including a wonderful birthday dinner with friends, and a recent dinner buffet where we took over the entire restaurant (had the sisig tofu then, plated in puff pastry). It's a good place to take newbies to the city.

  • APRIL 30, 2007 4:36 AM

    Gina said...

    Just wondering...

    Is Senor Macho going to post about Cafe Juanita?