HAD late dinner at Dr. Efren ‘Boy’ Vazquez’s Café Juanita with Iloilo-based Chef Rafael ‘Tibong’ Jardeleza II Thursday last week (October 24, 2013), and as usual, the restaurant lived up to its rave reviews and critical acclaim.
It was the evening after FLAVORS Magazine’s major annual event, FLAVORS Culinary Challenge 2013, took place at the Event Center of SM Megamall (*see related post , And the Grand Champion of FLAVORS Culinary Challenge 2013 Is…, by scrolling down or pressing the Foodbiz button and double-clicking the item). Since it was our annual culinary competition among schools, I had assembled a powerhouse cast of six well-known chefs and personalities in the local culinary world to serve as this year’s Board of Judges, and both Doc Boy and Chef Tibong were part of it. During the course of their judging, they got to engage in light conversation, Doc Boy extended an invitation to Chef Tibong to come over to his restaurant and Chef Tibong said yes. Since Chef Tibong had flown in all the way from Iloilo on the day of the competition (October 23, 2013) and was taking a flight back to Iloilo Saturday (October 26, 2013), we had agreed to late dinner (my husband Raff and me included) the evening after.
So we all met up at Café Juanita at 8:00 p.m. for a late but delightful dinner at one of my favorite restaurants in the world and, as usual, it was almost full. The parking area in front of Café Juanita was full, and both sides of West Capitol Drive were lined with parked cars. I had suspected that the car owners were all dining in Café Juanita, and, judging from the dinner crowd inside the restaurant when we got in, my speculation seemed to be right on track.
Doc Boy was already waiting in a private corner table when Raff and I got in. He had been quietly drinking a glass of red wine and was his jolly old self when he welcomed us. Chef Tibong was only a few steps behind us, and so we settled down to pleasant conversation and the food started coming.
First course was an appetizer called Juanita Crispy Spring Rolls, crunchy pork and crab spring rolls wrapped in lettuce with basil and mint and tied in place with blanched spring onion or chive. There were six pieces and Doc, as he had always done so in the past, insisted that we three guests of his had two pieces each. He was still full, he said, but he has always been that way as a gracious host. He would eat only towards the end of the meal, making sure first that his guests had their fill. I didn’t mind having two, though, since the Crispy Spring Rolls were light and tasty. It was a perfect starter for a delightful dinner.
Then came two soups, Oc Lam and Tom Yum Goong, in sampler cups. I had Oc Lam, a refreshingly clean-tasting Laotian clear chicken or fish soup scented with exotic spices, for the very first time, and I liked it because it was full of vegetables. The other soup, Tom Yum Goong, was more familiar, being a Thai hot and sour prawn soup with fragrant spices, and Café Juanita’s version of this famous Thai soup had a perfect spice level for my taste. Not too spicy, not too sour – just right.
Then the main courses were served altogether, family style as always: Beef Rendang, Bacalao, Tinuktok and Baked Tilapia. Beef Rendang, a Malaysian dish of beef simmered for hours in spices, Kaffir and lemongrass, and reduced with coconut milk, was served with spiced potatoes. It usually comes with long-grain rice, but since we were having steamed rice family style, it came with just the spiced potatoes. The Bacalao, or codfish, was cooked in tomato sauce using the usual salted, dried bacalao fish, Spanish style, but the dish was, to my delight, not too salty and delightfully good with olives and basil chiffonade. The Tinuktok, crabmeat and buko wrapped in taro leaves and cooked in coconut milk and crab fat, was my request. I had tasted it before, during the opening of Café Juanita’s branch in Forbes Town Center, Bonifacio Global City, before, and it was one of the Café Juanita dishes that made a big impression on me. You don’t usually get to taste Tinuktok in other restaurants, not even in Filipino specialty restaurants, which usually serve just Laing. As for the Baked Tilapia, Doc Boy had wanted to serve apahap (local seabass) but it wasn’t available. The tilapia was a good substitute.
To end a light late dinner, we had a heavy dessert ‘buffet.’ Doc Boy had small portions of Café Juanita’s famous Cassava Cake with Turones (banana roll or turon) served individually. I tell you, Café Juanita’s Cassava Cake, topped with freshly shredded cheese, is the best ever. I am not a big fan of Cassava Cake, but when I’m at Café Juanita, I just have to have it. Then came a full portion of Sticky Toffee Pudding served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, a lit birthday candle and a ‘Happy Birthday’ song for Raff. The birthday boy was pleasantly surprised, and so he blew the candle on his birthday pudding and made a silent wish. Afterwards, we shared the Sticky Toffee Pudding. But just as we thought we had taken in our last bite of the night, the waiters served Buko Jelly with fresh buko strips and a Maraschino cherry to each of us.
We winded up our late dinner with a cup of hot water steeped with fresh tarragon leaves. What a way to end an awesome dinner in the company of Doc Boy and Chef Tibong! No matter what the occasion, or even when there’s no occasion at all, Café Juanita always rises to the occasion and makes it extra special with its simple touches and details such as the silver tea with tarragon leaves. I would keep coming back to Café Juanita for more.
(Café Juanita is located along West Capitol Drive, Bo. Kapitolyo, Pasig City.)