My first meeting with Doctor Boy Vazquez, proprietor of the landmark Café Juanita, among other restaurants in Pasig, was eerie. Just before lunch, he was looking for me when I was the only one on the floor of The Daily Globe, a newspaper office where I worked. That made me wary because he asked for me by name. What made me decide to identify myself was that he looked and sounded like someone close to me—my late godfather, Kits Vazquez. Turned out they were first cousins. Later on, when “Doc” (as we call him) became a friend, that sense of humor proved to be a family trait.
During that first meeting, he invited me to his first restaurant, Soho Japanese Korean, located along West Capitol Drive in Pasig. But I had a previous appointment and couldn’t go. We would cross paths several times through invitations of mutual friends, each meeting a laugh a minute with lots of food. That humorous disposition is probably why Doc Vazquez still looks as young as when we saw each other last, a decade ago. There was a picture of him doing a cooking demo but wearing operating room scrubs. That made me laugh and probably also everyone who knew him in his former life as an OB-gynecologist (working with the late, great Dr. Manahan). But he is impeccably dressed otherwise and that day we were to take photos of him, he said that he tinted black his moustache as well as his eyebrows and a bit of his hair so he would look better.
Doc Vazquez is a veteran and pioneer of the Kapitolyo area in Pasig, well before it became a hub for restaurants in the new millennium. Soho may have been his first restaurant opened in 1990, but he later developed several more, including his most famous one, Café Juanita (opened in 1996), named for his mother and whose decor competes for attention with the food.
Another restaurant, Gusto, was named after his father, and was originally set up to feed the road works laborers in the area at the time. But when the interiors were fixed, the laborers wouldn’t come in anymore, feeling the place was now a sosyal na carinderia with office workers now eating there. Meanwhile, his Japanese restaurant, Soho, later on morphed into the present day Haru. The newest addition is Irving’s All-Day Dining that serves Asian-American food patterned after diners where his son, Jun Bormate, ate at while studying medicine in California.
It is Junjun, as Doc Vazquez calls him, who handles the kitchen, squeezing that in between his clinic hours at the Philippine General Hospital. We suppose Junjun handles the other three restaurants as well since Boy Vazquez cannot seem to stay put in one place too long. Before our lunch date at Café Juanita, he had just arrived from Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) and went to his farm in Bataan a day after that.
When asked what he did in Saigon, Vazquez replied that he bought 100 kilos of lumpia rice wrapper. That may seem excessive until he tells you that supply lasts for just three months and with that, a Lumpia Sampler was served. It was a composition of Vietnamese fresh spring roll (goi cuon) and fried spring roll (cha gio) served with the sweet, sour, and salty dipping sauce called nuoc cham, alongside Café Juanita’s own crispy spring rolls with the brownish sauce of our lumpia that is called paalat, altered to make it lighter and less dense by Vazquez. It seems that he continually adjusts and changes sauces, dishes, and menus.
That Vazquez compunction to change recipes according to his taste has been there since the beginning. Café Juanita’s talked-about Kare-kare doesn’t include toasted rice in the peanut sauce.
The Sweet and Sour Lapu-lapu has the flesh cut in squares the old way as done in Chinese restaurants.
The Paella is served with roast chicken on top. The Ampalaya Salad is what he opted to eat throughout our lunch, then experimented with wansuy (cilantro leaves) at one point but wasn’t happy with the resulting flavor.
Vazquez constantly introduces new dishes to the menu: Fried Stuffed Squash Blossom with a creamy dip; Fried Soft Shell Crab with Green Papaya and Mango Salad; tender Fried Squid served with chili salt and lemon; Three-Way Sisig that includes the usual pork, perfectly creamy squid, and chopped banana heart.
Through all that, he expected his guests to be critics as well. But every dish just had us approving with “mmms.” Even the desserts of Cassava Cake with cheese strands and clear gelatin poured with a coconut cream deserved the same approval. And the mangga halaya (mango jam) was more appreciated when the good doctor said how he learned it from his mother and was expected to do learn the tedious cooking process from a young age in their Nueva Ecija home.
But food is only part of the Café Juanita story and to complete it is its attention-grabbing décor. When the restaurant was still located at its former site just a few steps away, it was airy, bright, and rather austere. But Doc Vazquez felt it wasn’t what he wanted. He placed curtains to block the sun coming in, fitted in so many tables that made the inside quite a maze, displayed all his antique collection of furniture, dinnerware, glassware, knickknacks, and festooned the lamps with scarves and Mardi Gras beads. One friend brought his rather staid executive guests from abroad just to see how they would react to the brothel-like look but he reported that they were quite thrilled and more elated with the quality of the food.
Because Café Juanita transferred to a bigger space, a 1960’s house with a high ceiling, in 2010, the place is airier and brighter now. But the décors still dominate, a majority with the Southeast Asian motif like the sarimanok and the geometric designs known as okir on cloth and wood. There are still the plates, cups and glasses of old displayed inside wall cabinets but no longer for sale (including his collection of antique furniture stored in other houses). At Irving’s, the lights, the old radios, the kitschy cabinets remind of housewives’ choices of 60’s and 70’s home décor designs.
It was in the early 1990’s when Doc Boy Vazquez invited me to Soho. I should have chucked my appointment and gone with him. It would have introduced me earlier to his humor and to his unique way of doing things, in the décor and the cooking.
Café Juanita, 19 West Capitol Drive, Kapitolyo, Pasig City, (02) 632-0357
Photos by Pat Mateo