“You can call it a miracle,” Lorna Cruz- Ambas, daughter of journalist and Cafe Adriatico founder Larry Cruz, proclaimed with matching smiley eyes.
We were then seated by the window of the second floor of this Malate landmark. I was about to peck at the freshly-dipped-in-Chocolate Eh' Ensaymada (P165) on hand, when she affirmed that sentence. We had been talking for a good 30 minutes or so, but it was only when she said that did her eyes glint. After hearing those words, I felt required to take a pause. I looked up, down, and around. The polished bar top, tables, and chairs; the shiny stained glass windows; the antique, yet well preserved hanging cherubims-- all kept mum about the fire that unfortunately engulfed this part of the restaurant December last year. Ever rustic, charming, and homely, it's quite hard to imagine that this resto had an hour-long bout with flames.
The bar: all shiny and new
For a resto that's mostly wooden, surviving that kind of tragedy is hardly possible. But Cafe Adriatico's recent resurrection proved that nothing is unachievable, especially with hundreds upon hundreds of prayers and well-wishes by its loyal patrons. You can only imagine how many artists, politicians, members of the press and famous stars expressed dismay and prayed for the preservation of the institutional cafe. “After the fire happened, that's when we realized how much the people loved Cafe Adriatico. We knew we had to re-open,” Lorna recalls.
Half a year later the incident, Cafe Adriatico re-opened. It's once again up and running, as if tragedy hadn't happened.
It's the same charming place. The kitchen's intricate wooden frame with an iconic Art Noveau eagle in the middle was left unharmed. The unpolished Baroque posts, frame-adorned walls, the antique sculptures and fixtures were preserved. Even the bar at the second floor of the restaurant, which is supposedly the worst-hit area, is good as new. “We really tried to bring everything back to how it was before,” Lorna explained.
Their patrons, who at this time of the day are mostly foreigners residing near the area, are also obviously happy to be back. Some are discussing business over a cup of coffee. The others are in their roomy shirts, enjoying a lazy Manila afternoon in solitude. Just goes to show that in this cafe that stood witness to the boho-era of Malate, everybody is welcome.
The longevity of this restaurant is always attributed to the quick and warm service from the loyal wait staff who had aged alongside Cafe Adriatico. But that's not saying that food here is nondescript. The Spanish- Filipino fare served at Cafe Adriatico is not only noteworthy, it also boasts of time-tested recipes that have survived the discriminating taste buds of its patrons over the years.
What perhaps is the most-ordered item from their menu is their Brewed Coffee (P75). Over the years, Cafe Adriatico's signature brew sparked ideas, relationships, and partnerships. This cup that's serious, deep-flavored, and smooth is the kind which bitterness lingers on your tongue even after you finish it. This, with a copy of the morning newspaper, has been a part of the daily routines of the cafe's regulars.
Not a coffee drinker? You may opt to have the famed Chocolate Eh' (P65), a thick, heart-warming concoction, that has the signature of Lorna's mom.
When talking about Cafe Adriatico's best-sellers, it's impossible to miss hearing raves about the Spanish Callos with Garlic Bread (P320).
Spanish Callos with Garlic Bread
Many had called this the best callos in town, and you can't blame them because the fatty consistency of the ox tripe in this dish renders as shameless. Eating a plateful of this is like binging on pork fat, lots of it! Of course, there's the occasional jolt from the tasty chorizo and the crunchy olives, but this dish is really about the flabby tripes, and how well they go well with the tomato based sauce.
There's also the Lengua Estofada (P375), another item that would leave your mouth asking for more.
In my experience, the pleasure from eating Lengua Estofadas is usually culled from both the sauce and the unique gumminess of the ox or beef tongue. The creamier, the better. The softer, the better. This particular lengua, though, is quite different in the sense that its gravy falls flat when compared to how flavorful the tongue pieces are. Just like strips of well-broiled tenderloin steaks, Cafe Adriatico's version of lengua will convert lengua naysayers to fans.
Lola Ising's Adobo Rice (P400) was initially made by the kitchen crew to pay tribute to the founder's mother, who was, before her passing, an icon in the cafe. From a well-meaning gratitude dish, the Lola Ising's Adobo Rice rose up the ranks and became one of the cafe's bestsellers.
Lola Ising's Adobo Rice
This twice cooked adobo is so garlicky; it didn't need to be anything else to get my approval. I love how generous they were with the roasted garlic slices. Adobos like these are the best in my book. The exterior of the pieces are remarkably crispy; crackling in every bite is expected. But once inside the mouth, the pork belly chunks surrender and reveal how tender they are. Among everything I've had in Cafe Adriatico, this has got to be my favorite.
Cafe Adriatico, Since 1979
A business man once told me that in the food industry, only 3 out of 5 newly-opened restaurants will survive the year. Four more years and only one of those 3 will stay. Granted that his probability computations are merely fast generalizations, it's still hard to imagine how a single restaurant can have a strong following even after 32 years-- as in the case of Cafe Adriatico. But not only did it survive 32 years in the industry, it also lived through a fire. Cafe Adriatico-- still open 22/7, 365 days of the year, truly is blessed, if not miraculous.