Of all the different cuisines offered by the hundreds of restaurants all around Metro Manila, Central American food is not as popular as your staple Japanese, Chinese, or even Middle Eastern resto that's bound to be just around the corner. It's quite strange for me, as their dishes and flavors are quite familiar to the local palate, having some Spanish and American influences. What takes center stage, I observe, are the Mexican staples of the more fast-food fare.
So I consider myself lucky as I chanced upon a little restaurant along Maginhawa Street in Quezon City, just as I was about to go home after a hefty lunch in one of the street's popular restaurants. That was the very first day I met Cocina Juan.
We've got owner Thomas Adviento to thank for migrating the flavors of his travels to the heart of Quezon City. He stayed for a while in the midwest, and got to experience the food of the many stalls around the area, operated by Latin Americans. Afterward, Tom was assigned to Latin America for three months, and that's how he fell in love with their food and decided to bring in the flavors back home, with a Filipino touch.
Cocina Juan also doubles as an art gallery (F. Gallery), where you can check out some paintings and artwork done by local artists, some of which are for sale. Since UP is just nearby, the restaurant-gallery is also a frequent haunt of art students.
On my second visit to Cocina Juan, Tom entertained me with colorful stories from his Nicaragua experience, as I wait for my food to be served. He recalls how their bell peppers are eaten like apples (they're big and sweet!. He recounts trying out their versions of lechon and chicharon, and tasting their colorful selection of no-frills street food.
My appetizer first arrived in the Dinamita (P115). The spicy green chilis stuffed with cheese were tamed down by the aioli dip. Tom says that this appetizer isn't really Central American. It's a local invention (which I've also tried in other restaurants) but it definitely has that Latin American touch.
Chicken and Pepperoni Pita Pizza
Their pizza is not your typical fare, as the dough they use is a thin and soft tortilla. Being so, I suggest that if you order their Pita Pizza, eat it once served while the tortilla is a bit crunchy so you can easily hold it with your hands. Otherwise, prepare for a yummy, messy and soggy treat!
The Chicken and Pepperoni (P165) pita pizza has a sweeter blend, something that Pinoys would generally like, and is laden with a lot of cheese. Since it's greaseless, you can consider it a more guilt free pizza than the typical pizza joint fare. The crust makes it seem like a light dish, while the flavors of the toppings are very rich.
Quesadilla Sincronizadas, Queso con Tomate
Next up, their Quesadilla Sincronizadas. Tom shares us another trivia: quesadillas are actually called 'sincronizadas' back in their place of origin. I wonder why we call it quesadillas, then? Must be a case of lost in translation, but even if so, the tomato and cheese combination of the Queso Con Tomate (P115) is a no-fail palate pleaser. And since I'm such a sucker for tomato and herbs, the siding of salsa cruda was just perfect.
Sofrito Cream Dory Con Blanco Queso
One of my favorites in Cocina Juan is the Sofrito Specials: very fragrant, saucy fish dishes that make the meats extra tender and juicy. The Sofrito Cream Dory Con Blanco Queso (P205) was an absolute delight to eat. Opening the foil reveals a very moist and juicy fish fillet, its meat super soft and warm. The sauce was garlicky, just the way I like it, swimming in cheese and cucumber bits. You can choose to have your sofrito meal with a side of salad, rice or tortilla.
Another must-try is their Chimichurri Specials, specifically the Cerdo Castillo Chimichurri (P225): pork ribs which come in a big serving, with a hefty portion of rice. Guys will love eating this.
Cerdo Castillo Chimichurri
What makes the ribs extra special is the sauce. Chimichurri, Tom explains, originates from Argentina. It's a bit lemony in flavor, a bit leafy in texture, and gives each slice of the meat an herby, parsley kick. I love Chimichurri so much, I hope they start selling it in bottles. I can just imagine how it can go well with roasted meat, kebabs, and barbecued anything. Burritos and pita wraps, even. Mmmmm...
Chicken Chimichurri Cheese
If their nachos, pizzas and quesadillas still do not fill your craving for cheese, then an order of their Chicken Chimichurri Cheese (P185) might just be the finishing move. Two pieces of chicken swim in a thick, cheesy sauce, making the flavors extra strong; there is that addictive chimichurri on the cheesy sauce as well, giving a different layer of flavor to the overall taste.
Still not cheesy enough? Then my bet to do the job is the Cheesy Corn (P35) soup. It's basically a cheese sauce that's prepared as a soup. It is very tarty, salty, and thick, that it embraces your entire mouth. You will thank the little bits of corn for the added crunch and sweetness, that gives the cheesy factor just a teensy bit of a taming down.
Burrito Classico Fajitas
For more familiar fare, Cocina Juan also serves your the staple burrito. Burrito Classico Fajitas/Beef Skirt (P155, Grande) is one giant roll of browned rice, grated cheese, beans, corn bits, sour cream, and beef. It's a very generous serving, and when I say generous,I mean equivalent to two or three cups of rice. Prepare to share this one (or feed it to one very, very hungry individual).
Burritos Platos Fajitas
Putting a little spin to the burrito is the Burritos Platos Fajitas (P145), which is a plated version (no wrap/tortilla) of their burrito. I find it more beany than the classic burrito, and the addition of lettuce was very welcome to my tastebuds. Instead of having all the ingredients mixed in, the platito has them all in layers, and lets the customer mix it all up like a salad to enjoy. And just like the regular burrito, the serving is big, perfect for the rice lovers out there. They also have Meat Burrito if you want to skip the rice, which costs P100-125, depending on choice meat.
Sopa Borracha con Frio Crema
To end your Central American fiesta, order their Sopa Borracha (P100), a Panamanian dessert. It's a block of drunken sponge cake, moist with flavors akin to bread pudding, thanks to the raisins. The sweet, lemony syrup makes this little cake very indulgent. The dessert comes with a slice of lemon that I recommend squeezing, and drizzling the juice on the cake - it enhances the sweetness of the sponge cake even more. If you wish to have the cake ala mode, order the Sopa Borracha con Frio Crema (P115). The Sopa Borracha is best paired with coffee.
Vanilla Cafe and Cafe Con Bailey's
Speaking of coffee, you may want to try out Cocina Juan's different hot and cold coffee selections, they're pretty good and affordable. They also have spiked coffee called Espiritu (served hot or cold), like the Cafe Con Bailey's (P120) that I got to try out that day.
If you're craving for for a mix of new and familiar flavors, try taking your tastebuds to a trip to Nicaragua, Argentina, Panama, and other Central American hotspots just by visiting one humble little restaurant. Just take a seat, order away and let Cocina Juan bring the flavors of Central America to your heart and belly!