Mall restaurants are an interesting bunch. There are those that serve ‘eat-all-you’ can rice and those with ‘all-day-breakfast’ options. A few have notorious long queues and everyone else who wished they had those notorious long queues. And finally, there are beloved homegrown brands that stayed afloat despite the recent entry of big-name franchises and a handful of them that have closed shop for reasons that only those in the industry would understand.
Where would I place Kuya J Restaurant, a mid-priced restaurant that recently opened in SM Cebu, in my unreliable taxonomy of mall food options? It’s too early to tell. But for arelatively new kid-on-the-block, it surprised me in more ways than one.
First, I didn’t know that Kuya J has a strong cult-like following back in the day. Mr. Winglip Chang, who oversees this restaurant and a slew of impressive ones, told us during a media invite, that it was once a small, nondescript food joint somewhere in the Capitol area. When the original owner migrated elsewhere, he took over the reins, took out the exotic fares that they were known for and kept the really good ones in the menu.
He quipped, “Anyone can cook a good crispy pata, but can you cook a good crispy pata consistently for 50 guests?”
I could only agree with him on that. Although I haven’t tasted fifty Crispy Patas from Kuya J, but the deep-fried pork knuckles I had that evening had the makings of a classic. The skin crackled helplessly in my mouth yet the meat was well-flavored and impossibly tender. It was a study in texture, which was one of the tamer themes that framed our conversations that evening. I was then with four other bloggers whose unabashed opinions on everything else in life, I deeply respect.
That and the Baked Scallops are two of Kuya J’s bestsellers. We were told that some diners would have individual orders just for the latter. I could understand the love since the scallops were soft, buttery and garlicky. You would be forgiven then if you would only order these two superstars, but you would be missing a lot if you do.
For appetizers, you can also try their Chorizo Dinamitas, a deceptively innocent-looking stuffed chili. Try one and you’ll be treated to a carefully orchestrated symphony of spicy and sweet, pleasure and pain, all in one bite.
The kare-kare in particular was my other favorite that night. Its sauce was properly reduced yet slowly dripping like a fiery lava from an erupting volcano. It almost stole the thunder from the gloriously tender beef portions that came with it. Pair it with bagoong which cuts through the richness of the peanut-based sauce (Mr. Chang also mentioned that they had to source their peanuts in Luzon to achieve that distinct ‘kare-kare’ taste.) and you are in for an unforgettable toe-curling experience.
I am not a huge fan of sweet desserts that’s why I am happy to find out that the Tablea Flan with Coffee Syrup, the Saba Banoffee (their playful riff on the banoffee pie) and the Deep-Fried Halo-Halo were not. All these were exquisitely layered in both texture (crunchy and velvety) and flavor (bitter, savory and sweet).
These rightfully capped our evening, which took us through a decidedly, very common array of Filipino comfort food. Because when you compare Kuya J’s menu to other more established homegrown restaurants in Cebu, there’s not much difference in terms of price and variety.
The similarity perhaps ends in terms of execution and in serving dishes that are slightly re-imagined: an unmistakable edginess in texture and taste, but with a careful respect for the familiar flavors that they were built on in the first place.
That’s just the fake-food-critic in me that’s talking though. Just go to Kuya J already, and you’ll get what I mean.
Kuya J Restaurant
Upper Ground Floor, SM City Cebu
+63 32 2668600 | Daily 10am–10pm
They also have branches at:
Escario cor. Tojong Sts. Kamputhaw, Cebu City
(032) 260 2991 | Daily, Lunch at 11am-3pm Dinner at 6pm-10pm
SM City Consolacion
+63 32 2668188 | Daily, 10am-9pm