The Parian was traditionally the enclave of the Chinese-Filipino mestizos in Cebu, and nearly a hundred years or so ago, it was a fairly chic address to have. Some of the oldest homes from that era have been preserved, but many more have been lost and the area is a a shadow of its former self. Today, this is not the prettiest nor safest part of town, and that’s being kind. So when my brother-in-law recently mentioned that he had been to a newly opened Cafe in the Parian, serving 1960’s style comfort food dishes, my ears perked up instantly. Not only did I want to take a drive and visit to the heart of the Parian, but I wanted to taste what Cafe Elysa had to offer. For a new restaurant, even on “soft opening”, we had the darndest time finding their contact numbers, but after putting the local barangay office on the hunt, they walked over to the restaurant and sent us the contact details, below.
First off, ignore the exterior of the Cafe, period. What was once probably a wonderful old house has been refurbished in what I like to refer to as Pinoy Provincial Bathroom Tile Exterior Style. The house is now clad in ceramic tiles that will weather the rains, grime, etc. And I can just imagine the tile salesman extolling the virtues of cleaning it with just a sponge and a bit of detergent…
The interiors aren’t much better, though the original wood floors of the second floor are clearly visible, under a new coat of white paint. The first floor tiles continue the bathroom aesthetic. The cafe is owned and operated by Stephen Aznar, who used to or still lives part-time abroad, and the Cafe is named after his mother Elysa Aznar. The menu is oddly schizophrenic, a rather interesting sounding western style menu which I take it is Stephen’s baby along with a selection of wines (I think someone said he was a trained sommelier), and a very local menu based on the recipes of the long-time family cook of the Aznar’s. It is the latter that I wanted to try that evening.
Some family portraits show the link to the Sanson family of the Parian, and a photo of Stephen’s mother, who married an Aznar. The local food menu reads like a list of childhood favorites or dishes we used to enjoy when spending the summer in Cebu. My grandmother had a rather unfussy home menu, so these dishes were things we would have more likely experienced in homes of family friends or relatives…
First, we ordered several portions of humba, that Cebuano-Chinese somewhat adobo like dish, sliced pork hocks, a little sweet from sugar and salty from the soy and fermented beans. Curiously, this had no banana flowers, a classic ingredient, but it was delicious. The sauce wasn’t too thick nor excessively treated to cornstarch, and it was perfect with rice.
Next up was some pork belly chicharon, or a version of lechon kawali. Excellent. Accompanied with a nice dipping sauce of soy, vinegar and other ingredients.
The house dinuguan or dugo-dugo, was made with ground meat, a bit odd not to have entrails, but it tasted delicious nonetheless. This reminded me of folks who make callos without tripe… hmmm, not sure how authentic that might be, but it tasted good.
The ginisang monggo (mung bean stew)was excellent, with perhaps just too much dried fish used in the mix, but still a notch above your typical restaurant fare. It DID taste like a good confident Manang or family cook was at the helm of the stove. Actually, she wasn’t that evening, but I take it these are based on her recipes.
The kinilaw na tanguigue was EXCELLENT. I don’t order this at restaurants most of the time, since they tend to use frozen fish, but the waiter assured me the tanguigue was fresh and the dish was perfect. We ordered several more for the table. I hope for their sake and that of their customers that they can keep this dish consistently good.
The Bam-i, that curious mix of canton and sotanghon noodles that is very Cebuano, was strongly flavored but otherwise unremarkable. The strips of thin scrambled egg on the top an unusual garnish for me. I do wonder how this was created at all, probably the result of a cook running out of one noodle or the other, and simply adding in whatever other noodles they found in the larder…
The sweet and sour sauce of the fried fish was excellent, but the fish itself was skinny and not the finest you might get at a market. This was a pleasure to behold, but in this particular case, it needed a more robust and healthy fish to make it truly delicious.
Up top in the first photo, was the slam dunk dish of the evening, a perfectly balanced kalderetang kambing. Not sure if they can consistently send this dish out as they served it that night, but this was worth the trip to the Parian on a Friday evening, battling traffic jams and a rain storm. Two orders of this, lots of rice and a drink and I would have been more than happy.
For dessert, we tried their battered and fried bananas that were so-so, but note the effort to peel that kalamansi! We also had several bowls of mango or ube ice cream that came straight out of a plastic container from the grocery… Overall a very satisfying home-cooked style meal. Roughly PHP300-350 per person if you are a large group and eat heartily. Some folks won’t get this place, but others will feel right at home the minute they taste the food.
Now if only they got rid of these tacky battery operated candles. Yikes. :)
30-a Zamora Street
Parian, Cebu City
Call ahead to let them know you are coming, even though we were the only table of 8 diners at dinner that Friday evening.