Part 4 of a series on Dumaguete food
There is a painted poster somewhere near the north entrance of Café Antonio that makes me smile every time I go there for my almost daily caffeine fix. There’s a coffee cup, and a swirling caption says: “Given enough coffee, I can rule the world.”
I always grin like there’s no tomorrow when I see it–because it smacks to me as a kind of hyperbolic truth, give or take a few palpitations. (Coffee rules! and all that. The caffeine freaks among us, and there are legions, can attest to this.) But the theme of world domination is not something you get as a given when you’re around the comforts of Café Antonio. This is a place I come to often, to relax, to feel or to imagine the increasing stress of Dumaguete life fade away. It is a haven.
There is something about the place that speaks to me. That it borrows its charms on the general architectural motif of its building, The Spanish Heritage, does not take away anything from it: in fact, if you ask me about it, the café itself has become the building’s heart. Is it the rustic mix of brick and wood? The carefully placed Spanish-inspired finish, with the gilded edges and the baroque tone? Is it the displays of scooters and musical instruments scattered about? In the air-conditioned confines–separated with walls of glass from the al fresco veranda with its colored-glass windows, its Tifanny-inspired overheard lamps, and its wooden swings–the round tables with their wrought-iron chairs are always filled with a mix of the city’s people–the occasional office folk on their lunch break, the casual Caucasian tourist looking for a quiet place to read a book, the city’s photographers who seem to find in this café an excuse for a headquarters, and the hordes of laptop-armed students deep into their books. It can get crowded sometimes, this place–but when it is quiet it becomes a cocoon. When I think of Café Antonio, I think of a good combination of café latte or fraps and also deep comfort, a refuge. This is where I go to when I want to hide from the world without really hiding from it.
One can’t help but marvel at the change of fortunes for this café, which opened many years ago and struggled for a while to find footing in what was then a largely nonexistent café culture in Dumaguete. There were constant menu changes over the years that reflected a kind of confusion in the kitchen. Then the coffee-and-cigarette crowd (which is the café society–the vocal, usually artistic types who would give the retort, “What? No cigarette over my brewed barako? Are you nuts?”) shunned it for so long for its insistence on banning smoking from the premises. It was, and still is, a beautiful place to come to now and then, but places do develop a magical pull, resistant to formula or earnest effort, that guarantees regular foot traffic and word-of-mouth patronage. For the longest time, it didn’t have that.
And then something happened. Café Antonio, for some reason, suddenly became cool.
What happened? I don’t know much about this café and its efforts at evolution (I’ve started coming back to it only the past year or so), but one can bet on the efforts of the two brothers who run the place, Rochris and Rayvin Piñero, two young men who seem to have the pulse on what the city and its coffee people want–and increasingly a feel for what the rest of everyone else wants. It takes perseverance, one can guess. And also a sense for just making people happy. As Rochris once told me, “Café Antonio is about good food and good coffee, and building relationships. Food should make us happy, feel happy.”
The idea of a café sprang from something a family friend, Dixon Peralta, was mulling over. “He offered the opportunity to start a coffee shop business in the city,” Rochris said. “We started out as a coffee shop, and only that–but eventually we decided to evolve into a coffee shop and restaurant.” And increasingly, it is the food of the place that has people coming back. Among its bestsellers–and what now constitute the signature dishes of Café Antonio–are the grilled pork ribs glazed in hickory sauce, the Cheezy Pork–strips of meat rendered in cheese cream sauce, and herb-marinated lamb steak. And then there is Jamaican grilled pork chop, tenderly marinated in herbs and spices. I can swear by the Jamaican chops: it is meat that overwhelms with a distinct herby flavor, earthy and spicy at the same time. What you now have is a whole new experiment in food, all of the entrees given certain explosive twists–the onion soup with bread and cheese, the garlic shrimp salad, the seafood paella, the grilled squid, the pasta marinara, the pesto pasta with tomato sauce, the pimiento basilica, the carbonara, and the tantalizingly sinful French toast with the caramelized banana (the mango slivers hidden in the bread was a touch of genius). The Fricadel burger with mushroom, one must say, is an experience.
The new menu is courtesy of Chef Eugene Gueverra from Cebu who whisked in, and stayed with the Piñeros for the entire month of April this year, and concocted a definitive change in the menu, and standardized the café’s process. “It was difficult because I am not a chef nor was I trained anywhere,” Rochris said. “Balancing finances and creating a product and service that satisfies the customer is a challenge.”
And then there are the Music Nights, randomly scheduled but increasingly popular. The streams of the café’s now-devoted patrons go through its glass doors unceasingly due in some part to an experiment in music the brothers have hatched. “We love music,” Rochris said, “and Music Night basically started out as an open mic night. And then slowly the members of what now constitutes our regular band got to know each other, with our regular singers Sela Saga, Alex Quilantang, and Reicha Piñero. Our plan is to make café Antonio a haven for aspiring artist, and to provide an avenue in which they could express themselves.”
Music Night is a monthly jamming among its young regulars, which started with a very successful The Beatles Night that had everybody singing “Hey, Jude” by the end. And then it continued on with some other themed nights, including the Apo Hiking Society Night, complete with Buboy Garovillo in the audience. (A Dumagueteño, Mr. Garovillo quickly obliged with everybody’s fevered expectations by singing one song with the band.)
That night, after the APO songs have been played and sung, it was time once more for open mic–and then somebody sang a fevered rendition of “Quando, Quando, Quando,” and transfixed us all with this discovery of a new voice–alluring, confident, graceful. Who was he? But it didn’t matter. He took the song and made it his own, above our familiar memories of Frank Sinatra and Michael Buble. We all turned to him, and knew this was it: how talent can be so divine it can turn any place into a sudden venue for worship. And so, on my own or with a bunch of people all singing, Café Antonio has become what it has become: a place of such comfort, anybody here can burst out into song.