Shaun and I were in Argao last Saturday and found ourselves in a quaint and eccentric cafe for lunch. My heart started to beat faster than usual when I saw an old building just a block outside the church square. It had a familiar trelis overtaken by some climbing, flowering plant by its entrance. This is Alex Kafe.
I have read about this place years ago in a local newspaper and forgot its name and its location. I have been constantly asking friends from the south about it with no answers. I know it had the trelis up front and they were supposed to serve the best torta(local baked pastry) and sikwate(local chocolate drink). For a long time, I thought they were in Carcar. But here we are now!
The place looked abandoned when we got there. For a minute, we thought they were not in operation anymore if not for the fresh flowers on the tables. The refrigerated pastry display counter was bare and the artwork and various abubots (knick knacks) were dusty. Nobody met us when we got in, we had to go way back to the kitchen and announce our presence. The lady in the kitchen told us the whole place was reserved but will accomodate us if we ate fast. So we settled ourselves in a corner and tried our best to eat before the expected guests arrived.
And they came just when we started dessert. We were told that it was Col. Angan and his whole family. Oh well, I am sure he didn’t mind 4 family members of his relegated to a garden table outside as we sat cozily enjoying dessert.
I was to learn later on that this used to be a boarded up bodega(warehouse) almost 90 years old. It was turned into a restaurant in recent years(2002) by Alex Gonzales of the Kintanar Family. The Kintanars are a long line of prominent politicians, professionals and artists in Cebu. Alex was into developmental work before finally settling to a slower lifestyle after a cardiac attack. He now takes an active part in promoting tourism in Argao. The place held some curious items as decor.
One of the items I found really interesting is a Goddess of Mercy with burnt incense in front of it. It is Chinese and out of place. I was told later that Alex’s wife was a mestiza insik and that was that. In fact, one of the most sought after dish in the menu was her humba(Chinese braised pork). We tried it and found it really delicious. The meat was so tender with just the right amount of fat. I always say Humba will never be humba without the fat. This particular version was so tender the fat and skin melts in your mouth. It also had just the slightest hint of fruit in its sauce, was that pineapple or orange? Hmmm. And as a very Chinese touch, black beans were added for a little pungent and salty kick.
Ofcourse this meal in particular and this trip in general, would not be complete without us tasting the fabled torta and sikwate. Now torta is local pastry with many variations, some add star anise or cinnamon for the aroma, some add cheese etc. Alex’s version is a no-nonsense affair. Just plain lard and tuba (palm wine). This is what make’s Argao torta as a whole, very unique. Instead of using yeast as leavenning, the tuba does the job. Alex’s torta did not have any fancy flavoring or aromatics added. Just some sprinkling of crystal sugar on top. When you bite into it, you will taste just a hint of sourness from the coconut wine.
Together with this torta is sikwate. Now Alex’s cafe is also said to serve good coffee. But we asked the attendant for her suggestion and she suggested sikwate instead. Good one, considering we can always have coffee in the city and not enjoy sikwate as conveniently. This sikwate is made from original Argao cacao, grown and processed locally. These tablea(chocolate chips, if you will) are already being exported abroad. I was also surprised that they now take on a very Western shape and packaging, very different from the round tablets I know from childhood. I bought a pack for champorado at home.
At any rate, the sikwate was hot, thick and had just the right amount of bitter and sweet in it.
The torta and sikwate were more novelties to me than stellar. But the Humba is something else, it humbled me, a Humba master myself. In fact, I am already planning on copying this version next weekend. Service at the cafe is family style or as we say “inato”. But this is exactly what lends the place its charm. Pricing is cheap, and I believe, fair. All the dishes come as singular servings and priced not higher than P80 bucks.
Would I recommend the place? If you are in the area and just about ready for food at an affordable price, sure! This place was said to have been featured in Lonely Planet (yes, of the Discovery Channel) around 2006. I wonder how different it is now from back then? What could get a resto into a show like that?