By Noel Vera
1964 Notré-Dame St. W, Montreal, Canada
JUNIOR ISN’T the only Filipino eatery in Montreal, but as all the others are clustered around the Cote-des-Neiges neighborhood it’s the only one that chose to strike out for other pastures, establishing itself in 2014 in Griffintown, a former Irish immigrant community turned industrial area turned urban renewal experiment.
A Filipino restaurant as part of the effort to revitalize an economically depressed community? Why not?
The carinderia/bistro sits in a charming little space, with artwork hanging from brick walls, sports shirts tacked to a board, strings of fiesta lights crisscrossing above the tables. A foodcart stands to one corner, the chairs fold and are painted bright colors, utensils and napkins are stuffed into tall plastic glasses centered on each table. Flanking the glass are bottles of three classic condiments in Philippine cuisine: Mang Tomas’ lechon sauce, pinakurat vinegar, and Jufran banana catsup.
Oh, and the restaurant’s glass front rolls up and turns the whole establishment into an open-air terrace (or terrassé, as they put it here) with some tables more open-air than others (we were right next to the window). This being my first night in Montreal I would soon realize that having an outside patio is almost a law among Quebecois restaurants, ready to throw wide open doors and windows and patios at even the hint or possibility of sun, or of reasonably warm weather.
Still! Watching the people glance sideways as they walked by was a fun way to pass the time while we waited on our food.
We ordered. At one point the server asked with a concerned tone: “That’s three pork dishes. Don’t you want any other kind of meats?” My first impulse was to lecture her on the eccentricities of Filipino cuisine, that while we have a few excellent beef dishes (bulalo — bone marrow and shank boiled in broth — comes to mind) and fish is a mainstay, our genius specialty is pork, in particular pork skin fried or roasted to a seductive crispiness, but thought better of it and instead asked for a vegetable and fish dish.
For drinks we opted for water, a glass of calamansi (Philippine lime) juice, and one other. “What’s ‘Ovaltine?’ one of our party asked. I had to explain: a malt drink, add milk or water; often drunk hot or cold (but mostly hot) for breakfast. Blank stare. I sighed and asked for a cup for him. How long has it been for me? Thirteen years, at least, since leaving the country — more, not having tasted the beverage since childhood.
The cup arrives. I asked for a sip. Yep, exactly what I remember, the nutty malt flavor of Nestlé in hot water. No fireworks or burst of music, no camera zooming in on my face as I recall scenes of a long-forgotten youth — just simple confirmation that the corporation with patented ownership of this oddball chunk of my childhood has not fiddled with my memories, that this much of my past against all odds remains intact. Also, that I still liked the drink, and wonder why I stopped imbibing.
The lumpia sariwa (fresh vegetable eggroll) was less about ubod (heart of palm) than it is about tofu — not kosher, but an interesting variation on what is actually a versatile dish, able to take in shrimp, pork, jicama, and a range of wrappers, heavily garlicked and peanutted and dipped in a dark sweet and savory sauce.
The lechon kawali — basically pork belly fried in a wok — boasted of crispy skin as most Filipino pork dishes should; with steamed rice as its necessary accompaniment (the blank canvas on which it would create garish textures and flavors) and a soy-and-lime dip, the sizzled belly is arguably the highlight of the meal — or would be if it wasn’t for the pork sisig.
The pork sisig — basically chopped up pig’s ears and chunks of pork, boiled then seared then served on a hot plate, what the late Anthony Bourdain once called “my single favorite Filipino street food,” and “possibly the best thing you can ever eat with a cold beer,” and yet another time declared was “everything I love about food” — the plate laid before us that night was a lovely version of the classic dish; where some opt for mayonnaise and others a runny-yolked fried egg, Junior serves it both ways: topped with a brilliantly yellow-yolked egg and drizzled with a decadent dollop of mayonnaise. Mix immediately and temper with steamed rice.
The bangus (milkfish) sisig was our one seafood dish (if I remember right they were out of the squid kilawin or ceviché) and as a lighter version of the pork I thought it was a valid iteration, the fishiness of the bangus nicely countered by a squeeze of lime.
The highlight of the meal, surprisingly, was their Bicol Express. I’m familiar with the homely dish of chopped taro leaf, green-gray and greasy from the coconut milk with chunks of pork; Junior’s version was more like a curry — spicy and rich with coconut milk, briny with shrimp paste, ornamented with pork and bright-red tomatoes and bright-green long beans. Was it still Bicol Express without the taro leaf? It tasted good — that sufficed for me.
The waitress — who we mistook for Filipina but turned out to be Taiwanese (she spoke — to my inexpert ears — excellent French) took the time to chat with us and recommended a few places to see in the city, hoped we’d come back Monday for the five-dollar menu ($5 fried chicken, $5 lumpia — Canadian, not US dollars) while a DJ played from a collection of vinyl records (alas, scheduling problems prevented us from attending). All in all not a bad way to enjoy one’s first meal in Montreal.