February 04, 2011

A different kind of Valentine story

(Mars Reyes - founder of Joseph & Jaemark's, and his new partners Neneng and Reggie Arceo.)

THIS being the month of hearts, let me share a different kind of Valentine story.

You could say that it was for the love of their five-year-old Matthew that persuaded Reggie and Neneng Arceo to invest in reopening Joseph & Jaemark’s, considered the Holy Grail in grilled-tuna goodness among local foodies.

Neneng narrates that Matthew was just desperate for the “crispy fish” from the restaurant’s Magallanes branch. But the branch closed already, so her husband had to look for the restaurant’s founder, Mars Reyes, to persuade him to partner with the couple and reopen.

“If it’s not Jollibee, it’s Joseph & Jaemark’s that Matthew looks for,” says Reggie. “When I found Mars—matagal na akong fan since the Katipunan [branch] days—I gave him the big ‘What if?’ I’m not a Henry Sy. I had to look for the financing, I had to look for people to put it up, but, you know, after less than a year, nabuo namin ’to, from k’wento to meeting to opening.”

(Steaming bowl of hearty Halaan soup.)

You could also say that it was because of his passion for tuna and his customers that led Mars to allow himself to be drawn into the zealousness of Reggie and Neneng to re-establish the landmark restaurant, now in its new location at Sgt. Esguerra, Quezon City. Of course, there was some amount of faith as well that convinced Mars that the couple and their partners were the right people to do business with.

“Madaming ibang nag-offer na i-reopen ang restaurant. Pero nakita ko naman [sina Reggie] nasa tamang edad, may maturity, ’di tulad ng iba—madaming pera nga, pero sobrang bata. Mahirap ’yung ganun, kasi baka madaling magbago-bago ng pag-iisip. ’Tsaka sina Reggie ang unang kumausap sa akin, at matagal na din silang customer. Alam ko seryoso sila. Inisip ko din meron market agad kasi dahil sa mga kaibigan ni Reggie. Madali s’yang humila ng tao,” Mars says.

The Arceo couple admits that while they did have a broadcasting business before, the food industry was a completely different animal. So they got other partners who could fill in the other skills needed to run a business, and were knowledgeable in financial projections, planning supplies, recording inventories—mostly financial/administrative stuff. “S’werte kami ni Mars at nakahanap kami ng mga business partners na summa cum laude in Business Administration,” according to Reggie.

It seems that despite some minor setbacks, everything just fell into place as well. Finding the Sgt. Esguerra location was quite providential. They were about to close the deal on a 60-sq-m space along Mother Ignacia, but when they returned to give the reservation fee, the building owner told them someone else had already ponied up the fee to rent the space.

(Guinataang Kuhol w/ a hint of curry.)

“So Mars and I, riding on my 600cc motorbike, started cruising the area looking for the other vacant space that Mars had noticed but just couldn’t remember the exact location. Then we found [the Sgt. Esguerra spot]; we inspected the area, saw its huge size, and thought the Filipino interiors even fit with the kind of food we were going to serve,” Reggie says.

Mars says he just had a “good feeling” about the space, and soon after, they spoke to the lessor and managed to get a deal even better than the initial space they had originally eyed. And voila! The restaurant reopened in November 2010, much to the delight of many of its devoted aficionados. (Rumor has it that even Sharon Cuneta—a long-time fan of the restaurant—told her driver to immediately stop the car when she happened to pass by the new location. To her delight, it still served her old favorites and has been a regular customer since.)

Just to backtrack a little, Mars established Joseph & Jaemark’s—named after his two children—back in 1993 to while the time away while he was on vacation from his job on one of those Miami cruise lines. He saw the Cuneta Astrodome in Pasay City being built, which would then become the home of the PBA games, and he applied for a space. At first, he just offered light snacks like sandwiches and goto at his still-nameless stall, one of the 22 which offered similar fare to customers, mostly to fans of the games.

But a cousin visiting from General Santos encouraged Mars to offer something different that would make the stall stand out from the rest. The cousin suggested jaws (panga) of tuna, which was such a delicacy in GenSan and Davao. So Mars told his cousin to send him some and started grilling them. Needless to say, the dish became an instant hit. (The Astrodome’s capacity is about 11,000 – a veritable captured market for all the small stall owners, Mars points out.)

(Crispy buntot, or tail of the tuna)

While he had no formal culinary training, Mars says he had learned a trick or two from his colleagues from the hotels and cruise ships he worked for. With some experimentation, he came up with his winning basting sauce for the grilled Panga, and soon after he was grilling tuna belly, while the tail (buntot) of the tuna, he deep-fried to a crisp. “Actually 'yung buntot iniihaw ko pa dati. Kaya lang ang dami kong natanggap na reklamo sa buntot na ang tagal maluto; sunog na balat, di pa luto. Pinag-aralan ko kung pano gawin para di masunog at mabilis maluto. Kaya naisip kong i-deep fry ko.” Just think of it as a healthy crispy pata.

After only two months in operation, and with business brisk, Mars completely forgot about returning to his old job in Miami. “Nag-enjoy na ako eh,” he chuckles, especially since he started meeting the players and a number of well-heeled customers, the VIPs, some of whom would motor from their palatial homes to Pasay just to eat his food.

After every game, basketball players like Robert Jaworksi would descend on the little stall to gorge on Mars’ grilled tuna specialties. “Lima [buntot] ang in-order nun,” Mars says of Jaworksi, marveling at the appetite of the star player and that of his colleagues, especially after a grueling game.

And this being the month of hearts, Mars and Neneng also shares that one-time bold actress Cristina Gonzales said in one interview that during their courtship, her then-suitor, now husband Alfred Romualdez, took her out to J&J (“a hole-in-the-wall kainan”) on a date. “The food was good, huh! At mura,” the sexy star told Philippine Star’s Ricky Lo last year. Indeed, the restaurant not only satisfied starving tummies, but hungry hearts as well.

(Thai-style Catfish salad - a crispy-sweet 'uya'-breaker.)

Joseph & Jaemark’s reputation as a haven of "pangantot" (panga and buntot) spread, and soon the restaurant branched out to other areas (Katipunan, Makati, Magallanes and C5).

Aside from the love and passion that rebuilt Joseph & Jaemark’s, there is also the genuine respect for a fellow foodie. Culinary heir Sandy Daza, according to Mars, graciously shared recipes for dishes like the crispy catfish salad to add to the restaurant’s menu. “Sabi [ni Sandy], ‘Pare, kailangan mo nito para ma-break [ang lasa ng mga ihaw].’ Napakabait na mama.” Mars says before he serves a new dish, he asks Sandy to taste it first. “S’ya nagsasabi sa akin kung okay na, or kung meron pinapadagdag s’ya [na ingredient]. Kasi s’ya ang nag-culinary arts so alam nya ’yan.” Sandy has become a reliable friend and a generous spirit to Mars since his Cuneta days.

Then it is my own fondness for simple food cooked really well that has made me into a certified fan of this restaurant, now in its nth reincarnation in Quezon City.

(Stuffed pechay - with pork and tinapa - a surprisingly pleasant combination.)

Aside from the deliriously delectable tuna dishes, I love the hearty Halaan soup, a spicy and smoky stuffed cabbage (with pork and tinapa, what a surprisingly pleasant combination! again, a Sandy Daza creation), and Mars’ own take on the ginataang kuhol, with a hint of curry. All of these no-nonsense dishes reminds one’s palate of my Lola’s home cooking, or evokes memories of a leisurely food trip to the provinces eating at roadstop stalls and tasting the local cuisine. It’s all very rustic and comforting.

The prices of the dishes continue to be friendly on the pocket. The highest-priced dish is the crispy pata (P460)—yes, aside from seafood specialties, there are down-home pork dishes as well.

While Reggie is wont to declare that reopening Joseph & Jaemark’s Family Grill is “in the service of the Filipino palate,” to me it is all about love, passion and faith—just like any great Valentine romance.

(The main headliner at Joseph&Jaemark's - Grilled Panga or Jaws of the Tuna)

(A condensed version of this piece was published in the BusinessMirror, Feb. 4, 2011. My column, Something Like Life, is published every Friday in the paper's Life section. I own the copyright to photos that appear here. Joseph & Jaemark's is at #5 Sgt. Esguerra, South Triangle, Quezon City. For reservations or inquiries, pls. call 410-TUNA. Check out its Facebook page here.)

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