New flavours on one of North America’s oldest streets

On the brunch menu: lechon kawali with coconut waffles
On the brunch menu: lechon kawali with coconut waffles

I was overjoyed when, in the middle of a chat about Asian cuisine, the Indonesian waiter at one of my favourite restaurants, Gado-Gado, told me that there was a new Filipino restaurant on rue Notre Dame, just a couple of blocks from where I live.

But I have to admit it was a little surreal at first to eat at Junior.

First of all, most of the clientele are non-Pinoy. Second, being typical Montrealers, they insist on having wine with their pork adobo. Third, many of the servers are non-Pinoy as well, and they love explaining the menu to me and giving me their recommendations.

But owner Jojo Flores is deservedly proud of his friendly, diligent staff, and of the carefully selected wines on the menu. Montreal diners are rather spoiled for choice, and they have selective palettes. Flores says Junior stands out as the only Filipino restaurant downtown. Dishes are rotated in and out of the menu every season. They have also introduced weekend brunches and taco Wednesdays.

Flores, who opened Junior with his brother Toddy in October 2014, is also proud to note that many of the people who eat at the restaurant are non-Filipino. “It’s really cool to see people enjoying the cuisine we grew up eating at home.”

I have to agree with him on that — it is pretty cool to see Filipino food finally becoming internationally known.

My own personal favourites are the crisp-tender lechon kawali and the sisig, which has just the right amount of chili heat and arrives on a sizzling cast-iron plate with the barest drizzle of mayonnaise. Both are perfect with a glass of ice-cold, locally brewed Jeepney beer.

From the “Rice and Shine” menu I almost always choose the lightly crunchy coconut waffles along with the —you guessed it—lechon kawali. (You can also order it with battered fried chicken.) And they do an excellent flat white.

Last but not least, there is the lively yet relaxed ambience, which Flores says is really “a reflection of who we are, and our appreciation for good food and great music.” Come down to Junior any day of the week, and chances are the place will be buzzing.

If you ask me, the Flores brothers have hit on a winning combination.

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The jet set

Air France was my first real job where I earned my first peso. It was my Uncle Victor, who was also my sponsor at our secret marriage, that got me the job. He recommended me to a friend of his at Philippine Airlines, which was the Manila agent for Air France. I was hired as assistant to the Airport Manager, a Frenchman, Mr. Moreau, I think his name was. I worked both in the Manila International Airport and, after flights, at our Escolta offices in the Burke Building, where I was assistant to the Administration Manager. From the Burke Building we  we moved to the Manila Hotel, and then to the Shelbourne Hotel, where we stayed put until I left in 1978.

All throughout my tenure at Air France, I held two portfolios, the airport office to assist the Station Manager, and our Administrative Office as Assistant Administration Manager. And yes, I did travel a lot while there, both officially and on my vacations. Lola and I became regular jet setters, never missing going someplace on my yearly vacations. Your Mom and Titas were with us on trips to Disneyland, Hawaii, and places of pilgrimage like Lourdes in France and the Holy City, Jerusalem. I believe we were jet setting more than the local millionaires, really.

I stayed put in Air France for more than 25 years, I think. I was awarded a silver pin on my 25th year. I think I still have this pin somewhere among my memorabilia.

***

Glamorous as their stories of international summer vacations sounded, my grandmother was always quick to remind us that their free airfare often meant long waits at airports to get five stand-by seats together. To travel as lightly as possible, she packed only a few sets of clothes for her three girls, which often meant doing hand laundry in hotel sinks every night. Still, the annual trip abroad was something my mother and her sisters looked forward to, and now they have a rich store of memories, as well as a certain cosmopolitan attitude, an openness to new experiences, and a keen interest in other cultures.

3 decades of Gomez family travels

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Once they had a secret love

Wedding picture of my grandparents
My grandparents on their “second” wedding day

Sorting through some papers after my grandmother died, my mom found her parents’ marriage certificate. But there were a few strange details about it. First of all, it had been torn down the middle and then taped back together. And the date of the marriage was November 29, 1952: two years and a day before the date the family had always celebrated as my grandparents’ wedding anniversary. It had always been easy to remember, because that day, November 30, was also my grandmother’s birthday.

Understandably, Mom proceeded to have a small crisis. What did this certificate mean? When did her parents actually get married? If the wedding date was wrong, did that mean her birthdate was wrong, too???

Only one person knew the answer. When confronted with the certificate, my grandfather smiled. “I was wondering when you’d find that.” Then he sat my mother down and told her the whole story – a story that he and my grandmother had kept secret for more than fifty years. Here it is now, in his own words.

“Your Lola and I spent the summer of 1951 apart, she in Cabanatuan with her Father’s relatives, and I in Daet, Camarines Norte where my Father sent me and my brother Pocholo to work in our Uncle’s law office. He was the lawyer of the gold mines of Larap. We had no cell phones then, and so we practically did not hear from each other all summer. Which made being reunited once more at the end of the term that much more desirable. We were always together when we were not in school. She did not like my not seeing her at her house after school, and on weekends. I really practically lived in her house. Those were the happiest times for us, being together.

“In the summer of 1952, we almost broke up because I asked her if I could accept the invitation of Tito Hector to spend a couple of weeks in his hometown, Silay, in Negros, an idea she did not like, knowing that my ex-girlfriend [also lived in that town]. But she let me go, making me promise to behave and to be faithful to her. I guess it was her way of testing me, eh?

“Anyway, Silay was fun, and the ex-girlfriend was there. But somehow, I really did not notice her presence the whole time I was there, even at the three parties we attended. She had ceased to exist, as far as I was concerned. I was always thinking of your Lola, missing her terribly, and regretting not being with her. I counted the days when I would be back at her side. Even Tito Hector seemed to notice that I wasn’t really having as good a time as he would have wanted me to have while his guest.

“It was around September 1952 that we began thinking of ensuring that nothing and nobody would ever keep us apart. She was being closely watched by Lolo Conrado, who was not a very easy man to get along with. He had imposed very strict rules and was clearly bent on splitting us up. I discussed our problem with my teacher and friend, Fr. Lino Banayad, S.J., who did not see anything wrong in our getting married secretly until we were both graduated in 1953. So, we took the plunge. I got my Uncle Victor to stand as witness for me, and your Lola had [one of her closest friends] to stand for her. Fr. Banayad secured the civil marriage license through the help of his friend in the Pasay City Hall. And so, on November 29, 1952, at 1:40 PM we were joined in holy wedlock in the Mandaluyong Parish Church by the Rev. Fr. Lino Banayad, S.J. What a glorious afternoon that was! Although there were only five people in that bare big church that afternoon, it felt like Heaven and God’s angels were there with us.

“We had a little merienda at the, yes, Aristocrat where I had proposed to her, ‘on the rebound’ as you call it. And we parted that night, as usual, only this time feeling very secure and safe that nothing now stood between us and the life that we had fashioned for us that afternoon to be lived with each other and only with each other for the rest of our life.

“…nope, we did not consummate our marriage then. That had to wait another two years and be done properly.

“As you all know, your Lola and I graduated from college in the school year of 1953-54, I from the Ateneo with a Bachelor of Science in Economics and your Lola with a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Santo Tomas. We remained secretly married. Shortly after gradation, I was diagnosed as suffering from tuberculosis, a sickness I must have gotten from my Father. Anyway, I was confined at the Quezon Institute. I spent the whole summer of 1953 as a patient in QI. Your Lola would visit me every afternoon, staying for as long as she would be allowed. When I recovered, I was hired by Air France. I owed this opportunity to my Uncle Victor, who was then working for Swissair, and who knew somebody in Philippine Airlines, who knew the man in the firm that was acting as the Air France representative in Manila.

“After almost 6 months with Air France, we decided we could now come out and be officially and publicly married. We decided on November 30, her birthday, and so, we made everything official by being engaged formally. I asked my parents to ask for her hand in marriage, and they went one night to do so. Much to our surprise, Lolo Conrado did not object. In fact, he was very receptive. To this day I am asking myself, as your Lola and I did ever so often after our public marriage ceremony, whether or not he was on to us.”

Next: The jet set

Love and an adobo sandwich

It was about the middle of 1951, in my junior year at the Ateneo, that my Visayan girlfriend and I parted ways. We were at a party and just before it ended, she told me that she no longer was my girlfriend. Just like that! Of course I was hurt, since I wasn’t expecting it. There was no previous quarrel that usually would herald such an end to a relationship. Just like a whim on her part, I ceased to be her flavor for the month! I bore my loss as bravely as I could, keeping it to myself for a whole week.

Then I attended a jam session given by my friend Lito Fernandez, a chum from Pagsanjan, who was then an up-and-coming crooner along with Diomedes Maturan, both Perry Como wannabes.

Your Lola [Alice] was at that party, too. As we were wont at these sessions, she and I would be dancing almost all the boogies and paso-dobles being played. It was while dancing a slow dance that I asked her if she would like to come with me to the Aristocrat on Dewey Blvd. for a snack. We enjoyed the adobo sandwich the place was known for. She accepted and off we went. I was already driving my own car, a Chevy, which my Father had as one of his perks as a junior partner of the law firm Petkins, Ponce Enrile, Contreras & Gomez.

Dewey Boulevard in the 40s
Dewey Boulevard in the 40s

And there, in between bites of that heavenly adobe sandwich, I found myself pouring out my heart to your Lola. I think I may have even been crying as I told her that my Visayan girlfriend was history. She sat there listening closely, not saying anything. Then, I don’t recall how, I found myself asking her to be my girlfriend! She did not say anything, just sat there looking at me with a look I never saw before. I cannot describe it to this day. She did not say a word until we left the place and I took her home. Not a word the whole time, until I stopped at her gate. I thought to myself that I lad a big egg that night! Then as I opened the door of the car, she looked at me nd softly murmured the sweetest YES I ever heard. It was like hearing an Angel whispering to me, YES!

And with that we kissed, she (as she told me later) for the very first time ever on the lips by a boy! As for me, that kiss made me forget the times I had been kissing others—mainly my ex-girlfriend, of course. And to this day, whenever I am sad, I just reflect on that night and I feel right again.

The Aristocrat restaurant, c. 1960
The Aristocrat, c. 1960

And that is how your Lola became my sweetheart….

It was only after [Alice] had left us, while I was in Manila with her gang, that one of her best friends told me that long before I even knew her officially, Alice told her after seeing a picture of me being passed around by Tita Chita in class, that one day I would be hers!! And I thought I was leading in the dance, eh? She liked me from the first moment she laid her eyes on me, not even in the flesh! And somehow, even though I did not know it myself, I always felt drawn to her whenever she was around.

The Gomez family, late 1950s
The Gomez family, late 1950s. From left to right, back row of adults: Pocholo (my grandfather’s 2nd brother) and his wife Lita; my great-grandmother Lola Carina; my grandfather’s sister Chita; Lolo “Judge”; my grandmother Alice and behind her, my grandfather. On the floor, Ricky (my grandfather’s 3rd brother who was born in the mountains during the war) is the 2nd from the right with his feet crossed. To his right is Hector, Chita’s husband. And my mom is the child sitting 2nd from the left.

Next: Once they had a secret love

Post-war: The dancing years

My salad days at the Ateneo really put the war years behind me. I got to wear shoes again, even if my first pair of the shoes after the war were combat boots. Although I wouldn’t  call it a uniform, our regular wear consisted of khaki pants, long or short, depending on how hot it was, and a white shirt, with a “Trubenized” collar, long or short sleeved – again, depending on the temperature of the day.

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A 1949 Life Magazine ad for Trubenized shirts

Lolo

Weekends were always “jam session” days. Every Saturday afternoon, from 6 PM to 10 PM, we would be at somebody’s house for a jam session. That’s what we would call our dance parties. Girls from schools like Sta. Scholastica, Mary Knoll, Assumption, Holy Ghost, Sta. Teresa, La Concordia, and Sta. Isabel, to name the more popular ones, would meet at somebody’s house to meet boys from the Ateneo, La Salle, San Beda, Letran for some dancing and merienda. Ah, yes, those were the days, when girls were girls, and men were men.

Lola

It was in one of these sessions that I met your Lola. I always preferred her as a dancing partner, especially for the boogie. But other than that, there were others who were more appealing, so to speak. I wasn’t feeling anything special for her. I found her to be well-mannered and unusually reserved. But, oh, she could dance the boogie like no other in the room. I liked the way she would sway. There was nothing vulgar in the way she would execute the intricate steps of that very demanding dance. But I didn’t hear bells ringing and didn’t see comets flashing in the heavens when we were not dancing.

It’s fun to imagine my grandparents young, laughing and dancing the boogie!

But there was this girl, a Visayan belle, who took my breath away when we met, and who became my first official girlfriend. She affectionately always called me her palangga [dear]. We went steady for about a year. She was from the Assumption Convent in Herran, just on the other side of the wall that separated it from the Ateneo. I even visited this girl in her hometown in Silay, Negros, one summer vacation.

And in between, there were other girls who had crushes on me, which flattered me, of course, but which I did not return as I was never a two-timer. I was the boyfriend of my Visayan girl and she was my only girlfriend. But when it came to dancing the boogie and the paso-doble, ah, those were always with your Lola. What can I say? I guess this was her hold on me. But more on this later.

Next: Love and an adobo sandwich

HEY, JOE! Captain Farr…and the end of the war

"Intramuros, Manila, Philippiines, Just after the Battle for Manila 1945" by John Tewell
“Intramuros, Manila, Philippiines, Just after the Battle for Manila 1945” by John Tewell

Back in Manila from Pagsanjan, we stayed with various relatives on both sides of the Family. But the most memorable was when we finally got a place of our own. My Father’s friend, Tony Cui, a Cebuano, was able to find us a Quonset hut in San Andres Bukid, near Singalong. It was just that, a Quonset hut over some rice paddies. It was the funniest house we ever lived in. It  was tubular, just like what you would see when watching M*A*S*H* episodes. Ours was not on the ground like the army’s, but rested on eight posts, about two meters above ground. When you enter through the front door, one of only two, the other being in the rear of the house, you could see everything, beds and sofa and dining table and the kitchen. The only boarded area was the bathroom/toilet at the back.

We lived here for a little over a year, I think. From here we moved to San Juan, Quezon City, to a house in front of the town’s municipal hall. Here I attended first year high school at St. John’s Academy. The following year, I enrolled at the Ateneo in Guipit, Sampaloc, and started as a sophomore in Padre Faura. It was during our first weeks in San Juan, when schools were not yet opened, that I met Col. Kenneth H. Farr, then only a Captain.

Schools were not yet opened then, so I had time to spare. I usually went around Intramuros, the Walled City, which was then in ruins. At the entrance where the St. Augustine Church was, there was a US Army camp. Anyway, I remember I was sitting down on the curb after a long hike, when a jeep stopped and a tall, lanky GI got out and walked towards me, and greeted me with the familiar attention-getter of the times, HEY, JOE!

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An item about the Quartermaster Corps in the Caledonia Advertiser, November 12, 1942. In the column next to it, a Kenneth Farr appears in a list of Caledonia men in service at that time. Could this be the man who hired my grandpa to be his tent boy?

He asked me my name after giving me his, and asked if I would like to have lunch with him at that army camp outside the walls near the St. Augustine Church. I eagerly said I liked, and I boarded his Jeep, to the amusement of the black GI who was his driver. It turned out he commanded that camp, which was known as the 4419th Quartermaster Corps, US Army. It was a totally colored unit, the only whites being Capt. Farr and his two aides.

After lunch, Capt. Farr asked me if I would like to be driven home by him. I said I did, and off we went. We were in San Juan by 3PM. There he met the family, and we became good friends, getting in touch with each other even when the GIs left. I worked as his tent boy until schools opened. I was at camp weekdays, and Ken would drive me home Friday evenings, when he would have dinner with us. That is how he grew a fondness for mangoes, which my Mother would always serve him when he visited.

I stopped being Ken’s tent boy when schools opened. That school year, 1949, I started my very first day as an Atenean Sophomore. Our circumstances had by then improved. My Father was taken on by the DeWitt, Perkins, Ponce Enrile law firm as an associate. When the senior partner, DeWitt, died, he was made a junior partner, and the law firm then was renamed Perkins, Ponce Enrile, Contreras & Gomez.

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A paragraph mentioning my great-grandfather in a 2002 Philippine Daily Inquirer article about the law firm he joined after the war.

The 4419th quartermaster corps returned to the US. With that officially ended our war years.

The war may have ended, but the friendship between my grandpa and Col. Farr would last for decades. In later years, my grandparents would take my mom and aunts to the States to visit “Uncle Ken” and his family.

Next: Post-war: The dancing years

Pagsanjan, a.k.a. Little Las Vegas

Old town gate, Pagsanjan

In Pagsanjan, it was altogether another life-style for the wandering Gomezes from Bicol. It was there that Tita Chita and I grew up as teenagers, and being mestizos, we were quite popular. On moonlight nights, it was customary for us teeners to meet after dinner, buy a bag of salted fried peanuts, and walk around the town, talking and laughing as we munched on those freshly fried peanuts. And, of course, pares-pares (paired off) but, would you believe, NOT holding hands? For a while it felt like the world was at peace.

The occupying Japanese soldiers were garrisoned in Sta. Cruz, the adjoining capital of the province, and for the most part left us alone. They would come and hold what were called zonas, when the male population were sequestered up in the schoolrooms on top of the hill where the school was, but these were more rest days for the men to be found at the time, usually lasting two days and nights. It was their way to look for those they suspected to be guerillas, I guess. They would haul off a few at the end of the zonas.

I should not end our Pagsanjan episode before mentioning that one of the ways we earned our bread and butter, aside from my Father’s casino, was our cigarette business. Yes, before Marlborough thought of its filtered tips, my Tita (Aunt) Nena Pimentel and my Lolo (Grandfather) decided that they would go into the cigarette business. But they were not using tobacco. For this they would gather dried papaya leaves, cut them very finely so that they looked like tobacco, rolled them in fine paper, and bordered the tips with colored paper. We sold these at the weekly cockfights held outside of town. We did not pass them off as tobacco, but they sold. We named our brand Chester so that they reminded smokers of the American brand Chesterfield. The rollers they used were those to be found among nga-nga (areca nut) addicts. With a little change in design, my Lolo and Tita Nena devised a contraption that would roll the papaya leaves in paper cut about the same size as regular cigarettes. Necessity is the mother of invention, indeed!

No, one thing we didn’t is starve during the war. My Father, Grandfather, and Tita Nena always seemed to find ways and means to put food on our table.

To keep us fed and roofed, my Father opened a weteng (illegal lottery) room, where people would come and play. I collected the tong (house fees). Also, the guerillas had made my Father their trial Judge, and he would be fetched, at night, whenever somebody was to be tried for collaborating with the enemy.

He also tried to work in Manila, staying in the city Monday to Friday, and be home with us on the weekends. This proved too taxing and he gave it up, concentrating on his casino, which by then included also poker, blackjack, and monte. Vegas in Pagsanjan, we liked to think of Papa’s joint.

Another activity my Father engaged in to earn our keep was the bakya (wooden slipper) business. Pagsanjan was known for the beautiful and colorful bakyas it put out. Actually, the raw products were carved in Paete, known for its excellent carpenters and wood carvers. Our cousins, the Palileos, would buy these carved wooden clogs, varnish and paint them so well, and made them into very fashionable footwear, a timely replacement for shoes, both for women and men. In fact, I worked for my cousins sanding and varnishing bakyas, and trimming the straps before they were considered finished products and ready to be sold.

I remember my Father and I brought a casco (barge) load to Manila. The barge was towed from Pagsanjan, via Lumbang, and docked at Quiapo, a trip that took almost a week. My Father and I spent four days and nights travelling to and from Pagsanjan and Quiapo. We made two such trips before we left for Manila.

But soon, our brief respite from the war came to an end. The grapevine had it that the Allies were making their return, as MacArthur had promised before he left Corregidor.

Next: HEY, JOE! Captain Farr…and the end of the war