My review of The Coffee Shop is up on Watsonville Patch.
This was a particularly interesting review because, although I wasn’t aware of it when I walked in, the owner of The Coffee Shop, Danny Cabico, had numerous connections to my teenage years in Santa Cruz. After my breakfast (a very tasty Greek omelet), I asked Danny a few questions about the restaurant, and little by little, we both began to realize that we had a lot of mutual acquaintances from back in the day.
“Back in the day” means that we both went to the local Filipino dances as teenagers. For me, this brought up visions of the faces and personalities of the kids I knew, music from the various bands that were hired to perform, and learning to dance to the then latest R&B hits. It brought up memories of Rosita Tabasa’s restaurant in Watsonville (her cook made the best hamburgers I have ever tasted) and the shady gambling parlor in the back room; I remember traveling to the coastal labor camps with my mother and her friends to sell dance tickets, and eating vinegary but tasty fish stews (sinigang)–made with fish fresh-caught in the nearby surf– and other Filipino meals, like chicken adobo, and pansit, prepared by the farmworkers, and served on long wooden picnic tables in the labor camp dining room.
Most of all, I remember helping my mother bake Filipino breads and pastries to sell at the dances. I remember the buttery smell of her ensaimada rolls, and how I helped her roll out the yellow dough, then braid and coil it in the traditional ensaimada shape. I also recall helping her shape boche–sweet potato balls–(also known as yema) which she would deep-fry, and I would later drizzle with melted brown sugar. The steaming of puto (an anise-flavored white cake) and baking of the coconut-rice flour bibingka cakes were delicate tasks reserved for her alone, and I was primarily the spectator to her expertise of those creations.
It was a big job, making and baking all those pastries, then packing them all up into trays and boxes, and taking them to the dance hall, to sell in their kitchen. In those days, there were no Filipino bakeries or fast-food joints, and few Filipino restaurants. There was no Goldilocks, or Jollibee. Real Filipino pastries came from only one source — from the family kitchen.
Danny has had decades of experience as a chef and restaurateur. And he learned to cook among the Italian chefs and old salts of the Stagnaro and Carniglia family restaurants on the Santa Cruz wharf (Danny and I both knew the patriarch, Malio Stagnaro, and the “Queen of the Wharf,” Gilda Stagnaro). But I wouldn’t be surprised if he also has some Filipino kitchen memories like mine.