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Oriental Citrus Salad, Herb Pan-fried Fish–Mama Maimee, it’s good ol’ comfort food!

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FAMILY BONDING. (From left, clockwise) Angie Alberto, Leah Alberto-Nuyda, Mayette Alberto-Clemente and Lynn “Maimee” Alberto

Ensconced deep in San Juan City, deliberately away from the city hurly-burly, is Maimee’s Garden Café.

Maimee’s is a family-run business that occupies a gracious space hidden from everyone save for discerning diners who yearn for good food with country-feel ambiance.

Huge palm trees, hanging plants, ivy and potted plants, as well as the delicate lights around the lush garden catch your attention when you enter the very pristine restaurant. Going down the narrow stairs, an al-fresco dining area greets guests. When you walk farther it opens up to two more air-conditioned dining areas for private gatherings or intimate dinners.

It’s bright and nonintimidating, with chic interiors befitting its simple, modern, comfort-food fare. Fruit-bearing trees, like mango, santol and avocado, are lined on one side leading to the most-coveted nook in the house, the gazebo.

The relaxing seating outside brings a tiny breeze, creating an air of class and tranquility with the sound of running water from the man-made fountain serving as backdrop for the outdoor dining.

The mood is always relaxed with comfortable seating and table setting, ideal for casual dining.

“This is the first time the family ventured into a restaurant,” says Lynn Alberto or Maimee, who has seven children and 16 grandchildren. “This restaurant is the kids’ collaborative effort.”

THE GAZEBO, the most-coveted nook, surrounded by huge palm trees, hanging plants, ivy and potted plants

Maimee’s sits in the family’s 51-year-old, 609-sq-m house where half of the space is now occupied by the restaurant.

There used to be a family swimming pool, but it was later covered to give way to another modest house built for Alberto’s children who got married and needed a starting pad.

“When my husband died four years ago, my children wanted me to move to a smaller place like a condo,” says Alberto, now 78 years old. “I refused, of course. I don’t want to leave our house.”

One bright day, the children brainstormed and came up with the idea to convert part of the house into an events place or a restaurant for Maimee. Since Alberto’s children, who are all professionals, entertain their friends in the house, plus the regular weekend family get-together and reunions, putting up a restaurant was the best thing to do.

“It was just spontaneous,” says Dr. Mayette Alberto-Clemente, one of Maimee’s daughters. “We put our heads together and came up with this idea. One thing led to another.”

“We all love to eat and cook,” says Leah Alberto-Nuyda, another daughter of Maimee. “Though there was no one in the family with professional culinary training except for my sister-in-law, Angie Alberto, who runs a catering business, we are all into cooking. We are a big family. We ‘mass cook’ on weekends. You know, pot-luck syndrome. We all knew how to cook. So it made sense to us that eventually the place would become a restaurant.”

Comfort food

APPLE Crumble topped with vanilla ice cream and strawberry syrup PHOTOS BY ANDREW TADALAN

Since it opened in August 2011, the place has become a favorite for weddings, birthdays, parties, baptisms, meetings, seminars, intimate dinners and even bible study.

The family knocked down the walls and rooms that used to be the children’s house. Leah and her husband, Kenny Nuyda, used to live in the small house for 10 years. When they left, the unmarried siblings took over until all of them have their own houses.

Maimee’s embodies gracious hospitality and good food. Most of the recipes are Alberto’s and Angie’s. Most dishes are the family’s favorite, the food the children grew up with, such as paella and callos.

“We call it comfort food,” adds Leah.

There are a number of appetizers in the menu, of which salads are the standout. Oriental Citrus Salad will not disappoint salad lovers.

Concocted by Leah, the citrus salad is a fresh and cooling starter. It has mixed greens with grilled chicken, mango strips, cranberries, mandarin oranges and chopped pili nuts. The citrus, sesame seed oil dressing has enough zest to pique the taste buds and is so refreshing. It is cooling in the tropical heat.

Caesar’s Salad and Maimee’s Garden Salad (with Romaine lettuce, fresh tomatoes, apples, walnuts in raspberry vinaigrette dressing) can also whet one’s appetite. Other must-try: Gamba al Ajillo, Beef Salpicado con Setas, and Spicy Buffalo-style Wings.

ORIENTAL Citrus Salad with grilled chicken, mango strips, cranberries, mandarin orange and chopped pili nuts

For the main course, don’t miss the Boneless Barbecue Short Ribs (USDA). It’s a nice grilled medium-rare meat that is melting tender in the middle and marinated in a blend of spices. Also try the Rib Eye Steak, Salisbury Steak with Mushroom Gravy, and Beef Tapa.

For heavier fare, go for the Spicy Beef Caldereta (beef chunks sautéed in olive oil and stewed in tomatoes, carrots, potatoes, olives and liver paste) and Kare-Kare, a specialty of Angie who’s at the helm of the kitchen. The kare-kare has a thick, nutty sauce with very meaty filling. The portioning is huge and is meant to share.

For fish lovers, the Herb Pan-fried Fish is a good choice. The batter-covered fish fillet is tender to the bite with a creamy dip.

And, of course, there are pastas and pizzas—Spicy Shrimp Aglio Olio, Bolognese, Carbonara, Pan-grilled Chicken Pesto, etc. The pasta appeals to any age and the servings are generous.

Ending on a high note, the dessert options are broad and inviting—Apple Crumble with Vanilla Ice Cream, Cheesecake with Blueberry, Carrot Cake and Chocolate Cake drizzled with caramel syrup.

Division of labor

Maimee’s is open only lunch and dinner, Tuesday to Sunday. Monday is marketing day.

Most of the time, you see the matriarch going around the table to talk to diners and ask if how else the family could assist them. On certain days, Alberto’s children do it for her.

The children handle everything that has to do with what goes on the menu—everything from how it should look, how it should taste or how it should cost.

SPICY Shrimp Aglio Olio

Clemente says each member of the family has its own participation in running the business. Angie is the head chef in the kitchen, while his husband Ricky Alberto, takes charge of purchasing. Clemente, a pediatrician, manages the finances.

Leah, GMA-7 vice president for entertainment TV sales, runs the kitchen on Sundays to give Angie a rest day. Toby Alberto, who works at the Central Bank, calls the shots in the kitchen during the Sunday dinner crowd. Eric Alberto, an executive vice president at PLDT, takes care of the regular patrons.

Two other siblings are abroad. Maimee is “the GRO, mascot of the restaurant,” quips Maimee herself.

“But, the best thing that happened to me ever since we opened the restaurant is that I get to see my children and grandchildren almost every day. It’s bonding for all of us,” Maimee says.

“It’s a family project,” explains Clemente. “It binds us together. It’s also good that we were able to preserve the legacy of our parents. This is my parents’ hard-earned property. They built it when they were starting. It’s quite sentimental to us.”

Maimee Garden Café is at No. 20 E. Jacinto St., Little Baguio, San Juan City; tel. nos. 7241538, 5291788 and 0917-5006208.

E-mail vreyes@inquirer.com.ph.

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