THE taste of Café Laguna is the taste of Julita P. Urbina, who came to Cebu with her family in 1975 when her husband, Dr. Ricardo Urbina, was assigned here.
To augment the family income, she first worked at Montebello Villa Hotel. Then she decided to go into business herself, starting with a small carenderia that introduced to the Cebuano palate what would be Café Laguna’s staples: karekare with bagoong on the side, pancit palabok, fresh lumpia and puto bumbong. These and her other dishes became so popular that people started to order for takeout and eventually ordered for parties which started her catering business, even before she formally opened Café Laguna in 1991 in what was then the sala of the family’s rented apartment.
Julita says she has had no formal culinary training. But she adds, she must have taken after her mother, Remedios Pecana, who was a very good cook. Also, she herself has that rare talent of tasting a dish for the first time and knowing exactly what went into it and how it was prepared and, if she wants to, she can replicate it in her kitchen.
Café Laguna in the rented apartment—now Urbina owned and housing the corporate office of the Laguna group—became too small for its steady clientele and so it moved to Ayala Center Cebu. She has since opened other branches in SM City Cebu and SM Seaside City, as well as franchise branches in Cagayan de Oro, Dumaguete and Iloilo. She also opened other restaurants: Lemon Grass for Vietnamese cuisine, Ulli’s for Asian street food and Parilya for grilled seafood.
The Café Laguna menu has, of course, expanded its carenderia menu for the restaurant. Among crowd favorites are crispy crablets (with vinegar dip on the side), baked scallop and crispy kangkong, kinilaw tanguigue and pinakbet, inihaw na tanguigue, bulalo soup, fish panga, coco prawns, crispy tadyang, crispy pata, embotido, chicken pandan, bistek, inihaw na liempo, sotanghon guisado, and a lot more. All of them have that particular Café Laguna taste that makes eating them such a pleasure.
Though Julita has other desserts in the menu, puto bumbong with pandan tea remains a crowd favorite. She says that puto bumbong is usually served in her hometown only during the Christmas season, especially for breakfast after misa de gallo. But in her restaurant, she serves it all year round. She says she is lucky that malagkit ube-colored rice is available in Cebu, while elsewhere some chefs have to dye the available malagkit rice to produce the puto bumbong color.
Julita is now helped by all of her children in the running of the Laguna Group: Gilda U. Viado, managing director and director for franchising; Dr. Greta U. Canoy, M.D., doctor retainer and in charge of corporate social responsibility; Guia P. Urbina, US-based nurse, member, board of directors; Grace U. Absin, managing director and treasury officer; Roque Ricardo P. Urbina, managing director, corporate chef and marketing manager; John Paul P. Urbina, managing director and human resource manager. With the children on board, and some of the grandchildren also getting into the family business (provided they pass Julita’s standards), it is safe to say that Café Laguna is here to stay.