The Unforgettable Fish Dish

Joseph & Jaemark’s resurfaces and I finally meet the man responsible for my favorite fish dish.

It’s a cruel joke. The year after I write about ”finding” Joseph & Jaemark’s again, I visit only to find the windows boarded up and an ominous “Under Renovations” sign tacked to the front door. Such telltale signs can mean only one thing: permanent closure. I moan a mournful dirge, ruing the fact that I would never have my favorite fish dish again.

But truly great food never dies – it’s reborn in new locations.

Jaemark’s Tuna Grille, as it was called in Magallanes, has rightfully returned to its proper name of Joseph & Jaemark’s, finding a new home along Sgt. Esguerra Street in Quezon City. It’s taken over the space of the former Cucina Guagua, which explains the heavy Filipino accent in the interiors — more of a happy coincidence really since J&J also serves Filipino food, with an emphasis on tuna.

my Bin and Mars sharing a laugh

Let’s talk about that tuna.

While I’m poking around the tables outside (impressive alfresco space here) and bothering the grill guy, an affable man approaches me and my Bin. He’s Mars Reyes, THE man who set the bar for grilled tuna and invented crispy buntot, my absolute favorite fish dish. It’s ironic that I’ve been eating at J&J – and at all its locations too – over the past 15 years, yet have never met the man responsible for endowing me with such culinary pleasure. I’m barely able to contain my elation at meeting THE Mars Reyes, that even he seems quite amused. As people who know me will attest, I’m nothing if not effusive, and that includes my appetite. Mars doesn’t disappoint; he sends a tidal wave of food our way, adding to the already unabashed amount my Bin and I have already ordered. (Later, Mars is upset when I insist on [and pay] for the bill, but that’s just how it is).

Sinigang na Bihod (P260) is a hot, sufficiently sour soup made of fish eggs, a most appropriate victual to have on this rainy day. The liquid’s tartness tantalizes all the more with slices of radish and tomatoes, and the fish eggs are soft and springy with none of the funkiness attributed to improperly cooked fish eggs.

This is the blue marlin (P365), scintillating in its amber hue, a sheen shiny with soy sauce and sugar. It cuts like a steak but is softer.

Here’s the exalted tuna duo. Panga (small, P255) is the tuna jaw. Depending on which part of the jaw it’s from, there’s usually a v-shaped soft bone cutting through the meat: the closer to the bone, the sweeter and more silken is the meat. There’s a prominent smokiness that runs through the panga, intersecting with salty on various bites.

Above all else, here’s my beloved buntot ng tuna (tuna tail, P315[med]/P415[large]).  It’s not pretty – that I know – but next to the belly, the tail section is the most flavorful part of the fish, offering up a textural diversity that hits upon a near-comprehensive landscape of textures I love: a fatty, crispy, fishy foreplay of gelatin and cartilage, meat and skin. I descend upon it with fervor, rip off a hunk of meat and chew it. I feel an episodic unburdening coursing through me. Oh tuna tail, how have I lived without you for so long?

J&J’s sisig is ridiculously good too, and don’t forget the garlic rice

Needless to say, while J&J takes immense pride in their talent with tuna, they shouldn’t be eaten without the twin sauces. They’re both soy sauce-based along with brown sugar and a touch of vinegar. But while one sallies down a spicy trail with the addition of finger chilies (siling labuyo), the other is made velvety with …  is it margarine? or butter? You decide. Whatever it is, I inevitably end up slurping these sauces down like soup.

Mars asserts that we try the stuffed pechay (P160) and the Bicol Express (P145). The former is something Mars is very proud of, says that he’s not met one person who doesn’t love it. He’s right. It’s the sort of dish that on first bite makes me spew expletives that make my Bin blush. Parcels of ground pork and tinapa are packaged in leaves of green and bathed in a supreme creaminess made of what Mars calls “chili sauce lang,” and which is caressed by gata (coconut cream). It’s a reverie of smoke and velvet with a hit of spice at the back of the throat.

The Bicol Express (P145) is Mars’ take on the popular dish. An alphabet of vegetables headlined by ampalaya, two types of bell peppers, eggplant, okra, string beans, and chunks of lechon kawali (boiled and fried pork belly) push this vegetable dish straight into the stratosphere. It’s outrageously good and equally curse-worthy. Honorable mention goes to the catfish salad (P200), the acidic zing of which cuts and cleans straight through the palate.

For dessert, I like the leche flan (P65). It’s not too sweet and retains a respectable custardy texture. It also possesses a rather remarkable burnt caramel note and is small enough that I can eat it all without feeling guilty. The halo-halo (P95) is equally good – indeed, I think all halo-halo is good unless it’s got cornflakes in it – but I wish the ice was shaved more finely. A more amenable alternative is the sago’t gulaman (P60) – stark and dark, it’s a dessert drink that cools and brings my excessively joyously heart rate back to normal.


Joseph & Jaemark’s Family Grill
#5 Sgt. Esguerra St.,
South Triangle, Quezon City
(02) 410-TUNA (8662)
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