On September 29, 1898, delegates of the Revolutionary Congress celebrated their ratification of the declaration of Philippine independence (proclaimed on June 12 that year at Kawit, Cavite) with a dinner at Malolos. Earlier, these representatives had gathered at historic Barasoain Church along the Camino Real, now the present-day Calle del Congreso, to draft the constitution of the first Philippine Republic, with its opening session presided over by President Emilio Aguinaldo.

At the Museo ng Republika ng 1899 at Barasoain, life-like figures of the main protagonists of the first Philippine Republic surround a seated Emilio Aguinaldo (from left) – Mariano Trias, Trinidad Pardo de Tavera, Pedro Paterno, Gregorio Araneta, Baldomero Aguinaldo, Benito Legarda, and Pablo Ocampo.

Barasoain Church was originally built in 1859 by Augustinian missionaries, and its name was said to have been derived from the town of Barasoain in Navarra, Spain, from where many of the friars came. But the Spaniards also coined the term “baras ng suwail,”’ loosely translated as “dungeons of the defiant,” as the church was supposedly the meeting place of many anti-colonial illustrados.

Barasoain, originally known as Bangkal, was part of Malolos until it was separated in 1859, and made into a new town and parish. With its patroness being Our Lady of Mount Carmel, the latter became the official title of this Roman Catholic church that was built in 1888. In 1903, the town was dissolved and annexed back to Malolos.

The dinner itself was a veritable feast of French cuisine, as we can surmise from the sole surviving menu card, now permanently displayed at the Museo de Oro at the Xavier University in Cagayan de Oro City. A carte du jour listing soup, appetizers, roast, salad, vegetables, ice cream, cheese, fruits, jellies, and a selection of French wines and liqueurs was capped, of course, by coffee or tea.

The menu card presented to guests at that momentous dinner was shaped to resemble the Philippine flag when folded, with the words “Solemn Ratification of the Philippine Independence” written in Spanish and printed on the cover.

Inside the menu card, the Spanish words “Libertad, Igualidad, and Fraternidad”were printed; this was the motto of the French Revolution that had ended a century ago, but its ideals were still considered the fundamental principles of a liberal democracy. The bill of fare was in French, as France was recognized as the center of diplomacy and culture at the time, and President Aguinaldo was anxious to send the subtle message to the rest of the world that the fledgling Philippine Republic had arrived.

So it was perhaps no small coincidence that when 28-year old Joseph Malabanan decided to bring to fruition his lifelong dream of owning a coffee shop, he used the vacant ground floor of the family-owned DonMar Building on legendary Calle del Congreso to set up shop. A twin degree holder from De La Salle University (Behavioral Sciences and Marketing Management), he branded his bistro Café Congreso, which, by happenstance, also rhymes with “espresso.”

Inspired by the pinkish hues of the mountainside resort in a favorite film, Wes Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” Café Congreso combines pastel pink with a mintish teal aesthetic to create elegant and refreshingly shaded accents that, Joseph clarifies, have been the theme since the café started in 2017, and have nothing to do with the Leni-Kiko palette of the last elections. A pink ribbon, though, still defiantly adorns the main glass door.

Last Monday, Lica and I undertook a 48-kilometer, one-and-a-half hour drive to Malolos to check out this specialty coffee house, and we were not disappointed. It was a quiet morning at Café Congreso, which allowed me to strike up a conversation with Joseph, before we took photos and settled down to an order of Buttermilk Fried Chicken and Brown Sugar Lattes, a seemingly strange but utterly delectable combination. The manager kindly gave us a complementary Strawberry Sprinkled Donut, a dessert specialty of the house, all baked only upon order.

The interiors and all its elements were meticulously curated with the overarching color scheme in mind – from the leather chairs, the coffee bean cannisters, the paper cups, the dinnerware, the La Marzocco espresso machine, the menu art, the walls and counter, the hanging lamps, and the lucent neon sign.

Joseph says that the best-sellers are actually the Chicken a la King and the Cheesy Bacsilog, and that his customers, mostly Bulacan residents and recently, a deluge of millennials, often order the Spanish Latte Cold Brew on their first visits. The home-made donuts are a consistent favorite. The menu was developed by his brother, a culinary school graduate, who has since gone on to other pursuits. Beans, the equipment and the barista training, initially came from specialty roaster Yardstick Coffee, and the bar has a decidedly third-wave vibe about it. These days, Cafe Congreso sources its beans from growers in Baguio whose Arabica farms are in Atok, Benguet.

During the pandemic when they had to temporarily cease operations, management re-grouped to strategize their options, and resorted to food deliveries. Joseph himself drove to homes in the area, until Food Panda, and recently, GrabFood, came to Malolos, and while dine-ins have resumed, online orders remain very much a part of the current business model.  

The coffee scene in Bulacan is alive and vibrant – from Meycauyan, Baliwag, Plaridel, Bocaue, and Malolos – as Bulakenos are serious about their caffeine infusion, and 124 years after that historic dinner, the coffee revolution continues to brew.

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