My Chair Rocks
I lost another friend. No, not to Covid 19. The last time we spoke she asked if I was ready for the vaccine. I told her I had reservations. We discussed the possible side effects. I tried to keep it light. I didn’t want to aggravate her fears. She had been in and out of hospitals in recent years. We had a running joke that she probably knew every doctor in every field of medicine, including Dr. Google.
I knew she was not well; although like many of us, she pretended to be cool and calm, while nursing many fears in her heart.
Before Covid, we used to get together for lunch or dinner, meeting in Makati, halfway between her Alexandria condo and my Alabang casita. She didn’t like texting too much, so when we could chat, we took our time. We discussed our children, our grand and great grand kids and reminisced about the good old days.
I knew Nenuca since when we were children. Her parents were Jose Villarreal and Carmen Milagros Garcia. I knew them as Paping and Titona. They were also my parents’ close and long time friends. She went to St. Scholastica’s and I to Holy Ghost College. But we went to the same dances, had the same friends, talked endlessly on the phone and told each other our deepest secrets.
Nenuca was petite and very pretty. She had a gentle, pleasant demeanor and a smile that melted your heart. Her naiveté always surprised me. She could look so expertly put together and act sophisticated and pretend to be worldly wise, but she was far from that. She was sweet, down to earth. Even when she dealt with serious business matters, there was an air of innocence about her.
Like me, Nenuca was a very young bride. She married Mario Benitez in 1953. They had three sons Fil, Marlo, and Anton and a daughter, Mitos. Our children became good friends.
In 1967 Mario became the regional general manager of Singer Sewing Machine, Inc. And they moved their young family to Baguio.
Nenuca opened the dress shop she had always dreamed about and catered to expat wives and the crème de la crème of Baguio. The atelier was called “Nenuca Villarreal”. She had impeccable fashion sense.
I remember that the first black dresses I ever owned were her creations. In 1962, two weeks after the birth of my twins, my mother suddenly died. I was devastated. That evening, three black dresses, designed and made with love by Nenuca herself were delivered to my house from the tiny dress shop in her house on Consuelo Street. I have never forgotten that thoughtful gesture.
Nenuca was an avid golfer. She also loved to dance. And Mario was her perfect dancing partner. Laughter came easy. She enjoyed a good time. But she never lost that air of well-behaved colegiala. No matter what she did, where she was or what she wore, she was always that classy, lovely person with a kind heart and the warmest smile.
In spite of his heavy workload, Mario had been toying with the idea of opening a restaurant in Baguio that would serve continental cuisine. Nenuca and her mother got busy trying old recipes in the kitchen. At the time the “go to” eating places were Star Café, Rice Bowl for Chinese food and Dainty’s. The only places with western menus were the Baguio Country Club which required membership, or Camp John Hay, where you needed a US Air Force base pass to get in. Then there was Forest House, which specialized in fondues.
I remember Forest House. In 1963 it was the Herrera residence on Loakan Road, and I lived there a couple of summers with my children. Within its walls are countless of my precious memories.
‘Imagine for starters, the menu had Gambas al Ajillo, Calamares Fritos and Shrimp Cocktail…. We did not have our now iconic Caesar Salad’
In September 1971, Mario launched Casa Mario.
Fil Benitez recalls: “It was a tiny hole in the wall on Session Road. The reason it was called Casa Mario was because my father was told that there was a restaurant along McArthur Highway called Mario’s.
“This is how I remember my parents put up their first restaurant 50 years ago.
The menu was composed of simple, comfort food; recipes from my two grandmothers, Titona Villarreal and Rosenda Benitez. Dishes were a combination of Spanish and Filipino with an Italian twist. Back then this was known as Continental cuisine.
“Imagine for starters, the menu had Gambas al Ajillo, Calamares Fritos and Shrimp Cocktail. We also had a selection of pizzas with the infamous Marios Combination and the usual pepperoni, anchovies and mushrooms. We had several pastas. All dishes came with our homemade bread sticks. We had only one fish dish, charcoal broiled pampano served with our famous Guamanian Finadini sauce. We did not have our now iconic Caesar Salad. For Filipino fare, we had my Lola Sendang’s favorite Batchoy and Pagsanjan style Kare Kare. If my memory serves me, our Steak a la Pobre cost a whopping P28. Steaks were served sizzling and I remember how our cook, not a chef, added Star margarine to the hot iron plate so that the steak would arrive at your table sizzling with smoke and all.”
Martial Law was declared a year later. There was a strict travel ban and despite the fear and trepidation that military rule caused, the situation augured well for the young and thriving “Casa Mario”.
People from Manila, who normally flew out to vacation spots around the world, had no choice but to stay in the country. There was no Boracay or Balesin, or any of our now world famous vacation spots at the time. And so the well-heeled and well-connected headed north and Casa Mario had long queues of eager customers and was packed for Holy Week and Christmas and even on the off-season.
It was hard work. I remember Nenuca telling me about being bone tired as she tallied the nightly take, which was hefty to say the least. Her plans for the dress shop were quickly sidelined and she dedicated every ounce of her energy to make Casa Mario the best ever restaurant in Baguio.
Today Mario’s Baguio on Upper Session Road, remains a favorite haunt in the City of Pines. Except for a brief hiatus caused by a fire in 1999, it has been a presence in the mountain resort since it opened.
In 1973, Nenuca’s brother Joey, seeing their enormous success in Baguio, broached the idea of a Makati restaurant. There were only two popular upscale eating places in Makati then: Sulo and Leila’s, owned by Nenuca’s sister-in-law, TV icon Leila Benitez.
Mario’s on Makati Avenue was an immediate success. And it had a fantastic run. But several years later, traffic started to build up and became a problem. It still is a pain today. The area was crowded, noisy and rough. Soon an assortment of undesirable girlie bars opened down the street. Mario’s moved to Ayala Center in Greenbelt. In 1997, or thereabouts, when Ayala decided to convert the site into the Ayala Museum, Mario’s Makati decided to close its doors.
In 1983, the political situation in Manila was dicey. There were rallies against the Marcos regime. Many businesses folded. Investors started moving money out of the country. Nenuca and Mario decided to attempt an overseas location. After much red tape, Calesa finally opened in Orange County in 1986.
I remember having dinner there once while we were on a road trip. It was lovely. Impressive. They even made the LA Times with an article written by prominent food writer Beverly Bush Smith.
But in 1990 they took a hit. The US recession impacted business in a bad way. Orange County declared bankruptcy. That was the end of the regular high-end patrons of Calesa. Those included Hollywood types like Diane Keaton, Jose Feliciano, the Righteous Brothers, Bill Medley and celebrities who lived in Tustin Hills and Newport Beach.
Mario and Nenuca had established Mario’s on Tomas Morato. Fil calls it “Mom and Pop’s best decision”
Before the US venture, Mario and Nenuca had established Mario’s on Tomas Morato. Fil calls it “Mom and Pop’s best decision.”
This is their flagship today. It opened in late 1980 with their eldest son, assuming his first “real job” as manager. Fil had just come home from Washington DC where he finished Hotel and Restaurant Management. Today it continues to do excellent business despite the pandemic.
Until the lockdowns, Nenuca was in her Morato office every day, supervising, checking, and dreaming up ways to improve. She loved it. When Mario passed away in 2008, she doubled her efforts and her presence. But several times she confessed to me that it was hard to put her heart in full gear; that it just was not the same. And it never again could be, not without Mario.
Nenuca and I kept in touch through the pandemic. We encouraged one another to keep a positive attitude, and not to give place to our fears. We reminded each other how our parents had survived the war and how we too were made of the same sturdy stuff, or so we hoped.
We talked about loneliness, compared the pains of growing old, and bragged about our children and grandchildren. And we both worried about the kind of world we were leaving for them. Very often we prayed for them, together.
Many times she told me she was really tired. And I advised her to let go of Mario’s. But she said she couldn’t, because it is what gave her a sense of purpose. “I don’t know what I would do without Mario’s,” she said. It was like she needed to stay close to the action. I think she felt that it kept her connected to her husband.
One time I asked her whose dream Mario’s was. And she said, truly I don’t remember anymore. It may have been his, and then it became mine, or the other way around.”
Nenuca’s dream was that her children would continue the legacy she and Mario started to build 50 years ago. She showed them how discipline and being physically and emotionally present was key to success. They were witness to their parents’ struggle to build the business and learned from them all the elements of running a successful enterprise. I am confident they will be equal to the task and make them proud.
If she could have, Nenuca would have stayed. But deep in her heart, she wanted to go home. She missed Mario and needed to see him again. And on the 28th of January, 2021, when the good Lord called her home, she was so ready.
Godspeed Nenuca. I will miss you.