Kuya Juan restaurant is Filipino fun

Kuya Juan is a hidden gem in Abu Dhabi, delivering authentic Filipino cuisine in a lively atmosphere.

The interior of Kuya Juan Filipino restaurant at the Al Ain Palace Hotel in Abu Dhabi. Ravindranath K / The National
Powered by automated translation

Kuya Juan was previously an Italian restaurant that was doing so poorly, the hotel management was forced to make a change, which has paid off. A friend and I went on a Friday and it was packed the whole night. We waited 20 minutes to be seated and I later learnt that reservations are the best way to ensure a table on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights.

But this isn’t a fancy five-star restaurant. Walking into this cosy eatery, it’s easy to imagine you’re in a popular haunt in a typical Filipino neighbourhood. There’s an open kitchen and about 20 tables neatly packed into a dining room. The low ceiling is constructed of brick and stone and the chandeliers are made of capiz shells, a popular mollusc found in the Philippines. We visited during Ramadan so there was no music but on other nights there is a nightly acoustic band that apparently is popular among guests. We found it odd that they were showing the movie Avatar on a large screen, although we couldn’t hear any of the dialogue over the chatter of the diners, which gave the restaurant a lively, street-party atmosphere. Unfortunately, the service wasn’t swift – Kuya Juan would do well to add more staff on its busiest nights.

The menu offers Filipino cuisine but it’s important to mention that many of the dishes contain pork. However, the restaurant has separate kitchens for halal and non-­halal dishes (cutlery, pots, cupboards and the like are also separate).

We started with chicken binakol soup, described as “chicken parts served with fresh coconut meat” – the “chicken parts” sounded suspicious, but we learnt it was only breast. The coconut meat added a gelatinous texture and the soup was the right balance of sweet and salty. The crispy fried shrimp appetiser was also tasty, though the shrimp could have been crispier. We shared two mains – kalderetang baka and chicken inasal. The former is a spicy beef stew with potatoes, carrots and assorted capsicums. While the flavours were full and hearty, we found the meat too tough. But the chicken inasal was perfectly cooked and the marinade made for a rich, tangy skin. Served with sinamak (spiced vinegar) dipping sauce, this was my favourite dish of the night.

We had two Filipino specialities for dessert – halo-halo and leche flan. The halo-halo – an iced dessert with mixed fruits topped with ice cream – is a classic Filipino treat and refreshing in the summer heat. The leche flan – a sweet custard topped with silky caramel – was a standout. I’m still dreaming about it.

• A meal for two at Kuya Juan, Al Ain Palace Hotel, Abu Dhabi, costs Dh240. Call 02 679 4777 for reservations. Reviewed meals are paid for by The National and ­conducted incognito