What started as a passion project in 1962 to promote Tausug flavors, Dennis Coffee Garden has since grown to be a household name for Zamboanga City locals and a must-visit for tourists. Its main café now stands in Baliwasan, along San Jose Road, with another branch in KCC Mall de Zamboanga.
Founded by Sulu-native Imelda Ahalul-Dagus, the café showcases Tausug cuisine that can be defined by its signature elements such as bright spices, lemongrass, coconut milk, and their native coffee, Kahawa Sug.
The café is mainly known for its signature coffee, Kahawa Sug, which is sourced from local farmers in Patikul, Sulu. The Robusta brew is characterized by its dark and rich flavor, “strong but not bitter,” as described by Fatima Sharina Abdurasa, the café’s operations manager. The brew’s aroma is distinct with roasted earthy notes. She adds that the coffee’s name, Kahawa Sug, directly translates to ‘coffee of Sulu’ in the Tausug language. Its brewed coffee can be served hot (Php70) or iced (Php90).
You can also bring home packs of Kahawa Sug grounds for Php 90 for 85 grams and Php 260 for 250 grams. “Dennis Coffee Garden is known for its love of [Tausug] culture,” shares Abdurasa. She adds how their founder wanted to preserve and develop Tausug culture through the business, which is seen through its direct support for coffee farmers in Jolo.
Abdurasa shares that it is customary for the Tausug to enjoy coffee with pastries called Bangbang, which means “snack” or “merienda.”
Dennis Coffee Garden offers many such pastries like Jualan Saing (Php65), banana fritters served with a sweet coconut dip. Similarly, the Jualan Panggih (Php 65) offers the same fritter and coconut dip combo but uses sweet potato instead.
Both dishes make for good finger food as they’re surprisingly not greasy, considering they’re deep-fried. The fritters themselves only have a subtle sweetness, and the dip takes on the main role with its almost caramel-like flavor and consistency with the mellowing taste of coconut.
Staying within the realm of fried food, other bangbang dishes include the Palikambing (Php 65), a sweet serving of bite-sized banana balls, and the Panggih-Panggih (Php 65) which is a soft chewy pastry made from a batter of flour and sugar, almost like a doughnut in texture.
Other sweets that can be paired with your coffee include treats such as Wadjit (Php 65), purple glutinous rice cooked in coconut milk and wrapped in banana leaf, and Biyaki (Php 65), corn cakes served in a husk like a tamale. The Daral (Php65) might easily be mistaken as a savory dish with its lumpiang hilaw-like appearance, but a quick bite would reveal its true sweet nature of cooked coconut filling in a soft crêpe roll.
As for Dennis Coffee Garden’s actual savory small plates, its Pastil (Php65) makes for a satisfying crunchy snack with its flaky empanada-esque exterior, crunchy togue interior, and served with a sweet and spicy vinegar sauce.
If you’re in the mood for something more filling, you can order the Satti Ayam (Php 170). A common Tausug breakfast, the bowl of grilled chicken skewers is drenched in sweet and spicy sauce. It gets extra body from the cubes of rice that carry the rich sauce in every bite.
If your sweet tooth is acting up, you can also avail of their Bangbang bundle (Php230 or Php275 with coffee), a combo platter of Wadjit, Daral, and Biyaki.
Tausug cuisine is influenced by its proximity to the Malay peninsula and its history with the Sulu Sultanate. Turmeric, ginger, garlic, chilis, lemongrass, and roasted coconuts are some key ingredients found in Tausug dishes and Dennis Coffee Garden makes full use of this flavor roster in their main dishes.
First off, its Beef Kulma (Php 175) is a saucy dish of beef cooked in a rich curry paste, served with rice, cucumber, and sambal. Although it may present itself as a spicy dish with its spice-laced scent, its flavor is delicate to the taste and the slow-cooked beef is tender to the point of melting with the lightest touch of a fork.
The Tiulah Sug (Php 170) is also a beef-based meal but in the form of a dark soup served with rice, cucumber, and sambal. The coconut and spice broth is gentle with its spiciness, gradually wrapping you in its warmth with every spoonful. Its onyx hue comes from roasted coconut, which gives the broth a tinge of sweetness along with the chunks of tender beef that are barely holding on to the bone.
Akin to the Tiulah Sug’s color, the Chicken Pianggang (Php170) has a dark shade from the charcoaled spices that coat the chicken dish. As such, this dish is quick to hit with its spice. And rounding out the menu is the Utak Utak (Php160), fried fish cakes made with yellowfin tuna patties coated in egg batter to give it a crunchy texture after it’s fried.
If you’re undecided on which dish to get, or you just want to taste them all, the Dulang platter (Php 950) combines all four dishes along with rice, cucumber, and sambal in one spread that can generously feed five people.
“It’s usually prepared for special occasions, like birthdays and weddings, but here in Dennis Coffee Garden, we serve it every day,” Abdurasa shares on the Dulang.
Dennis Coffee Garden is located in San Jose Road, Baliwasan, Zamboanga City. The café is accessible by tricycle from any point in the city.
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