On the northeast edge of greater Santa Clarita, unincorporated Canyon Country’s culinary scene continues to expand with small mom-and-pop restaurants catering to the area’s diverse clientele. One important newcomer is Juan & Nita’s Bagnet-Silog, a restaurant that opened in the El Centro shopping center in October 2020. It’s been running brightly since then, the latest star in the Santa Clarita Valley’s burgeoning local culinary scene.
Owned and operated by local Melvin Blanco, Juan & Nita’s (which is named for Blanco’s parents) is a part of a small recent wave of Filipino businesses to open in the Santa Clarita Valley, alongside Pink Salt Grill, Wok with Ray, and several stands inside the Island Pacific food court, like Chirp & Oink. That’s not to say that this community has never had a Filipino restaurant until now; the current Juan & Nita’s location previously held Boracay Island, itself an acclaimed Filipino mini-market and lunch spot, though it closed before the start of the pandemic in January 2020. Still, the current movement feels exciting and personal in contrast to the litany of American chain restaurants with which Canyon Country has long been associated.
Blanco’s connection to the food is distinctly personal. The Philippines native was born in the city of Olongapo and raised in Caloocan. His father was a dry dock mechanic on U.S. Naval Base Subic Bay and his mother the family cook, known for handing out massive meals to an extended network of friends and neighbors at factories, convenience stores, and construction zones around metro Manila. Melvin, the youngest of seven siblings, found the recipients’ overjoyed reactions contagious as a child: “I remember people smiling before we even handed them the food,” he says. “I guess they’d been waiting for it.”
Inspired equally by his mother’s sense of charity and her love of cooking, Blanco was called to food service as a teenager, first at a KFC in the Philippines and then at a Wendy’s after moving to San Diego with his father at the age of 19. In his spare time he took nursing classes, and eventually landed a job at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in the mid-1990s, joining generations of proud Filipino workers embedded in California’s health care system. He soon began investing his earnings in small franchises back in the Philippines: a food court, four kiosks, and even a fast-casual restaurant, all of which have since closed. (Undeterred by the dual dreams of food and nursing, Blanco is also an oncology nurse for Kaiser Permanente Panorama City Medical Center.)
Once settled in Santa Clarita with his wife Madelaine, Blanco landed on two personal goals: start a family and open a restaurant in his community. “If other ethnicities and people from all sorts of different places are able to come here and establish a decent restaurant,” he thought at the time, “why not Filipinos?”
Blanco signed his first contract for what would become Juan & Nita’s in January 2020. But on March 15 — two weeks before its scheduled grand opening — construction was paused while the SCV (and the rest of Los Angeles County) went into COVID lockdown. In a matter of days, his rollercoaster dream was left floating in space, untethered to any kind of timeline for reopening. His employees, who hadn’t yet started, asked anxiously about the future of their jobs, and Madelaine began to have her own reservations about Blanco pulling double-duty as an essential worker twice over (in hospitals and restaurants). “Do you know how much work you must do for the restaurant?” she asked. Blanco pressed on. “I just said no,” he recalls. “I need to keep the business going, and survive.”
It took seven months for Juan & Nita’s to receive the go-ahead to finally open at all. In the interim, Santa Clarita restaurants had pivoted to takeout orders, closing their dining rooms (mostly, anyway) while bracing waves of the ongoing pandemic.
The timing presented an additional challenge for Blanco, who along with executive chef Jake de Guzman had originally put together a menu centered around the Filipino military tradition of Kamayan. In traditional Kamayan meals, a plentiful buffet of pancit noodles, garlic rice, fried milkfish, baked macaroni, grilled beef, and seasonal vegetables (also called boodle feasts or boodle fights) is laid out generously on banana leaves and then eaten by hand without utensils or dishes, in homage to the hustled pace at which Filipino troops eat.
As a hospital worker, Blanco knew there was not enough Purell in the world to make family-style, silverware-free boodle feasts acceptable in the eyes of the LA County Department of Public Health. So he and de Guzman quickly improvised, turning the restaurant into a pandemic-friendly catering business (boodle feast prices vary based on party size and the desired combinations of plates).
Blanco and de Guzman also updated their regular to-go menu, abandoning typical Filipino dishes like afritada, menudo, and dinuguan in favor of what Blanco calls “masterpiece dishes,” personal favorites that employ de Guzman’s signature bagnet — crispy pork belly — in more modern ways.
One of those inventions was bagnet candy, a decadent take on traditional crispy fried pork belly cutlets that de Guzman caramelizes with sesame seeds and cilantro. Each square bite is calibrated to toggle between sweet and salty depending on the angle, allowing it to work equally well as an hors d’oeuvre, entree, or dessert. Bagnet also appears on the menu as crunchy crumbles on glutinous leche flan and halo-halo shaved ice; salted bacon-like strips spiking mango ice cream sundaes; and buttery, bitter squares in a fermented pakbet stew.
Blanco and de Guzman express an even more palpable pride in those dishes that use vegetables in novel ways for Filipino cuisine. One of their most treasured plates pairs bagnet infused with clementine with elegant stalks of Chinese broccoli, steamed and drizzled with a salted nut sauce and sliced scallions. Citrusy, earthy, and peppery flavors collide on the plate (de Guzman garnishes the pork with sliced green chiles, when available) so that no one bite is like the last. Then there is the house’s take on smoky, dark adobo: Boiled amid piles of black and shiitake mushrooms throughout the day, Blanco insists the umami-rich concoction is a Juan & Nita’s original. “You’d never see it at any other Filipino restaurant,” he says.
The novelty of such photogenic dishes quickly proved to be a draw for locals; while several Filipino restaurants in LA serve Kamayan, none in Santa Clarita do. Blanco says that since the city reopened for indoor dining last June, his tiny staff has been nearly overwhelmed by the number of requests for birthday parties, post-church get-togethers, and high-profile visits from local celebrities like Santa Clarita Mayor Bill Miranda.
Most importantly to Blanco, Juan & Nita’s has been able to offer free boodle meals for pickup to a variety of public-sector workers throughout the pandemic: doctors, EMTs, firefighters, police officers, clergy, and of course, nurses. He erected a giant banner over the restaurant’s rooftop signage inviting first responders to stop in and eat. “That was the very first thing my heart told me to do,” he says. “I didn’t want people to remember the restaurant, I wanted them to remember the frontliners, honor them, acknowledge them, and always respect them. They are the heroes of this generation.”
That message has spread across the county. At its one-year anniversary in October 2021, a combination of church friends, new restaurant regulars, and health care workers spilled out onto the patio for an hours-long celebration with a beaming Blanco handing out no-strings-attached meals. “The idea of my owning a place and being able to give to someone who needs food — just to share that blessing — is a big thing for me,” says Blanco.
Despite its popularity, Blanco rejects any suggestion that Juan & Nita’s might upstage the more traditional offerings at other local Filipino businesses like Pink Salt or the Island Pacific market just across the street. “Some people ask me, ‘Why are you establishing a restaurant near this big, big [grocery]?’” he says. “I actually promote them and market them because my restaurant’s focus is to make my customers happy, not to compete. People help each other here.”
In fact, while Juan & Nita’s is only his first full-service restaurant in the U.S., its success has convinced Blanco to open a second location. His sights are currently set on a space near his hospital in Panorama City. It’s a universe away by LA traffic standards, but close enough to align with his mission and to feel the shine from his star Canyon Country location. It’s there that Blanco looks to cater directly to the nurses, first responders, and other frontline workers he has worked with for years.
“In the hospital, they only have one choice, which is the cafeteria,” says Blanco. “They can go out, but when you’re working and on duty, you don’t have time to go out to places around the area.” He hopes to put the restaurant close enough that he can deliver the food himself, like his mother did in Manila. “Frontliners sacrifice so much and take so many risks, along with their families. I know, because I’m one of them,” he says.
Even if his next restaurant takes another 20 years to get off the ground, Blanco says his personal mission will remain the same: “Money is just money. It’s secondary. I want to be able to give.”
Juan & Nita’s is open from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. Monday and Wednesday through Friday (closed Tuesdays), and Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.