Luis Felipe Sanjuan tells us the secrets to his incredible food in Stockport
I’ve eaten a lot of things in my time but this is the first time I’ve tried eggs named after “a little bag of cocaine”. Depending on the area of Colombia you’re in, “Perico” means just that. Or it can mean scrambled eggs with tomato, onion and garlic. Or it can mean a milky coffee. Choose your own adventure.
This breakfast is the best six quid I’ve spent in ages
I’m talking with Luis Felipe Sanjuan the owner of Cafe Sanjuan, a new Colombian spot on St Petersgate in Stockport - just down from Stockport Gin. “My dad is also called Luis Felipe Sanjuan, his dad was called Luis Felipe Sanjuan,” says Luis, “There were a million nicknames in the house just to know who you were talking to.”
Cafe Sanjuan is one of the places Sam Buckley chef and founder of Where The Light Gets In has urged us to try when we pop to Stockport for an editorial team visit. Acclaimed chef Sam is concerned about provenance to the point of obsession and it’s clear that provenance is imperative to Luis too.
He imports his coffee beans green from Colombia and roasts them himself. He tells us he has his coffee black with a pinch of salt so of course, that’s what we order and it’s the best coffee I have had in Manchester. I don’t normally drink my coffee black, too bitter. But this is something else entirely. There’s a reason Colombia is famous for its coffee - it’s just that you wouldn’t expect to find it on this level in Stockport. No offence, Stockport.
As Greater Manchester develops, property prices soar and out of town operators circle the city centre like vultures. The new restaurant, cafe and bar openings are as ramped up as they were pre-pandemic - if not more - but I’m finding it harder and harder to get excited by many of them. More small plates? Another slick coffee shop? Another imported junk food chain? Manchester has its fair share of homegrown entrepreneurs too, some of whom started with a fun, indie idea but many of these too have now become cookie-cutter empires. The press releases pour in and those that can’t afford PR teams just crack on under the radar. The rates increase and the truly creative and independent minds can’t get a foothold or funding.
But there are diamonds twinkling in unexpected places, like those in the eyes of Luis, the man with perhaps the most infectious smile in Greater Manchester. Word is getting around about Sanjuan. “People are talking,” says Luis, “They come in and say: my dad or my cousin came here and they won't stop talking about it.”
From Colombia to Stockport
Fate, he says, led Luis to Manchester. The family had been repatriated to Vigo, Spain after his father was made redundant in Colombia, they moved to the UK when his dad found a good job here during Spain’s notorious employment crisis.
Luis spent his first couple of years here learning English and studying to be a mechanical engineer like his dad. He lived in Chorlton above the now-defunct Damas: The Art of Meze restaurant where he began working as a KP and the owner taught him to cook Syrian food. Then, he went on to work in many kitchens around Manchester including Altrincham hotspot California Coffee and Wine. “My dad said to me, you can go [to the UK] and have a really good education, get a really good degree and find a good job. And I came here I learned English from working in kitchens and quit the studies to carry on cheffing. He’s still salty about it. All hopes are on my little brother now.”
Stockport council offered a shared ownership scheme that meant Luis was able to buy his family a home there. He opened the cafe in late July 2021 when he realised he was spending hours cooking at home after his restaurant shift to make food from his home country. "I said to myself, I'm going to open a place that will remind me home.”
I ask if he gets back home much and am surprised by the answer he gives: “I can't go back because I'm AWOL from the army. The first male born of the family has to go to the army. They’ll stop and ask you for a military ID. If you don't have it, they put you in the back of a truck and send you away. There's not really much people can do about it. We're waiting until they do an amnesty and I’ll go there and pray they're not going to send me [away]. I have to go and say why I'm giving myself in. I'll probably have £3-4k in fines. Every year that I've not been in, they put me another fine on top of it.”
Luis learned to cook from his mum, Viviana, who is in the kitchen too. His dad helps with deliveries and enjoys cooking but like a typical dad, Luis says, he can’t make the same meal twice.
The family is from Barranquilla on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, people from there are known as Costeños and they have a famously laid back attitude. “I was late for work every day when I was a KP," laughs Luis. Luis calls his style of cooking Caribbean-Colombian, “It’s the best food in Colombia. We've got the Caribbean sea in front of us. On the right-hand side, we've got the Magdalena River, and then the city and the mountains and valleys that finish just behind us.”
Breakfasts of the Caribbean
“It means ‘slowly’. If you don’t cook it slowly, the tortilla will crack.”
Luis is talking about the Despacito. A Sydney Opera House shaped breakfast of a thick tortilla, lined with grilled cheese (a mix of feta, halloumi and hard mozzarella) and filled with beans, spicy Colombian sausage and caramelised plantain. There’s a Colombian full breakfast too, with those aforementioned Perico eggs alongside arepas, plantain and sausage. They are the yellowest scrambled eggs I’ve seen in ages. I ask Luis his secret and he tells me he met a guy up in Buxton where he cycles who now supplies his eggs. “The chickens are wandering around just eating caterpillars and things,” he smiles, “The shells are so hard to crack sometimes”.
There’s also the Viva Caribe, a sweetcorn pancake topped with that same speckled, melted cheese blend and served with guacamole and mixed beans and sprinkled with house-pickled shallot and fennel. Avocado isn’t typical for breakfast in Colombia but is becoming more of a “thing” on the street food scene there. “We grow really good, giant avocados, says Luis, “They look like dragon eggs.”
This breakfast is the best six quid I’ve spent in ages. Farm eggs, homemade arepas and empanadas, house-roasted Colombian coffee beans. No wonder the locals want to keep this secret to themselves.
The Insta-influencers can keep their Netflix-sponsored cheap doughnuts on a vending machine hot chocolate, this is the real deal and this is what we want to be shouting about.
There are magical things happening here. Frito, fried snacks, sit alongside burritos and butties on the menu. An enormous “papa” emerges from the kitchen, a ball of potato, golden and craggy, stuffed with brisket or slow-cooked chicken or beans. Other locals tuck into huge brioche-style bread rolls billowing with more scrambled eggs and sausage. Luis created a recipe for eggless brioche inspired by the breads he ate back home. Demand became so great he had to outsource the job and bread to his recipe is now made for him by local bakery, Pilkingtons.
House-made salsas include a Colombian cocktail sauce made with bourbon and a sweet chill jam with coriander. Ajonice is a pungent sauce made hollandaise style with garlic that has been macerated in vinegar to take away any bitterness “That’s how I can pack so much garlic in” says Luis.
On Saturdays, Luis and his parents cook whatever their customers have demanded most as lunch specials. That’s when you’ll see Manchester’s Colombians popping in, Luis says it’s not in their culture to eat out much midweek. You might find red snapper with smoked coconut rice and mango served with a sauce made from fish head stock, roe, octopus, crayfish and mussels. Or maybe Lechona, a whole hog stuffed with rice and peas served with crackling and arepas. People need to call or message on Instagram to book a place. The food runs out very quickly and you have to know what to ask for as it's all off-menu. One of the best-kept secrets in Manchester? Well, not any more. Me and my big mouth.
Stockport is well worth a day out if you’re not local. There are cool record, book and clothing shops, the Hat Museum (currently under refurb) and the tunnels. There are classic pubs like the Queen’s Head where using your mobile phone will get you booted out and the lack of music lends itself to nourishing conversations with strangers - something we’ve all sorely missed. There are more modern bars too, like The Cracked Actor, The Good Rebel and Notion. You’ll even find Cambodian and Caribbean gems in the Produce Hall - a place that very much divides local opinion. But Cafe Sanjuan is worth the visit alone. Get on a train and treat yourself to some medicine in the form of a radiant smile and some exceptionally good sunshine food.
Cafe Sanjuan, 27 St Petersgate, Manchester SK1 1EB
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