Meet Filipina ‘entreprenurse’ healing hearts with Baofriend

Estimated read time 5 min read

Junah Balungcas is the co-owner of Baofriend. JONATHAN YBERA/EXPAT MEDIA

Not a one-bite stand.

It is clear that restaurateur Junah Balungcas loves puns as much as she loves buns. Bao buns, that is.

The neon sign stands out from the wall of Baofriend, her modern Asian fusion restaurant in the Dubai Digital Park of Dubai Silicon Oasis. “It just stuck with me,” Junah tells with a grin. She also came up with the name Baofriend, a pun on the word “boyfriend”.

A nurse by profession and a self-confessed foodie, the passionate “entreprenurse” didn’t find it difficult to find the link between hospitals and hospitality. Since its launch in Dubai last year, Baofriend has expanded with a new restaurant in the UAE capital of Abu Dhabi in September.

Junah says her unique restaurant venture began as an idea during the pandemic, and took shape after a bite of a bao bun at a restaurant she and her business partner visited in 2021. “We both love food, and we really thought their food was good. We wanted to franchise the restaurant but the owner asked us for a portfolio. We didn’t have any. I’m a nurse, my business partner is a doctor. So, we thought, let’s just build our own,” she recounts.

She immediately got working on conceptualizing the new business and eventually opening Baofriend, a restaurant specialising in bao buns and dishes showcasing Asian cuisine with a Middle Eastern twist. The flagship restaurant is located in Dubai Silicon Oasis.

Among their inventive dishes is their house specialty called the Saudi-Filipino Love Affair, milk-infused Saudi saleeq rice paired with Filipino chicken adobo, and topped with caramelised onion and pine nuts. A culinary marriage on a plate.

Starting young in business

Junah’s culinary success was recognised this year when she was awarded Restaurateur of the Year by the Middle East F&B Excellence Awards. She credits her mother for her astute business sense, saying that she grew up watching her mother build businesses in her hometown in Zamboanga del Sur in the Philippines.

Her mother opened a small convenience store in their neighbourhood, and also sold gold jewellery. “My father was a butcher, so mother rented a small meat shop for my father to sell fresh meat. She was able to expand that into four meat shops,” Junah says. Her mother also opened a small restaurant. “After my father finished his work at the slaughterhouse, he would go to the restaurant and cook food,” she says. Junah helped during weekends, working the till, wiping tables and greeting customers.

“I learned that creating a business means creating jobs and helping people so I thought why not do it here in Dubai?” Junah says.

Right now, she juggles her time between Baofriend and her full-time job of managing two clinics. It’s a dream come true, she says.

The accidental nurse

Junah arrived in the UAE in 2011 to work as a nurse. Nursing wasn’t always her first career choice, she reveals. “As a kid, I wanted to be a teacher,” she says. However, she grew a knack for healthcare and realised she loved helping people heal. She also enjoyed giving people a hearty meal. “When I came to the UAE, we were 10 nurses in one room. I used to cook food and share it with them,” she recalls.

Junah was recently awarded as Top Filipino Healthcare Professional in the Middle East. “I love taking care of people. I am most proud of being a nurse,” she says, getting emotional.

She remembers a bittersweet memory of her father on his deathbed. “I was in the hospital, doing everything for him as a nurse. I am happy that I was able to take care of him and I have used my profession for my dad before he passed away,” she recalls, in tears.

She says her father always told her how proud he was of her, and that pride is evident in Baofriend.

Junah says she wants her father’s memory to live on through the dishes at Baofriend, whose expansive menu is influenced by international tastes. She says Baofriend is made for the UAE as much as it is made in the UAE, with the fusion of culinary flavours matching the beautiful melting pot of cultures in the country.

Where to catch a Baofriend

Baofriend Dubai Silicon Oasis
A3 building, Dubai Digital Park
7am to 12am, weekdays, 9am to 12am weekends

Baofriend Abu Dhabi
Corniche Residence Building, Abu Dhabi
8:30am to 12am, daily

Ripe Market
Academy Park, Dubai
Weekends, starting October 14

Global Village
Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Road, Dubai
October 18, 2023 to April 28, 2024

Icons of Porsche
Dubai Design District
November 25 to 26

Expo City Dubai
November 30 to December 12

Sheikh Zayed Festival
Wathba, Abu Dhabi
November 17, 2023 to March 9, 2024

Abu Dhabi Grand Prix
Yas Island, Abu Dhabi
November 24 to 27

Dubai Rugby 7s
Emirates Rugby Stadium, Dubai
December 1 to 3

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