10 of Manila’s Most Iconic Dishes You Can Still Feast On TodayAugust 21, 2014
Whether you’re hankering for milk tea, ramen, or kurobuta tonkatsu, you’re bound to find a tea shop, restaurant, or patisserie in the Metro to cater to your tastes. The rise of talented local chefs, bakers and purveyors, and the steady influx of famed international food franchises (along with the increasingly varied and informed tastes of diners) have revolutionized the local dining scene over the past five years, ensuring that we lucky consumers are now spoilt for choice.
However, while our bustling city has seen plenty of food trends that have fizzled out as drastically as they came (I’m looking at you, cronut/croughnut/doissant/donut croissant), it is also home to quite a few stalwarts. The following list is of a few such dishes and their back stories (as well as those of their places of origin), which, with equal parts inspiration, verve, serendipity, and perhaps even a touch of tragedy, will surely make for an even more memorable repast the next time you indulge a deep-seated craving for them.
1. Aristocrat’s Chicken Barbecue with Java Rice
Founded by Doña Engracia “Asiang” Reyes (dubbed the “Mother of Filipino Cooking” and the actual mother of the lady who would later be known as Mama Sita), Aristocrat’s has been the go-to spot for generations of Filipinos (and quite a few expats and tourists) looking for hefty servings of excellent food at very affordable prices. But despite its lofty moniker, the much-renowned restaurant actually started out as a ramshackle food truck.
Back in the 1930’s, Aling Asiang was looking for a way to supplement the family coffers so she and her civil servant husband could better provide for their growing brood. Armed with nothing more than a bit of capital, a grade school diploma, and a battered Ford loaned to her by her eldest daughter’s suitor, she put up a rolling store in Luneta to compete with those selling hotdogs in the oft-visited park. It proved to be a hit: Aling Asiang’s revolutionary sandwich fillings (adobo flakes and fried fish fillets) and wallet-friendly price points invariably lured flocks of hungry patrons to her little cart. Meticulous and conscientious, Aling Asiang impressed the “Masarap, Malinis, Mura” (“Delicious, clean, affordable”) tenets upon her workers, and trained them to prepare the sandwiches without touching any of the ingredients with their bare hands. The resulting showmanship arising from the deft handling of cutlery to make the sandwiches also became an added attraction, and the food cart eventually became something of a landmark. When time came for the mobile canteen to be christened with a name, Aling Asiang drew on her sense of irony and chose “The Aristocrat.”
Years later, the cheekily-named food cart developed into a full-fledged restaurant with branches in Cubao and in Las Piñas. The latter was situated on a beach resort, so diners wanted food that they could easily carry around. To address the need for such, Aling Asiang came up with barbecue-style meals, basting cuts of meat with their own homemade blend of barbecue sauce and roasting it on the premises to attract customers. The experiment proved to be a success, with the chicken variant proving to be the most popular. It was later added to the menu at the other branches and the now-famous java rice was later added to the dish to make it a complete meal.
2. Ma Mon Luk’s Mami
They say love makes you do strange things, and in Ma Mon Luk’s case, thwarted love was the impetus behind this famous bowl of chicken mami. Born in Guangdong, Ma Mon Luk was making a meager living as a grade school teacher in China when he fell in love with a Cantonese girl. His object of affection came from a wealthy family, however, and thus her parents looked down on their daughter’s penniless suitor. Determined to earn a respectable fortune to win the girl’s hand, Ma Mon Luk migrated to the Philippines in the early 1900’s and set about peddling his own recipe for chicken noodle soup.
Ma Mon Luk initially called his concoction “gupit” since he assembled it by taking some noodles and chicken meat out of one steel vat and cutting them up with scissors before ladling in some hot chicken broth from another steel vat. Since he sold his wares on the streets of Manila, his clientele were composed of students from the various schools and universities. Ma Mon Luk eventually opened a restaurant in Binondo, but continued to advertise his restaurant’s specialties by giving away free samples on the streets. It’s not known whether he was able to win his first love back but it seems that Lady Fortune certainly doted on him: By the 1950’s, his eatery became synonymous throughout the country as the place to get good chicken mami, a feat that has remained unparalleled to this day.
3. Via Mare’s Puto Bumbong
“Via Mare” has been a byword for refined Filipino cuisine and impeccable catering for nearly five decades, but it was actually a European dish that first put the celebrated restaurant on the map. When Glenda Baretto opened the Via Mare restaurant in the old Greenbelt area back in 1975, the menu featured her mother’s continental recipes, particularly the Bisque Mediterranean, a creamy seafood soup with a golden crust (which was quite fitting, as the words “Via Mare” literally mean “by way of the sea”). The dish was so popular that tourists from Japan and Hong Kong would make their way to the restaurant simply to get their fix. As word of the restaurant’s inventive menu spread, a long-time patron urged Mrs. Baretto to venture into catering. Despite having to use her own linens and tableware for her first client’s function, Mrs. Baretto managed to pull off a great dinner party and as luck would have it, the then-First Lady Imelda Marcos was among the guests. The latter was so impressed by the quality of the food and the service that she eventually pressed the reluctant restaurateur to cater the state dinner for US President Gerald Ford at Malacañang Palace. The gala was a resounding success, with Mrs. Baretto eventually being tapped to cater the Marcoses’ silver wedding anniversary and other official functions shortly afterwards.
Mrs. Baretto’s lofty patron urged her to further refine Filipino food as the First Lady noticed that their native dishes were often simply dumped on a plate prior to serving, making them rather messy to eat. Spurred on by the encouragement, Via Mare’s proprietress began using French techniques to prepare Filipino specialties, even going so far as deboning chicken for tinola and serving the poultry soup in carved squash bowls at state dinners. The trademark puto bumbong entered the picture when they catered a formal function during the holidays. Some of the well-heeled guests enjoyed Mrs. Baretto’s take on it so much that they requested it on their visits to her restaurant. Though puto bumbong wasn’t exactly an official menu item, Mrs. Baretto obliged her diners and the festive purple rice cake has since become a Via Mare mainstay.
4. Max’s Fried Chicken
Max’s Restaurant is now a veritable behemoth of a company, with several local and international brands from the food and beverage industry under its belt, quite impressive for something that virtually emerged from the ashes of World War II. “The House That Fried Chicken Built” was essentially the brainchild of Maximo Gimenez, a Stanford-educated teacher who became friendly with the American troops stationed in Quezon City sometime in 1945. The soldiers had a habit of dropping by his nearby house for some drinks, so they ultimately insisted on paying. Sensing a business opportunity, Maximo opened a café that served chicken, steak, and drinks to the GI’s and to other passersby. As the eatery’s operations were very much a family affair, Maximo hired his niece to manage the kitchen, and it was her recipe for fried chicken that would propel the humble backyard canteen into dizzying heights of fame and fortune.
Buoyed by the clamor for their then-limited menu, the Gimenezes opened the first Max’s restaurant branch along Roxas Boulevard and gradually expanded their offerings to include more Filipino favorites. The consistent quality of the food and its rustic, home-style presentation (some of the stews and soups were served in clay pots) earned the restaurant a soft spot in the hearts of many Filipinos, inciting the franchise to expand throughout the country and even to countries where a certain Colonel is thought to hold sway over the fried chicken territory.
5. Sentro 1771’s Sinigang na Corned Beef
Long before adobo spaghetti or sisig tacos became a trend, Sentro 1771 burst onto the dining scene back in 2003 to shake up Filipino cuisine as we knew it. Much like your cool, rebellious young aunt, it did away with some of the stuffier old culinary traditions and began looking to other cultures to put unorthodox twists on well-loved Filipino dishes, and thus attracting even the most fastidious, colonial mentality-ridden hipster diners.
If Marian Rivera or Anne Curtis were a dish, either of them would probably be Sentro 1771’s Sinigang na Corned Beef (and no, not because they probably have a brand of canned corned beef among their many multi-million endorsement deals). An unlikely but undeniably winning fusion of East and West cooking, this bestseller of corned beef short ribs and boneless shanks is slow-cooked to melt-in-your-mouth tenderness with a tangy, sinigang broth made with old-fashioned tamarind paste. With its appeal extending beyond the boundaries of age and nationality, it is perhaps the flagship dish on a menu that already includes a considerable amount of inventive culinary fusion.
6. Amber’s Pancit Malabon and Pichi-pichi
Any student who has ever had to contribute to a potluck party at school is probably familiar with the heaping bilaos of pancit Malabon and pichi-pichi from the nearest Amber Golden Plate Eatery. Thus, it’s only fitting that students were its regular customers when it first came into being as a backyard eatery in Editha Faustino’s Malabon home. As Mrs. Faustino’s food became more and more popular in their little neighborhood, her uncle later invited her to put up a restaurant on his property on Filmore St., Makati sometime in 1988. Despite her lack of formal schooling and the initial shortage of staff, the hardworking jeepney driver’s wife happily devoted herself to the business, sometimes heading to the market for supplies, cooking, and manning the cashier throughout the entire day. Even then, the pancit Malabon and the pichi-pichi (which were sold at Php18 and Php0.25 apiece, respectively) were the restaurant’s bestsellers, with Mrs. Faustino mixing and preparing them herself.
From employing just four workers at a solitary branch back in 1988, Amber Golden Plate now has four bustling locations and over 300 employees, with that number hitting 600 during the end-of-the-year peak season from the additional contractual personnel hired to deal with the high volume of orders. For a business that was named after a golden-brown tree sap resin prized by the Chinese for the luck it brings any enterprise, Mrs. Faustino’s little garage project certainly proved to be a self-fulfilling prophecy in the best sense.
7. Estrel’s Caramel Cake
A perennial fixture at people’s birthday parties and weekend bakers’ fairs (as well as on the lists of top confections in the city), Estrel’s Caramel Cake is an enduring classic in every sense of the word. Mrs. Estrella Narvas Ylagan, the aptly-named inventor and founder of the superstar dessert, began operations back in 1946, starting in Lepanto St. in Manila then transferring to Recto Avenue shortly after. Miss Ylagan, as she was addressed by her staff, believed that baking on a non-commercial scale produced cakes of unmatched quality and refinement, so every single one of the fluffy chiffon cakes enveloped in sweet, fluffy, golden-brown icing were made by hand. In addition, the production of the iconic dessert was very much a family affair: with Miss Ylagan’s sisters and relatives taking turns in handling all the meticulous steps involved. With such a carefully-constructed quality product, it’s hardly surprising that customers didn’t mind climbing four flights of stairs to claim their orders from the decorating kitchen where Estrel’s Caramel Cakes operated out of for five decades.
Miss Ylagan’s descendants opened a branch on Scout Tobias back in 2001 so that customers based further up north would have a more convenient pick-up point, but they continue to operate out of only one kitchen to maintain the consistent quality of their cakes. And while they recently started making very limited quantities of caramel cake for walk-in customers, Estrel’s is still very much a made-to-order business, with the company encouraging customers to place advance orders so the cakes (which, to this day, are made with fresh ingredients and no preservatives) can be picked up on the day they are made for maximum freshness.
8. Sisig from Aling Lucing’s
Given that sisig arguably originated from the unused pig heads from Pampanga’s Clark Base back when it was occupied by the US Air Force, it’s only fitting that its journey from a humble, improvisational dish to a universally-loved and even internationally-renowned delicacy was largely due to the ingenuity of an unassuming Kapampangan lady called Lucia Cunanan. Aling Lucing, as she was better known, would elevate the dish (and her own lowly circumstances as a resident of the slums) by tweaking its texture and seasoning, then serving it up on a sizzling dish, thus giving rise to the sizzling sisig we all know and love.
Aling Lucing’s creation became so popular that even the most fastidious of Kapampangan high society ventured out to her food stall by the rail road just to get their sisig fix. Sometime after her dish’s rise to culinary stardom, the enterprising housewife was able to generate enough funds to put up her own chain of restaurants, making Aling Lucing’s the go-to brand for diners looking to satiate a craving for the sizzling pork dish. Sadly, Aling Lucing was found bludgeoned to death in her Angeles City home back in 2008, and the case has remained unresolved to this day.
9. Razon’s Halo-Halo
Razon’s is to halo-halo as cosmetic surgery is to Vicki Belo in the sense that people say “Mag-Razon’s tayo/Magpa-Belo tayo” (“Let’s go to Razon’s/Belo”) whenever they have a hankering for a tall, cold glass of the sweet, icy summer treat (or in Belo’s case, liposuction or a rhinoplasty). Unlike the Belo Clinic’s scandal-ridden history, however, Razon’s straightforward simplicity was what made their offerings famed in the first place. Sersia Juan, or Apung Sersia as she was fondly called, first whipped up what would become known as the Razon’s halo-halo back in 1908 (presumably on a particularly hot summer day). Made with only three ingredients (sweetened saging na saba slices, macapuno balls, and leche flan chunks), glasses of the honest-to-goodness dessert sold like hotcakes from Apung Sersia’s little street corner. Customers enjoyed how carefully proportioned the Razon matriarch’s mixture was, with the ratio of the three ingredients holding their own against amounts of shaved ice and milk without incurring the need for any added sugar.
Apung Sersia was succeeded by her niece (who, in turn, was succeeded by her daughters), and the little refreshment parlor in the L.M. Subdivision of Guagua, Pampanga steadily grew into Razon’s Food Corporation, a 100% family-owned company that owns and operates over 20 branches that continue to dish out glasses of a little old woman’s much-beloved summertime treat.
10. Ms. Polly’s Classic Chocolate Cake
Gasoline stations are perhaps the last place you would expect to find mind-blowingly good desserts, and when faced with an expansive dessert buffet, people are unlikely to make a beeline for a simple, glazed cake, especially when it sits alongside the more frou-frou pastries of the bunch. Ms. Polly’s Classic Chocolate Cake, on the other hand, debunks both of the aforementioned assumptions. Initially sold at the Shell Station in Magallanes (hence originally being known as the Shell Magallanes Cake), Polly Garilao’s creation consists of a simple square of light, spongy chocolate cake robed in slick, shiny chocolate icing, with a few squiggles being its only embellishment. Though it’s definitely not a fancy sort of chocolate cake (the taste is akin to the Hershey’s chocolate cake you can make by following the instructions on a can of Hershey’s cocoa powder rather than anything made with pricier Ghirardelli or Lindt chocolates), it is lauded for its unbelievably moist crumb, which some speculate is due to mayonnaise or other such high-fat ingredients.
Ever since Ms. Polly’s Classic Chocolate Cake started winning accolades as one of Manila’s top desserts, Ms. Garilao and her team have started selling their much sought-after product at countless baking fairs all over the city, but its longtime patrons are as happy as ever to make the trek to the gasoline station in Magallanes that gave its name to a bonafide, edible testament to unparalleled simplicity done right.
With so many homegrown culinary talents still holding their own in an increasingly competitive and fickle industry, it just goes to show that old-fashioned culinary skills and gloriously simple tasty classics coupled with an astute business sense all make for a recipe that continues to withstand the test of time.