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For decades, Malate has always been a point of convergence for my family. My grandparents resided in M.H. del Pilar Street for almost 70 years and would daily be seen gravely ministering to the equally somber faithful at either Ermita or Malate Church. My mother had a condo just down the street and she and my siblings would walk over to visit my grandparents for meals and indulge in some juicy gossip. My aunts would also be at M.H. for one reason or the other, having come from their homes in rarefied Alabang or their businesses in the more earthy parts of Binondo, Paco or Intramuros.
When no one felt inclined to cook, or when unexpected guests such as priests or out-of-town relatives would drop by, the family driver would be sent over to Aristocrat for several orders of their timeless pork or chicken barbeque. Sometimes, I’d drop by the restaurant itself at odd hours with my classmates, ravenous from exploring the city and its alluring albeit somewhat seedy nightlife. Back when my wife and I were still dating, she’d coyly coerce me to take her there for puto bumbong (sticky purple rice cakes cooked in bamboo tubes), as Aristocrat was one of the few places in the city that sold the customary Christmas treat all year round.
Even after all this time, Aristocrat Malate is still an institution. Now sporting a spanking new facelift, the almost 80-year-old family restaurant founded by Doña Engracia ‘Lola Asiang’ C. Reyes and her husband, Justice Alex A. Reyes still attracts people by the droves. “This is one of the few places in the city where a group of 200 can be seated at a moment’s notice,” discloses Maryjo Feraren, the restaurant’s marketing director. “We sometimes get whole basketball teams or tourist groups coming in for lunch or dinner.” Indeed, in spite of its name, Aristocrat is that last place where one would get turned away for not being snobbishly dressed. “We appeal to all people from walks of life,” explains Priscila Reyes Pacheco, the president of the Aristocrat Group of Companies and one of Lola Asiang’s granddaughters. “Office workers, politicians, laborers, OFWs, tourist – they’re all welcome here.”
The Reyes clan who owns and runs the venerable restaurant maintains the same level of discernment and quality that has been its hallmark for over three generations. “That’s the secret of our success,” she confides. “It’s about preserving tradition. We make sure everything tastes as good as it always has.” The family understands that modernizing operations is a necessary part of staying in touch with the times. “My Lola Asiang made things from scratch. She even cooked using a palayok (old-fashioned native clay pot). Granted that makes things very authentic, but we can’t make diners wait for twenty to forty minutes for their orders.” The grand matriarch of Aristocrat was also forward-thinking when it came to conservation. “We don’t waste anything here,” admits Pacheco. “We use as much of a vegetable, fruit or meat as we can. It was one of my grandmother’s philosophies.”
To most Filipinos, the dishes Aristocrat offers are staples that are readily available in most cafeterias, karinderias, fast food franchises, and local no-frills eateries. Yet there is a verve, a palpable level of quality and flavor that you will encounter that is the reason why they have had unequalled staying power. “There are different food crazes such as tapsilog, goto, pearl shakes, and ramen,” clarifies Pacheco. “We don’t follow crazes; we are trailblazers.”
I sampled a bit of that spirit in every dish they served – no small feat considering that as a Filipino, I grew up with eating practically everything on their menu from other restaurants and even the homes of family and friends. For instance, their Lumpiang Shanghai with atsara (a chutney of pickled papaya, radish and red pepper) was unique in its texture and flavor – crunchy, meaty, not at all oily, and yet as thick as a cigar. The Sweet and Sour Fish was also enchanting – served with pineapple, cucumber, spring onions and carrot, the fish was lightly battered and felt like ebi tempura. These two went well with the Shanghai Rice with Chinese chorizo bits and fried egg. Hototai Soup came next to warm the tummy, a special blend of clear-broth pork wanton soup, with Chinese cabbage, cauliflower, string beans, and surprisingly delightful chicken chunks.
There is a Chinese belief that one must eat noodles for long life, especially for one’s birthday. Not wanting to eschew good fortune, we dined on tender Pancit Canton with young corn, cabbage, snow peas, carrot slices, mushrooms, pork balls, shrimp, chicken slivers and cauliflower, the vegetables so fresh they were sweet. Right on its heels was the Chicken Honey, chicken marinated in honey before it was fried tender and crisp. A spread of four barbeque rice meal classics followed: Chicken Barbeque, Boneless Chicken Barbeque, Pork Spareribs and Pork Barbeque. Each one was served with a cup of Java rice, atsara and Java sauce, each one as toothsome as I remember. To wash it all down, a rainbow of refreshing frozen fruit shakes was presented in guyabano (soursop), strawberry, green mango and ripe mango.
Despite the ginormous feast, I managed to save a bit of room for an old-time favorite – we had Halo-Halo, a concoction of ube (purple yam) ice cream, red jelly, red beans, young coconut, jackfruit and toasted crispy rice. The whole carnival of sweets is served up on a tall milkshake glass and eaten with a sundae spoon. Practically every Filipino restaurant serves this little confection, but Aristocrat’s version didn’t use ice to dilute it. Again, there was that extra-special verve. The ice cream seemed rich, almost gelato-like. The fruit and beans fresh and not candied to death with sugar syrup.
With good food, you don’t skimp on quality ingredients. I’m sure Lola Asiang would’ve agreed.
What’s in a Name
In the 1930s, Asiang Reyes wanted to sell her wares via a food truck (a gift from the ardent suitor of her daughter Teresita) that would ply the area around Luneta. Originally, she wanted to name the truck Andy’s, after her eldest son, but he was visibly miffed about it as he studied in a prestigious university and was worried about the unwarranted attention. Her response was acerbic and unintentionally ingenious. “Bakit nahihiya ka ba sa mga aristokrata mong kaklase sa Ateneo? (Why? Are you ashamed about what your aristocrat classmates in Ateneo might think?)” Thus, the name stuck.
Making Lemonade Out of Lemons
The Chicken Barbeque came into being when Aristocrat still had a branch in Las Piñas in the 1950s. Back then, the restaurant was also a beach resort and had cabanas lining the sand. Diners would order food and bring it to the cabanas, but as a result, there were significant losses in cutlery. The chicken barbeque was created so people didn’t need cutlery to eat in the cabanas. This turn became so popular that it became a regular item in all their branches.