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A Wok to Remember

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Imagine tasting the same Pancit Canton Jose Rizal ordered more than a hundred years ago. Or slurping the same Mami your grandfather ate during his schoolboy days. Or bringing home the same fried chicken your mother loved as a kid. Impossible? Not really.
     
Some restaurants that your parents or grandparents may have told you about when you were a kid could still be around today. Old Chinese restaurants, for one, are still being visited by regular customers who keep coming back for the specialty dishes they offer.
     
Ownership of these restaurants have been handed down from one generation to the next and secret recipes passed down the line. And what’s amazing is, despite everything that has changed around them, these old restaurants have managed to remain the same.
     
How did they do it? Well, each has a different story to tell. Like people who struggled and overcame challenges, these restaurants have gone through wars and battled fires along the way. Most also started small and the owners at the time may have had no idea their businesses would last this long.

[Photo of Toho Food Center]New Toho Food Center (1888)

The Spaniards were still hanging around Manila when five friends decided to build Toho Antigua Panciteria in Binondo. They did everything from cooking, serving, and even cleaning the place.

      
Toho in Cantonese means “everything is good.” The restaurant seemed to have lived up to its name, as more and more people patronized it. There are even stories that the national hero Jose Rizal went there (most probably for their famous Pancit Canton and Lumpiang Shanghai).
      
As years passed, however, four of the owners decided to return to China leaving only Tai Tang behind. He kept the place running and eventually asked his seven children to manage the restaurant. Now, his grandchildren run the place.
     
Toho has had its share of tragedy. In 1984, it got burnt down. Because it was made of wood, fire from a neighboring panciteria easily turned Toho into ashes. The owners rebuilt the place and kept the original design and ambiance. This time, though, they used concrete.
     
The restaurant’s menu has changed little through the years. Dishes that took a lot of time to prepare were erased from the list and replaced by those requested by customers. Toho manager Gina Dionisio said they tried to keep the menu as Chinese as possible. But if there are requests for Filipino dishes like Sinigang and if their cooks know how to make them, they sometimes serve these as well.
     
But their specialty dishes would remain untouched. They have two types of Pancit Canton: one’s dry and the other has sauce in it. Their Lumpiang Shanghai, Pork Asado and even Ampalaya dishes are bestsellers that customers often come back for.

Ma Mon Luk (1920)
Go to mainland China, ask someone where you could eat Mami, and he probably won’t know what
you’re talking about. That’s because Mami is not originally a part of Chinese cuisine, but an invention of a Chinese who traveled to the Philippines to try his luck.
     
Ma Mon Luk is a Cantonese teacher who crossed the seas to earn money. He knew enough of Chinese cuisine to invent his own kind of noodles made of eggs. He added his special broth, a few strips of chicken, and presto! The Mami was born.

He started his business by peddling noodles on the streets of Binondo. Carrying two large containers slung on a wooden stick and with a pair of scissors dangling around his waist, he walked the streets selling food to students and passersby. The meal he invented was then called “Gupit” because of the scissors he used to cut the noodles and chicken strips.
     
His Gupit later came to be known as Mami. (It was taken from his family name Ma and Miki, which means noodles.) As Ma Mon Luk gained popularity, he soon rented his own space in Binondo. This was the beginning of his restaurant business.
     
Ma Mon Luk had several branches over the years but only two branches are left: One’s in Quiapo and the other’s along Quezon Avenue. The menu has pretty much remained the same: Mami, Siopao, and Siomai. But around the early ‘80s, upon the prodding of customers, they also began selling other Chinese dishes.
     
Now, Ma Mon Luk’s sons run the business that has become their father’s legacy to Chinese cuisine.

[Photo of Savory Chiken]Savory (1950)
Fried chicken comes to mind when the name Savory is mentioned. Generations have enjoyed the distinct taste of the restaurant’s specialty made popular by the owner’s tightly guarded secret recipe.
     
Some say the chicken is cooked with Chinese medicinal herbs, while others believe the flavor comes from the chicken’s marinade. The owners keep silent about the whole thing, of course.
     
No one would have thought that Savory started as a small panciteria serving mainly Lomi in Quiapo. The Ting brothers decided to build the restaurant a few years after the war.
     
One of the brothers loved cooking and experimented until he founTable Surferd the recipe for their fried chicken. It was like hitting the jackpot.
    
The rest, as they say, was history. People filled up the tiny restaurant in Quiapo until the brothers finally opened a new branch in Escolta.
    
Five decades after, the third generation of Tings have decided to relaunch the brand and rename it the Classic Savory Chicken. Starting August 2007, they opened 11 branches in different malls to make the restaurant more accessible to customers. They are also planning to build 11 more branches around Luzon.

Wah Sun Cantonese (1955)
The first thing you’d notice upon entering the restaurant are the two Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs. No, they are not potential Lechons but are there to guard the place and bring luck to the business.
     
And these pigs may have done their magic. Wah Sun Cantonese, now over 50 years old, has remained strong and is still being patronized for their famous Cheong Moon, Chow Sepo, and Pat Po soup
     
Owned by the Leung family, the business started way back in the ’50s when Benjamin Leung decided to put up a restaurant along with his father and brothers. A waiter at Toho before, Benjamin knew a lot about the food business and is passionate about cooking as well.
     
The 50 years, however, were not as smooth-sailing as the family hoped for. In 1993, the then wooden restaurant got razed to the ground after a gas tank leaked from a nearby company. Four of their cooks got third degree burns and were hospitalized for a month.
The family decided to rebuild the restaurant within just a month after the fire. Benjamin feared the customers would forget the restaurant if they stay out of business too long.
     
After the fire, the name of the restaurant was changed from Sun Wah Panciteria to Wah Sun Cantonese, and was made into a family corporation.
     
Later, Benjamin’s daughter Kathy married Greg Gaudinez, a fourth generation owner of one of the oldest restaurants in Manila: Ambos Mundos. Ambos was transferred from Quiapo, and rebuilt in front of Wah Sun. Owned by husband and wife, the two restaurants now face each other, with matching guard pigs in front.
     
Things went well for the family until 2000, when their father Benjamin was shot dead by a thief in front of the restaurant. Despite the tragedy, life went on inside the restaurant and the five siblings teamed up to run the place that has become their father’s legacy.

Secret to Success
When asked about their restaurants’ secret to success, all of the owners gave out one answer: consistency. The quality of the food must be maintained so that clients would continue to patronize the place. Wah Sun owner Kathy Leung says changing just one ingredient could alter the flavor of the whole dish. So if some restaurant owners feel that removing just a pinch of salt to trim expenses wouldn’t hurt, they should think again. Regular customers could usually tell.

Print ed: 02/09

 

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