The tastes & flavors of memory
- Juaniyo Arcellana () - June 6, 2004 - 12:00am
The Pinoy food of memory starts not with a menu but a car, and not just any old car but a vintage Chevrolet station wagon named Genevieve, cruising along Roxas Boulevard on a Sunday morning.

"Breathe deeply that fresh air from the sea!" Mother tells us, and we don’t even have to roll down the car windows, air-conditioning being unheard of then. A rare Sunday lunch would have the whole family over at Aristocrat, although we forget now the exact dishes laid out, certainly on freshly starched table cloths the color motif of which was red and white, and the table napkins too were clean and comforting as a bib.

Our first memory of Aristocrat, apart from Sunday lunch with family followed by a swim at nearby Pasay beach with inflated tire interiors, was the chicken barbecue with java rice and atchara. But we’re not really sure if this classic dish was on the spread when we ate there as kids in the early elementary grades, during those times when Father would haul the entire brood into the station wagon for trips downtown to visit relatives in Gagalangin, Peñafrancia, Fernando Rain.

We admit now that was food with character, the chicken tender and the sauce with just the right tanginess, the java rice crumbling with nostalgia and the atchara, as atchara and Manuel Arguilla go, had the scent of a morning when papayas are in bloom. If you think we’re exaggerating in rhapsody, try ordering the same dish at, say, Carmelino’s Grill near the Manila domestic airport, and be transported back in a time warp to when– Koreans waiting for their flight ruled the world.

Later, much later, there was the pancit canton, somewhat insultingly relegated to being a side dish when, accompanied by a couple of slices of pan americano, it could be as satisfying and filling as the main course.

Of a more recent variation on the Pinoy food memory train, Aristocrat express, is the kare-kare, sauce thick with the peanuts of Pampanga and the tualla softer than the wet towel handed out after meals in Chinese restaurants.

Aside from the Aristocrat on Roxas Blvd. that is already an institution of sorts, a site for post-graduation, post-baptism powwows, only one other branch comes to mind, the one on Quezon Avenue near corner Edsa, but which has long since transformed into an Alex II or is it III.

The only other restaurant that can rival Aristocrat in the Pinoy food trip down memory lane is the late, lamented D&E, a branch of which was located at the corner of Roces and Quezon Avenues in the late 80s to early 90s when we were still working at an underground magazine just a stone’s throw away from Amoranto Stadium.

Of course D&E was already there long before we entered the country’s workforce, if not in that exact same corner since took over by Jollibee or is it Classmate, then surely in some other historic location, mayhaps along Escolta near the river Pasig.

D&E like Aristocrat had a reassuring ambience, which the customer did not have to pay for no matter what deposed presidents say, the surroundings and interiors an echo of home on the cooking range: clink of silverware, smoke from sizzling hot plates, waiters proudly bearing their entrees to diners.

Before the long smoky jeepney ride home to Vito Cruz, we used to stop by D&E coming from the office on Roces, for some quick comfort and cold beer. Pulutan was a luxury, but on paydays we’d occasionally indulge ourselves by ordering one of the dishes displayed on the estante, maybe an ersatz callos with the mouth-watering garbanzos and slivers of chorizo bilbao, or–dig this–inihaw na pusit and bopis.

And so it was that D&E was as much a refuge for us guerrilla journalists as was another hangout located just adjacent the office, a burnt out shell of a building that also offered beer and peanuts freshly harvested from the tinfoil pack, where staff passed the time while waiting for the galley proofs.

Of more modern vintage though no longer a spring chicken in the field of Pinoy restaurants is Max’s, the house built by fried chicken. Here we cannot but order chicken, whole, half or quarters, at times in a combination of a combo meal, the deconstructionist diner’s concession to fastfood. In Max’s too distinctive is the banana ketchup that seems to have been made for the chicken, although there’s tomato ketchup for those who prefer otherwise.

If our stomachs had memory, then those would be the Big 3: Aristocrat, D&E, Max’s. There may be other restaurants that have made a lasting impression–Session Road’s Star Café with its pata jamon sausage and Bistro Remedios with the crispy tadyang come to mind–but none that quite had a direct line to the gut if budgets permitted, as the three aforementioned restaurants.

They were or still are places where one could eat leisurely, which is the only way really to take one’s food in order to aid digestion. There’s always ample room for conversation, smoking as well as non-smoking sections.

There must be a picture of the family posing beside Genevieve, sated with the sea breeze and the food partaken of al fresco and refreshed as well after the swim in the still unpolluted beach, ready for the long Sunday drive home.

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