If you’re new to Metro Manila or here on holiday, you should know this: The Aristocrat Restaurant is an institution. Back in the day, this was the place to be to celebrate all sorts of occasions – from debuts, to wedding receptions, to birthday bashes – and almost everyone who grew up in the Philippines can share at least one Aristocrat story to share.
Now, I didn’t grow up here, but I have vague memories of walking around Aristocrat along Roxas Boulevard when I was a little girl on holiday (probably attending a wedding reception or birthday party) with chocolate fudge smeared all over my face. Jericho, on the other hand, told me how his parents’ wedding reception was held there back in the ’70s, and that the last memory he had of the place was when he was so small, his head just barely peeked out from the table while he was seated in his chair.
Today, Aristocrat is still known to be a great venue for family gatherings and celebrations, but people have forgotten how Aristocrat has its roots in more humble beginnings – as a sort of karinderia on wheels (the Philippines’ first ever food truck!) serving simple and delectable merienda items. Both Jericho and I hadn’t been there in ages, so when a friend of ours asked that we join her for a late lunch – merienda items included – we were as giddy as little children!
The Aristocrat Restaurant is the brainchild of Engracia “Lola Asiang” Reyes and her husband Alex, a simple hardworking couple whose small venture into the restaurant business 75 years ago allowed them to prevail over hardship and forever etched an indelible icon in the Filipino food industry. What started as a little stand then turned into a rolling canteen, Lola Asiang named their mobile canteen “The Aristocrat” – a place oriented to Filipino families with small incomes and large appetites. Little did she know, the name would turn out to be very well suited to what she would be doing – using the freshest premium ingredients to turn ordinary Filipino food into culinary fare so good that it became fit to feed royalty and visiting dignitaries.
There was a lot of food to go through, so we started our afternoon of debauchery by sharing one of the lighter snacks, Aristocrat’s Lumpiang Ubod Sariwa (Php 90). This is quite simple, this Filipino favorite is made with heart of palm, pork, and shrimp in crêpe and served with a sweet brown sauce with minced garlic and crushed peanuts.
Pancit Luglog (Php 190) is named after the noodles it is served with, and the toppings are similar to that of palabok – shrimp, pork, smoked fish, pork crackling, a hard-boiled egg, and bright orange achuete sauce.
When people usually think of arroz caldo in the Philippines, we think of comforting rice porridge with ginger and chicken, but this is actually incorrect. Arroz con Caldo (Php 120) is a rice porridge that’s actually made with ox tripe and entrails, while the chicken version is called Pospas de Gallina (Php 120).
In all honesty, I have never before tried Dinuguan (Php 150) or blood stew, until now. The sour smell, the look, and the name makes me squeamish. But after A LOT of peer pressure, I did try a little bit… and it was pretty good. The smell of the beef (as opposed to the pork version of this dish) isn’t as offensive to the olfactory senses, which made it a lot easier to swallow. Also, pairing it up with Aristocrat’s cheese roll instead of the regular puto gave a bit of sweetness to it as well. I don’t think I could finish a bowl of this on my own, but I could make a sizable dent given that I have enough cheese rolls to eat it with.
Another colorful edition to merienda that is perfect when shared with friends is the Sotanghon Guisado (Php 285). Vermicelli noodles and achuete sauce form the base of this dish, with fresh vegetables, shrimp, chicken, and black fungus thrown into the mix.
If you’re in Metro Manila as a tourist or a perma-vacationer, and are looking for something that is definitely Filipino but not as scary looking as blood stew or noodles with bright orange sauce, the Aristocrat Barbecue Classic Pork Barbecue (Php 175) with Java rice and atchara is for you. Served with a sweet, peanut-ty Java sauce (I really don’t know why they call it Java rice and sauce – just accept it for what it is and move on with your life), the two sticks of specially marinated pork slices are grilled to perfection, with the sides slightly charred. Ease the meat off of the stick, smother in barbecue sauce, get a piece and spoon as much Java rice as you can muster onto your spoon (not fork, mind you – you can’t shovel enough food in your mouth with a fork), add a little bit of the vegetable pickle, and say “Aaaah…”
Glorious, wasn’t it? Repeat.
I have never had real spring rolls until I had tried the Aristocrat Lumpiang Shanghai (Php 260), and I am now judging every other spring roll by the standard they have set. Each fat, deep-fried logs are filled with pork, shrimp and vegetables, and served with sweet and sour sauce and Chinese atchara. My suggestion: Do away with the sweet and sour sauce and ask the waitstaff for more Java sauce, which they serve in little packets. And while you’re at it, ask for extra Java rice.
I am slightly embarrassed to admit it, but ever since I tried their lumpiang Shanghai, I have been back every week for my spring roll and java sauce fix, eventually switching branches from the one at Roxas Boulevard to their Jupiter branch in Makati, because the waiters already know what I want to order!
Before going to Aristocrat, Jericho was waxing poetic about how Aristocrat’s Chicken Honey (Half: Php 250 | Whole: Php 440) was the juiciest and crispiest I will ever experience in Metro Manila, and that there was no comparing it to the restaurant that boldly positioned itself right next to it along Roxas Boulevard. You know what? He was right. The competition’s chicken seemed dry, sad, and emaciated in comparison, while Aristocrat’s tender and juicy chicken that had been deep-fried to a golden brown and served with – you guessed it – Java sauce were obviously once fat and happy poultry. Extra Java rice, please.
To wind down our very long brunch, we tried a dessert special, the Torta delos Reyes. A special dessert that looks like a checkered sansrival and chocolate cake, this is best eaten while still frozen. I watched as our server expertly cut into the rectangular dessert with two knives that had been dipped in hot water, and could hear the crunch of the layers give way, whilst the cream and chocolate slowly melted, giving way for one slice, and then another, and another. The Torta delos Reyes wasn’t overly sweet, which was something I half expected, seeing that it was covered in so much chocolate. Pair this with a piping hot cappuccino or go choco-crazy and go for a cup of hot chocolate for a very sweet ending to a filling meal.
By the time we had finished, the sun was setting on Manila Bay, and Jericho and I crossed the street to marvel at the waning crimson and orange-colored sky, taking in the salty smell of the sea. It was a lovely end to the day. Lola Asiang would be proud to see how far her little rolling canteen had come, and how the dinuguan at puto, arroz caldo, pancit luglug, banana fritters (now known as turon), and lumpiang ubod are still very much a part of the menu.
It has been more than two decades since I had last set foot in Aristocrat, but I think now I shall be paying them a visit more often. The quality of the food is always the same, no matter what branch you may end up in, it is always super affordable, and the portions are mostly good for sharing. So remember, the next time you’re hankering for some of your favorite Filipino merienda dishes – head on over to an Aristocrat near you!
The Aristocrat Restaurant is located at 432 San Andres St., Roxas Boulevard, Malate, Manila and is open 24 hours. For bulk orders, catering, and party reservations, please call +63 2 521 8147 (party hotline), +63 2 524 7671 or +63 917 511 2796.