Words Alex Arellano
Images Café 1771 and Alex Arellano
Smart Panciteria, T. Pinpin Street, Binondo Manila
If you’re the kind of person who revels in the well-rehearsed warmth of restaurant wait staff who greet you with a perky and bubbly, “Good evening sir, and thank you for choosing to dine at Thank God It’s Froufrou, I’m your food server Khrissie,” Smart Panciteria wasn’t the place for you. The barest of nods qualified as a rousing welcome from Smart’s waiters, who all looked like they’d started their careers in the hospitality industry during the twilight years of the Spanish colonial era.
For regulars, the dinginess of Smart was cause for levity. For picky diners, calling the place dodgy, ramshackle, or seedy was high praise. The tablecloths, all made with 100% pure unadulterated polyester, had more holes in them than Health Secretary Duque’s explanations that we didn’t need to close the country’s borders in the early days of the covid pandemic. The water decanters were repurposed liquor bottles and arrived at your table with the extra-extra-thick drinking glasses that looked capable of stopping small-caliber bullets. The “feature wall” behind the cashier showcased free calendars from Hope cigarettes, Tanduay Rhum, and a nearby hardware store. A permanent film of Binondo grit served as light diffusers of the fluorescent lamps. The overhead electric fans were of no use against the heat. They only made the warm air hit you faster. And if you were ever wondering what the inspiration was for the 70s disco hit Funkytown, it was the reek of the toilets at Smart.
All about the food
Bank executives from the Escolta-Binondo area who could afford infinitely swankier joints were known to shed their coats, ties, or barongs for a taste of Smart’s specialties. A few occupants of Malacañang Palace, Jose Laurel, Diosdado Macapagal, and Joseph Estrada, were all regulars, according to an article in the Philippine Star, as was the best president we could’ve had—former Senator, Congressman, and Education Secretary, Raul Roco.
What we always ordered
Steamed Taiwan Fish Hong Kong Style I never got to ask exactly what the Taiwan fish was, but I’m guessing it was a large bacoco (sea bream). A slab of it was steamed to just the right doneness, with an almost-meaty sauce that tasted more full-bodied than the sauce of the standard steamed lapu-lapu (grouper). My wife always had second helpings; astounding when you consider she likes fish as much as Melania loves Donald Trump.
Frog’s Legs Lightly dusted with flour and deep-fried to non-greasy perfection.
Smart Chicken Crisp like Korean fried chicken but with a hoisin-like dressing and a sprinkling of sesame seeds.
Toge Gisado Consistently fresh and crunchy. If there were a Stir Fryers’ Hall of Fame, Smart’s cooks deserved to be in it.
Kangkong with Lechon Another reason why Smart’s cooks were worthy of a spot in the Stir Fryers’ Hall of Fame.
Hipon Asin My sister-in-law used to order a plate just for herself. And while there have been no statistically conclusive studies on what the most popular item was in their menu, I’m willing to bet all of former Justice Secretary Aguirre’s toupees it was hipon asin. Trellis in Quezon City offers a pretty good facsimile of it. Ask the waiter for Inasinan na Hipon. If Trellis is out of the way, try the recipe below from Doña Julieta Lopez Arenas of Iloilo, mother-in-law of my former boss, Maricel Pangilinan Arenas.
Suahe Sinangag sa Asin
Recipe by Doña Julieta Lopez Arenas
- Fresh suahe, live, if possible
- Sea salt
- 1 liter cooking oil for deep frying
- Optional: chopped garlic, finely sliced sili
- Optional dipping sauce: soy, vinegar, chopped ginger, garlic, chopped spring
- onions, siling labuyo, a bit of sugar
- Wok or deep-frying pan
- Container for excess oil
- Paper towels
- Kitchen scissors
- If you have one, a deep-fry thermometer
- 1. Heat oil in the wok. While it heats up…
- 2. Snip off the shrimp antennae, the rostrum (the pointy end of the shrimp head), and legs.
- 3. Put shrimps in the wok and cook until pink.
- 4. Take shrimps out of the wok and put in a colander to drain excess oil.
- 5. Pour out the hot oil from the wok leaving just a film of oil covering the wok. Put it back on the stove and keep the fire on high.
- 6. Put a handful of salt into the wok and toss that around for a bit. If using garlic and sili, add them to the wok and sauté for a few seconds.
- 7. Put the shrimp back in and toss around with the salt for about 30 seconds.
- 8. Scoop out and place on paper towels to absorb excess oil and then transfer to a serving dish.
Instead of suahe, I’ve tried hipon puti and large shrimp and have been happy with the results. If you’re not into eating/sucking shrimp heads, remove the heads before cooking and save for making stock. What kind of sili? I use the large sili for sinigang. Want more heat? Use sili labuyo.
The oil’s ready for frying when the thermometer reads 180o C or 350-375o F. No oil thermometer? Dip the handle of a wooden spoon or chopstick into the oil. Steady bubbling means it’s ready.
Don’t crowd the wok by putting in too many shrimps at once. This’ll lower the temperature of the oil, which leads to limp and greasy shrimp. You want that like you want another year of quarantine. Got lots of shrimp? Cook in batches.
After the second fry, I skip the step of draining the shrimps on paper towels. From the wok, it’s straight into the serving dish.
Café 1771, El Pueblo, Julia Vargas Avenue, Pasig
Whatever thoughts were bothering you—a boss with all the people skills of a hammer, the manslaughter-conducive levels of traffic congestion in Metro Manila, a business presentation reminiscent of the Titanic’s voyage—”It started well but ended in disaster”—they all momentarily bid you adieu as you entered Café 1771, slid into a seat, and were tended to by some of the most well-trained, attentive, and gracious front-of-house people you could ever meet.
The Greatest Hits
Created by Chef Vicky Rose Pacheco
The dish has two components: the chicken, which’ll be marinated for at least two hours, and the sauce, which can be prepared in advance and parked in the freezer or refrigerator. On the day you plan to serve it, deep fry the chicken and thicken the sauce.
14 pieces chicken leg, 350 to 400 grams per piece. Debone and set aside bones for chicken stock, which is needed for the sauce.
- 1 cup lime juice
- 25 grams garlic, peeled and chopped
- 25 grams ginger, peeled and chopped
- 1/3 tsp rock salt
Procedure for marinade
- 1. Combine all ingredients in a blender and purée until smooth. Transfer to a bowl.
- 2. Dip each leg in the marinade, turning it up and back, then transfer to a flat container with a cover. Do this until all pieces have been coated with the marinade.
- 3. Pour any remaining marinade over the chicken in the container and cover it.
- 4. Leave in the refrigerator for two hours minimum, 24 hours maximum.
- 1 cup + 1 tsp lime juice
- 4 tbsps Yamasa soy sauce
- 1 ½ cups white wine
- 8 cups chicken stock
- 1 ½ cups honey
- Cornstarch, dissolved in water
Procedure for sauce
- 1. Combine ingredients in a small pot.
- 2. Bring to a boil, then turn down the heat to medium and cook until reduced by half.
- 3. Add the honey, mix well and continue reducing for 15 minutes more until it has body.
- 4. At this point, you may transfer the sauce to a container and let it cool. Or you may continue simmering further until you get a deep brown color.
- 5. Finishing touch: turn up the heat to medium, then add the cornstarch slurry little by little while stirring continuously.
On the day you plan to serve the lemon chicken:
- Coconut or palm oil, for deep frying
- All-purpose flour for dredging
- 1. Prepare a pot of hot oil for deep-frying.
- 2. Dredge each piece of marinated chicken leg in flour.
- 3. Deep fry the chicken pieces one by one until light brown, then set the fried pieces on a rack.
- 4. Cut up each chicken leg into eight even pieces, like small nuggets.
- 5. Deep-fry the small pieces until crisp and golden brown.
- 6. Place the sauce in a pan and heat up. The consistency of the sauce should be like honey. Taste if the sauce has that sweet-sour balance.
- 7. On low fire, add the fried pieces to the sauce and coat evenly by shaking the pan and using a sauté spoon to move the pieces about, taking care not to burn the sauce. If the sauce is too runny, it will coat the pieces, but the flavor will be light. If the sauce is too thick, it might become too sweet.
- 8. Serve with garlic rice.
The Course Nazi
I never thought it possible, but there was a man who was immune to the charms of Café 1771. So, one night, as I waited for the waiter to bring back my credit card and receipt, my post-dinner bliss was shattered by:
“WHY ARE YOU SERVING THE MAIN COURSE BEFORE THE SOUP AND APPETIZER?!!?”
My wife, who was sitting across me, pursed her lips as subtly as she could to indicate that it was some guy at the table behind me.
“THIS IS BULLSH*T!!! YOU’RE NOT SUPPOSED TO DO THIS!”
“I’m very sorry, sir. If you want—”
“TAKE THIS BACK! DO YOUR JOBS RIGHT!”
“But papa, I’m hungry na….”
“AH NO, NO, NO. THESE PEOPLE NEED TO BE TAUGHT A LESSON. AND YOU!”
“I WANT TO SPEAK WITH THE MANAGER NOW!!!!”
I was tempted to butt in with, “Well, guess who forgot to take his Prozac this evening.”
The words of legendary Hollywood scriptwriter William Goldman also came to mind: “I seem to detect a lack of brotherly love around here.”
Fortunately, our waiter arrived with my card and receipt, and we left. As we walked to the car, I remembered something Anthony Bourdain is supposed to have said about customers who are rude to their waiters: “You are lower than whale feces.”
Smart Panciteria, Binondo, closed in the late 1990s, early 2000s. Nancy Leoy, the granddaughter of the founder, Leoy Sang, reopened it in Libis, near the corner of C5 and Green Meadows Avenue. The new Smart was fresh-smelling, air-conditioned, and well-appointed. But the food just wasn’t the same, and the place closed a year or two later.
Café 1771 will reopen in a new location post-pandemic, according to Ricky Gutierrez, the affable CEO of the 1771 Group of Restaurants. (I pray the Course Nazi never finds out.) •
Acknowledgments: Lemon chicken recipe sourced from pinoyfoodblog.com. Thank you very much to Ricky Gutierrez, CEO of the 1771 Group of Restaurants, for permission to print the lemon chicken recipe and use pictures of Café 1771 interiors and dishes. Image sources: Jose P. Laurel (Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons), Diosdado Macapagal (NCCA Official, Flickr), Joseph Estrada (Ramon F. Velasquez, Wikimedia Commons), Raul Roco (Froy Agta, Wikimedia Commons)
Alex Arellano is a freelance writer, communications consultant, and cooking enthusiast. The loves of his life are his wife Carol and daughter Isabel. He defines the holy trinity as San Miguel Beer, the hipon asin of Smart Panciteria, and newly cooked lechon from Carmen’s in Talisay, Cebu. Caricature by Jonathan Talas.