Days before he steps down as the country’s 15th chief executive, President Benigno Aquino III paid a visit to his favorite Chinese eatery since the early 1980s, the President Grand Palace Restaurant located at the heart of Binondo district in Manila.
“I already wanted to eat here when I was still in college,” Aquino recalled while taking a bite of his go-to comfort food, sizzling oysters – tiny mollusks caramelized from the heat, crunchy and juicy with just the right flavor of savory black beans and pepper.
“I love the sizzling oysters – they’re really good. I also like the crispy squid, although I recall it used to have a lighter batter that made it extra crispy,” he shared with members of the Malacañang Press Corps during the farewell lunch he hosted at the President Grand Palace restaurant.
He would pass by the banquet-style restaurant, then located between Ongpin and Padilla streets, when his Filipino-Chinese classmates would bring him to Chinatown to watch the latest Jackie Chan films, without subtitles but complete with real-time annotation from his friends. But it was not until he landed his first job at the Philippine Business for Social Progress on Dasmariñas St. in Binondo that he was able to fulfill his gastronomic wish.
According to Amy Tan, one of the managers of the restaurant, Aquino would host luncheons and dinners for his friends at the President, which reopened in 2009 and is now housed at what used to be a Chinese theater, giving it a hotel ballroom-feel. The restaurant has an unassuming facade despite its lofty name, which Tan says was specifically chosen by the owners as being “auspicious” since president in Chinese also means number one.
Tan, who has been with the restaurant for more than two decades now, has seen all sorts of customers, from Chinese aunties and uncles who would have dimsum and tea to high-profile visitors who would book one of their private rooms, including Aquino.
“People like our food because it is always fresh. Our chef even studied culinary arts in Hong Kong to make sure we serve authentic dishes,” said Tan.
Aside from the sizzling oysters and crispy squid, the lauriat-style lunch hosted by Aquino included shrimps with pepper and chili, abalone with Shiitake mushrooms, steamed crabs, sweet and sour pork, various cold cuts and roastings and, of course, yang chow fried rice. There were no poultry dishes, however, owing to a childhood experience that made the outgoing President swear off eating chicken.
Aquino, who has less than 72 hours left as the country’s chief executive, said he looks forward to being able to eat more often at the President Grand Palace and in other restaurants that he likes. “There were days when my Cabinet members and I could only eat Yum Burger from Jollibee for lunch at 3 p.m. and Yum Burger again for dinner,” the 56-year old bachelor President said, scratching his head while reminiscing.
“I like eating here at the President. Their dishes are, I would say, unique and comforting,” added Aquino, who traces his roots to Hongjian village in China’s Fujian province where his mother, the late President Corazon Cojuangco-Aquino, came from the line of Chinese immigrant Co Yu Hwan who moved to the Philippines in 1861.
For dessert, the President asked his close-in aide to buy peanut ampao (Chinese puffed rice rolls coated with either crushed peanuts or sesame seeds) at the nearby Salazar Bakery and mung beans hopia from Eng Bee Tin. “I would have wanted to buy these myself. Let’s go on an economic mission here in Binondo,” he said in jest, acknowledging the security protocols that have barred him from doing something as common as stroll along the busy streets of Chinatown for the past six years.
Before everyone knew it, the almost four-hour lunch was over – just like the Aquino presidency.
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