The Sulô Coffee Shop: A Spark in History
The essay that follows is an excerpt from a chapter in a book-in-progress by Erlinda Enriquez Panlilio on the Sulo Restaurant, a stand-alone restaurant that was the first to be built in the old Makati Commercial (now Ayala) Center. It operated from 1963 to 1989 except for two years (1977-1979) when it burned down and was under reconstruction. Designed by the Mañosa Brothers, the Sulo would come to be known as an iconic restaurant, marked by a soaring roof reminiscent of a vinta sail, which people found exotic. It was the first restaurant of its era to house several restaurant outlets under its roof.
On the date the Sulo opened, on July 30, 1963, the Manila Times headline read: “3-nation summit on today.” Pictures showed President Diosdado Macapagal meeting President Suharto of Indonesia and Malaysian Prime Minister Tungku Abdul Rahman separately at the airport. President Macapagal wanted to mediate between Indonesia and Malaysia on their row. A sub-headline read “Stonehill row takes holiday.” It said that “national officials involved in the seething Stonehill debates” were observing a “moratorium in deference to the current three-nation summit.”
We opened the Sulo coffee shop for business ahead of the other outlets so as not to be overwhelmed. We wanted to test the waters, so to speak. Needless to say, it was pandemonium. I didn’t realize how hungry these wealthy Makati people were! They besieged the coffee shop and importuned us to open the rest of the rooms. They wandered around the closed outlets, eager to explore them. We realized we had better open the rest of our outlets real soon.
We had transferred our old reliable D&E Restaurant staff to the Sulo. Chito Miranda became pantryman and soda tender at the coffee shop. He was in charge of brewing coffee, putting crushed eggshells with the grounds in the 25-cup percolator, which he used to do in the D&E. In the original coffee shop at T. Pinpin at the Escolta, newspaper writers such as Teodoro Valencia, Joe Guevara, Jose Bautista, and Estrella Alfon would drink bottomless cups of coffee made with Café Puro grounds. In the Sulo, the brand of coffee we used was Chase & Sanborn.
My own contribution to the coffee shop menu was Rainbow Parfait, which I learned while working in Statler Inn at Cornell University. Into a tall parfait glass, I told Chito to put vanilla ice cream, coarsely crushed graham crackers, sliced bananas, strawberries, cut-up pineapple and finally, strawberry ice cream. This was topped with a dollop of whipped cream and a maraschino cherry with its stem. This concoction was priced at P2.50, later upped to P5.50 after two years. A variation, Crème de Menthe Parfait, cost fifty centavos more.
Our Banana Split and ice cream sundaes were popular with the Assumption Convent students, who would walk to the coffee shop after their classes in San Lorenzo Village. They also liked our Sulo Burger, which was topped with smothered onions and served with French fries.
On weekends, especially after movies at the Rizal Theatre nearby, families would flock to the 120-seat coffee shop with their children in tow. The kids and their parents would order “Country Lad Steak—Juicy petite filet mignon served with lots of French Fries,” or “The Smart Kid Combo—Yummy chicken salad and French Fries served with finger sandwiches.” The “Dagwood Club,” on the other hand, was “Definitely for gourmet or gourmand: a three-tiered affair of hamburger, western egg, and bacon.” I had named this sandwich after the central character, Dagwood Bumstead, in the comic strip Blondie, in which he was frequently illustrated making enormous multi-layered sandwiches. (The Dagwood sandwich eventually entered Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.)
A section of our lunch and dinner menu attracted those who were dieting. It was titled “Weight Watchers with a Flair.” Favorites were “Slimline Seafood Plate” (250 calories) described as “A mélange of assorted shellfish on fresh garden greens with lo-calorie dressing.” My own favorite was the “Skinny Steak à la Minute” (approximately 275 calories) described as “Filet of prime tenderloin, pan-broiled and topped with smothered onions; served with steamed veggies.” Because my undergraduate course at UP had been Foods and Nutrition, I knew that Dietitians would make good Kitchen Supervisors. They helped me calculate the calories for our weight-watchers’ specials.
I had named one of our sandwiches “Hansie’s Fancy” because General Hans Menzi just loved corned beef. I described it as “The all-time favorite—corned beef hash in pan de sal. That’s it!” This was initially priced at P2.50.
At the beginning, our set breakfast menus (“Table d’Hote”) were priced at only P3.50 for a full breakfast or a hearty American breakfast. We baked our own ensaimada, cinnamon roll, doughnut, brownies, as well as cheese cake, apple pie, lemon meringue pie, strawberry shortcake, and all kinds of cakes—chocolate, marble, butter, mocha. They were always sold out at the end of the day.
At lunchtime, Herminio Disini (later accused of being a Marcos crony) would walk in swaying and moving his arms as in a Filipino folk dance. Waiters automatically knew he would be ordering “The Fandanggo—Like a memorable dance, this delightful mélange of chicken and pork adobo in pan de sal.”
One of our most popular dishes was Pork Barbecue with Java Rice, which was originally priced at only P4.00. The small scoop of orange-colored rice was apparently insufficient, especially with men, who would always order extra rice. They said it tasted good.
Our Pancit Luglog was a big hit, as was the Dinuguan served with Putong Polo, and Fresh Lumpiang Ubod. During the mid-1950s, President Ramon Magsaysay himself would stop by at the D&E in Quezon City to pick up some Lumpiang Ubod for his family. These and the rest of our Filipino dishes that would be served at the Rajah Room when it opened were all prepared by Aling Pinang, our old-maid cook from my father’s province of Bulacan.
The lunch hour was always so stressful because at around 60 years of age, Aling Pinang was slow. She insisted on ladling onto plates the dishes she had cooked herself. We had put a bain marie right in front of her cooking area so that the Adobo, Kare-kare, Dinuguan, and Pancit Luglog sauce she had cooked could be kept in it and someone else could dish it out upon order. But Aling Pinang would refuse to transfer the dishes there. She and only she could dish out her food direct from her kaldero. Meanwhile, the customers in the coffee shop and Rajah Room would invariably complain as they were kept waiting. My distant cousin Glenda Rosales (later Barretto), who had trained and worked under my mother at the D&E, would stand in the kitchen urging Aling Pinang to hurry up. After the lunch rush hour, Aling Pinang would remain in the kitchen making her thin, delicate lumpia wrappers. No other restaurant to this date has come close to Aling Pinang’s Lumpiang Ubod in paper-thin wrappers, served with a great-tasting salty-sweet sauce.
Written by Erlinda Panlilio