Story & photos by Issa Quirante
IN the quiet side of Bonifacio Global City in Taguig is a not-so-tucked “Filipino restaurant of Spanish descent” that not only serves delicious heirloom recipes, but also offers diners a taste of hacienda living in the 1900s.
Arroz Ecija, a specialty restaurant at the Arya Plaza of the high-rise Arya Residences, is a concept culled from the memories and childhood stories told to Andrew J. Masigan, president of Advent Manila Hospitality Group Inc.—the same group behind XO 46 Heritage Bistro.
The restaurant’s name is a combination of the Spanish word for rice (arroz) and the name of a landlocked province in the Philippines’s Central Luzon region, specifically, Jaen, Nueva Ecija, where Masigan’s family had a rice plantation.
Welcome to Albufera de Veléz
The story of Arroz Ecija goes way back to the time of Masigan’s grandfather, Don Claro Veléz, who was part of the last wave of Spanish immigrants to the Philippines.
Don Claro settled in Santa Maria, Isabela, and worked as a regional judge while he dabbled in tobacco and rice farming. His passion for agriculture bore fruit, as he found himself living the life of a full-time haciendero as his plantation continued to flourish. He eventually met and married a local mestiza named Patrocinio Alindada.
Lured by the impeccable weather conditions of Nueva Ecija, which made it easy to grow rice, the couple acquired land in Jaen to be the site of an even bigger plantation—the Albufera de Veléz.
Life at the albufera was prosperous. And the bounties the Velézes shared with the families of their more than 300 workers. Doña Patrocinio prepared flavorful, savory food at the hacienda’s kitchen and fed those working the fields. Her long dining tables groaned under the weight of the abundant and comforting Filipino-Hispanic meals she cooked and lovingly put together.
However, in January 1942, life for the Velézes and at the hacienda changed when the Japanese Imperial Army descended into chaos and attacked. Don Claro and his eldest son, Alfredo, were made to join the Death March from Bataan to Tarlac. Both did not survive. The albufera, too, was no more.
An ‘almacen’ of memories and good food
Masigan was very close with his late aunt Nenita, from whom he heard all the stories about the albufera and the heirloom recipes that were fortunately passed on for generations and are now the cornerstone of Arroz Ecija’s menu.
From the menu, diners can start with Huevos Rotos, crisped potato fries topped with ground chorizo, fried egg and cheese; Chorizo Sampler Platter of Tuguegarao and Vigan chorizo, betamax (blood) and batutay (longganisa); Shing-a-ling; Chicharon Mexico with guacamole dip; Hinornong Mejillones or baked mussels; and Oreja á la Plancha or grilled pig’s ears.
Arroz Ecija serves four different kinds of bringhe, the Filipino version of the Spanish paella of glutinous rice cooked in coconut milk—where one, or all, almost always make it to the table—there’s the Bringhe sa Manok, Bringhe sa Gulay at Bigas ng Cordillera, Bringhe sa Tinta ng Pusit and Bringhe sa Sari-saring Lamandagat.
The restaurant also offers a selection of all-day breakfast feasts—all served with egg fabada and binawang na kangkong—called Almusal ng Haciendero (chicken tocino, pork longganisa and beef tapa); Almusal ng Mangingisda (binawang na tuyo, daing na bangus at sardinas); and Almusal ng Magsasaka (itlog na maalat, binurong gulay at hinornong kamatis). Diners can also opt for the Arroz Caldo á la Tinola and Arroz Caldo in Bulalo broth.
For the main dishes, diners can choose from Bagnet ng Ilocos, Bopis Ecija, Morcon de Queso de Bola, Callos Madrileno, Pastel de Lengua and Fried Pork Adobo, among others. The restaurant also has a different take on the usual sinigang with its Sinigang na Tiyan ng Bangus sa Mangang Hilaw. Diners can also choose from a list of soups and noodles (pancit).
And for dessert, Arroz Ecija ups the ante of the hacienda feel by offering the traditional rice cakes, or kakanin, like Sapin-sapin, Cassava cake, Biko ube, Maja mais or Maja ube, Pinipig sa Bau and Mango Mauhay, among others.
“Arroz Ecija is an ode to the memory of Albufera de Veléz…an homage to a time when life was beautiful; a time when a good meal was enough to make up for a hard day’s work…a time when food was prepared slowly, lovingly and with heartfelt care,” Masigan shared.
He added, “We wanted the diners to feel like they were in Nueva Ecija. You see, there are two components when you are in a rice plantation: You are either in the villa or spending time in the almacen—the warehouse where rice is stocked. What we really do is celebrate the rice farmers.”
This, as Masigan said it was a “conscious decision” to source rice from a farmers’ cooperative to keep the varieties alive. The farmers only plant the rice variety in advance when there is a demand for it. Arroz Ecija, so far, has been serving the jasponica, dinorado, black jasmine, basmati, purple pirurutong and sampaguita varieties.
According to Masigan, Arroz Ecija imbibes the almacen feel, as stepping into the restaurant transports the diners back to the simple life at the albufera.
Aside from the modern comforts, everything inside Arroz Ecija—from the tables and chairs made of teak wood to lighting fixtures inspired by the winnowing basket, large wood panels boxing in photos of a rice plantation and sacks of different heirloom rice varieties—gives it the feeling of being inside the almacen and looking out to the rice plantation.
Image credits: Issa Quirante