On Timelessness: Ma Mon Luk Restaurant, Quezon Avenue
Updated: Oct 8, 2022
Who would have thought that a love story would give rise to a classic dish well-loved by generations of Filipinos?
Mention the word mami to a Filipino, and chances are the legendary Ma Mon Luk Restaurant along Quezon Avenue would come to their mind. Maybe your parents would reminisce eating a warm and hearty meal at this joint, a stone's throw from Banawe Street. Nothing beats a steaming bowl of chicken noodle soup with a steamed meat bun (siopao) as big as a clenched fist for a good meal. Add in siopao sauce in the mami broth for that timeless taste.
But the story of Ma Mon Luk actually began in 1896. Ramon Ma Mon Luk (Ma Wenlu) was born that year in Zhongshan in Guangdong, China. In 1918, Ma arrived in the Philippines at the age of 22 to try out his luck. He was trying to court his sweetheart Ng Shih, also a Zhongshan resident. However, her affluent parents did not look too kindly on the young Wenlu due to his poverty.
Over time, Ramon became a common sight in the streets of Manila. Carrying a shoulder pole (pingga) with two pots on each side, he peddled the signature chicken mami dish the restaurant is widely known for. One pot carried the ingredients—noodles, chicken, and spring onion—while the other contained a coal-fired stove where the broth was heated.
To serve his customers, Ramon would cut noodles into a bowl and top it with chicken and spring onion, ladling the warm chicken broth for a quick and hearty meal. He regaled his customers with tales about China, appealing mostly to students around the capital’s institutions of learning. Ma himself was a teacher before heading to the Philippines.
Years of hard work paid off, and he won Ng's heart upon returning to China. Ma and Ng got married in the Philippines, and started a family—having three sons and a daughter. The schoolteacher-turned-restaurateur successfully expanded the restaurant in different locations such as Cubao, Pasay, Quiapo, and Binondo. Years passed, and Ma Mon Luk’s six branches dwindled down to two – with the Cubao branch being the last store to close. Only the Quiapo and Quezon Avenue branches remain as of writing.
Incidentally, this branch used to be the house where Ma Mon Luk and his family originally lived. It still stands today, with his descendants (carrying the surname Mamonluk) keeping his legacy alive through the family-owned Ma Mon Luk Restaurant Corporation. Further cementing Ma's immortality is the fact that the word mami actually means "Ma's noodles".
Timelessness is the general theme of Ma Mon Luk; memories of times long gone adorn the place as soon as you enter. An old payphone is near the doorway, old rotary telephones are displayed in glass cases, old latch keys are framed on the wall, and a sewing machine-cum-lampshade serves as an accent piece. Pictures of famous personalities who have dined and news clippings decorate its stone-gray walls. It’s like the clocks froze back in our parents' time.
The restaurant has withstood the test of time by offering timeless and homely Chinese staples. A lot of food bloggers before me and—even before the food blogging craze—the older generations have raved about Ma Mon Luk. To see it in real life, however, is an entirely different thing—and a visit is highly recommended to experience its timelessness.
Of course, one's visit to Ma Mon Luk is not complete without trying their specialties. The Original Mami (Small) was more than enough for me despite the small size. Its larger counterpart is big enough for two people to share – and for one who's really hungry.
The Special Asado Siopao lives up to its reputation as a large and filling snack. It is big as my closed fist, and Ma Mon Luk did not scrimp on the shredded chicken filling. It's not exactly delicious with the filling alone, so the siopao sauce helps brighten up everything. You could even put this on the noodle broth to brighten things up!
However, the Siomai did not have any redeeming qualities – to put it bluntly. While it is larger than most dumplings in the market, it does not really stand out taste-wise. It also leaned towards the rather expensive side with only two pieces per order.
But don't let my post discourage you from trying out this iconic restaurant. Three or four generations have raved about Ma Mon Luk. Even though Ma died of throat cancer in 1961, his legacy did not pass away with him – as the simple noodle dish he pioneered became embedded in Philippine culinary culture.
Visit Ma Mon Luk Restaurant on Facebook and Instagram, and head over to its official website, to be in the loop with the restaurant's latest updates.
Until the next post, bon appetit.
(AUTHOR'S NOTES: Additional information was obtained from this article by J.V. Torres published in Rogue.ph and this piece by Aaron Ronquillo published in Psst.ph.)