HOME COOKING has a way of connecting us with a purer version of ourselves. Before the world left us all scratched, somebody loved us and prepared food for us. We guess that’s the magic of Milky Way Café, where each dish brings us back to our mother’s table, when nothing yet could go wrong.

It’s not just our memories that Milky Way Café taps into, but the collective memory of the nation. The restaurant has been around since 1962, and many people have fond memories of the era: before the smog, before the skyscrapers, before the traffic; before everything that had come to pass since then.

Chef J Gamboa, son of Milky Way founder Julie Araullo Gamboa, talked with BusinessWorld earlier this week in the newly renovated Milky Way branch in Rockwell, the second; the first being the bigger Milky Way in Makati’s Arnaiz Ave. (though some still call it by its former name, Pasay Road). The restaurant’s concept is even older than he is: he was born in the purple of his parents’ success in 1971, almost a decade after they first opened Milky Way Turo-Turo (literally point-point, which means cafeteria-style service) across Malacañang. Educated in the US, he and his siblings have since expanded into Spanish, Thai, and Japanese cuisines, all the restaurants located beside the Arnaiz Ave. branch.

At its peak, his mother had 15 Milky Way branches across Metro Manila. Now, there are only two, while his cousins have branches that share the brand name, but not exactly the same fare. See, the restaurant started as an ice cream factory that was bought by his grandfather from two Spanish ladies who opened it up immediately after the war. His grandfather gave his eight children permission to open up their own independent restaurants, with the condition that none of them would go into business together. So at some point in time, there were several Milky Way Cafés owned and operated independently by various Araullo siblings. Mr. Gamboa says that the only thing they all have in common now is the ice cream, which they provide for everyone.

Mr. Araullo said that his favorite dish is their ox-tongue asado, stewed in tomato sauce, leaving a cut of meat that is almost buttery-soft. Other selections include the Bistek Tagalog (beef cooked in soy sauce and onions) and the Kare-kare (meat and vegetables stewed in a peanut-based sauce) which one might argue appears on all tables in the Philippines anyway.

So why do people come to them for food that’s accessible to nearly everyone? He gave the example of their Crispy Hito (catfish), which they would have at least once a week at his late mother’s house. “We kind of taught people how to eat it.” A few years ago, a lady who was a loyal customer approached him, praised him for the fish, but balked at the prices, declaring that she could make it cheaper at home. Mr. Gamboa taught this lady, whom he fondly called one of his titas, how to make it the Milky Way way. She came back and said that she failed in replicating the recipe, and went back to ordering it.

“I don’t think people have cooks like before. There aren’t those big families anymore, but people still want to eat home cooking.”

In fact, over at the Rockwell branch, families send their help over at lunchtime for takeout, he said. “They have time to make it? I don’t think so.”

I could write lines and lines of prose about how good everything was, but it’s hard to do justice to recipes older than this reporter, and all of them bringing back a fond memory of a time gone by. Of course, there’s also the factor that almost everything in the menu is made in-house: from the 20 ingredients that go into the halo-halo (a shaved ice desert) not counting the milk, to the ice creams and the bagoong (fermented fish paste).

Mr. Gamboa recalls that as a child, he was placed on ice cream duty. “The flavors are still the same, if not improved. It will still taste like Milky Way Pinoy food.”

Mr. Gamboa says that the secret to surviving that long is, “We’re here everyday… making sure that everybody’s getting the food that they deserve.”

This is the main reason why they haven’t seriously entertained expanding abroad, bringing comforting Filipino food to the migrant population. “We won’t be able to deliver the same level of service,” he said. “Here na lang. Fun pa (Let’s keep it here. It’s fun).”

Some of the strongest restaurants still around from before the 1990s are built around comfort food. As we’ve said before, one can argue that these are all available at home anyway, but what makes them all, including Milky Way, still stand? “We have the strongest cultural connection to that cuisine.

“You’re going to eat that, no matter what.” — JL Garcia