Little Store on the Hill is a tiny place with great character.
Is it because the owners, Bartolome and Rosalinda Chua, were both artists—Chinese poets (the late Mr. Chua a Balagtas awardee) who also shared a passion for cooking, and whose love for food and each other seems, well, eternal?
Or is it because the owners built the establishment in the spirit of good fun, yearning for a place where they could simply dine and spend time with friends?
Profit, according to their daughter Mona, was not a top priority. When I asked Mrs. Chua what Little Store was all about, she simply said: “I wanted to bring Chinatown to San Juan.”
“We sell everything: canned goods, fruits, vegetables that are so fresh, straight from the farm and very reasonable. In fact, we supply other restaurants.”
“Before, when we just opened, we only sold lumpia. Konti ng customer noong bagong bukas kami. Then Boysie Villavicencio wrote about us. Biglang nagkapila.”
Today, the place has numerous offerings on its turo-turo-style counter, and still continues to sell as much as 600 pieces of its famous lumpia everyday.
Mona added: “Apart from our specialties which we serve daily, our food changes everyday and Mama is still the one who cooks and is fully in charge.”
The gracious Mrs. Chua described her food as a mix of Taiwanese street and home-cooked Hokkien dishes.
On her lumpia being proclaimed by many as one of the best, she said: “My ingredients are really the authentic ingredients of Hokkien lumpia. The vegetables are all cut by hand; it makes a difference. And the filling is cooked for long hours.”
Amazingly, the vegetables of the huge, tightly stuffed lumpia, though thoroughly cooked, retain their character, texture and flavor, and are far from wilted or mushy. They come in generous portions, too, even the cilantro. At only P75!
Lumpia isn’t all there is to this place. The kikiam is also delicious, spiced beautifully and filled with chunks of meat—nope, not ground meat.
The misua soup with balut is hearty and tasty, with a distinct flavor that comes through especially when enjoyed with a drizzle of herb-infused rice wine.
The tofu, according to Mrs. Chua, has absolutely no preservatives. It is sublime, pristine. In fact, fried but so soft and moist on the inside, it was literally taho—that kind of curd softness which gently crumbles in the mouth. It is served with a very delicious teriyaki sauce with lots of green onions. Even a non-tofu lover will be converted by this dish.
The pig’s ears, cooked in a soy-based sauce, had nice texture and bite—if you enjoy that sort of thing. And the birthday misua, though I am not really a fan of the dish, was likewise done well and can be ordered in bilaos two hours in advance.
Aside from the store that has a mini restaurant and takeout counter, Mrs. Chua also caters, entertains food orders and even rations food in pimbreras (for pickup or delivery within the scope of the stores).
According to her, “the client must provide us with two pimbreras, para palitan. Price starts at P250 for the small pimbrera of three viands: one seafood, one meat and one vegetable—good for two to three persons, P300 good for four to five persons.”
Added Mona: “It’s very reasonable. Mom does it to address her customers’ needs. She will make do with any budget.”
I also noticed that the food is weighed. This way, customers have full control over their desired portions while allowing them the luxury of sampling as much variety as they wish.
While I was there, a couple had six—or was it eight?—dishes in little sauce bowls. It was a degustation, Little Store-style.
With such expertise on Mrs. Chua’s part, I presumed she had grown up in her mother’s kitchen, acquiring her culinary skills early on in life. But she quipped, “I had to force myself to learn how to cook!”
“Since my husband was very interested in cooking, we learned together,” she added. “Madalas kaming magtalo dahil sa pagluto. Pag sinabi kong mas masarap luto ko, sasabihin niya, hindi, akin mas masarap! We enjoyed being in the kitchen together!”
When they were newly married, Mrs. Chua recalled, “my mother-in-law made me fry an egg, I poured oil, sobrang dami sa kawali! She said, that’s not the way to fry eggs! Natuto lang ako nung nag-asawa ako!”
One day, when the cook went home to the province, Mrs. Chua was tasked by her mother-in-law to do the cooking for the whole household. And so, today Mrs. Chua credits her mother-in-law for her culinary success.
Little Store on the Hill is at 2 Jose Abad Santos St., Little Baguio, San Juan. Call 7219174, 7236881, 4113324 or 7212359.