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DLSL Alumnus Gary To: the Lomi King

It is easy to imagine, although I am no expert in etymology, that the name of a favourite noodle-based local delicacy is taken from a decidedly Chinese ancestor. Lomi, after all, does indeed sound a lot like lo mein.

The former is a ubiquitous enough Filipino noodle-based pancit variant, unmistakably Chinese in origins; and the latter, which in Cantonese literally means ‘stirred noodles,’ is a dish made of wheat flour noodles mixed with meat and seafood.

But I forget, this is not a food blog at all. On the other hand, how can I write about Gary To of the high school class of 1985 without mention of that most revered of Lipeño delicacies – the lomi? Please! Not the Chinese restaurant variant which is laced with – whisper it quietly – vegetables.

In a strictly Lipa context, lomi is never – repeat, never – desecrated by the offensive vegetables and should be cooked only with meat balls, slices of meat, liver and kikiam. Served with a bowl of chopped onions, some calamansî, red chilli and a bottle of soy sauce for the customer to perform the mix-it-yourself ritual.

But we were talking about Gary…

Gary was in my History class of schoolyear 1984-1985. As far as I was concerned, he was just this polite little Chinese boy who listened attentively, didn’t say an awful lot but smartly answered when I had a question to ask.

Since I was not particularly fond of lomi at the time, I did not know nor would I have cared that I actually had in my class the heir apparent to noodle royalty.

Although the lomi was a great snack-cum-meal, what ultimately guaranteed its success was that it appealed to the Batangueños’ aremuhunan culture – the culture of frugality.
Allow me to digress…

The first time I tasted the authentic Lipa lomi, I was with friends from the Base who savaged what must have been a thousand little red chillis into a small dish before proceeding to add the soy sauce. By the time that I was actually trying to enjoy my first bowl of lomi, I was red in the face with mucus dripping from my nostrils.

I did not get to realize that lomi could actually be quite enjoyable until many, many years later. So we were talking about Gary…

He is the son of To Kim Eng, originally from the mainland but who the winds blew into the then-quiet little city of Lipa. We can all surmise that Gary is eternally grateful that he was not born in Southern China, where they like to put their surnames first. To Gary would have sounded like the opening line of your daily office memo.

When playing mah-jong with friends, his father Kim Eng loved to serve this noodle-based snack that was so good that its reputation started to grow around the city by word-of-mouth alone. In his authentic Chinese accent, he called the snack merlenda.

Before long, Kim Eng was starting to get orders of not only lomi but other noodle-based dishes as well. Inevitably, with the help of his wife Natalia, he soon opened the Lipa City Panciteria, just a stone’s throw from the public market. The original lomi recipe was known for its fine homemade noodles and was also topped – aside from the aforementioned ingredients – with pieces of shrimp and sliced intestines.

Although the lomi was a great snack-cum-meal, what ultimately guaranteed its success was that it appealed to the Batangueños’ aremuhunan culture – the culture of frugality. The lomi was and will always be a filling meal that does not cost an arm and a leg.

Because of its success, the Lipa City Panciteria was subsequently paid the ultimate form of flattery – imitation! With every garage lomi haus being set up around the city and even in neighbouring cities and municipalities, the vegetable-less lomi started to become as much an icon of the city of Lipa and the province of Batangas as the barakong kape.

Oh yes, Gary...

He is brother to siblings Jonathan, Shirley, Grace, Gina and Winnie, some of whom were my own students as well. He is married to the former Fatima Mendoza, with whom he has three children. Maira Ysabelle, the eldest, is fourteen years old. Kathleen Ann is thirteen; while the youngest and only boy, Vince Edward, is eleven.

After graduation from high school, Gary went to Metro Manila like everyone else of his generation did for his college education. He enrolled at the Centro Escolar University; and four years later graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Medical Technology.

Raise your hand if you think that Gary practiced his profession! But, of course, you are wrong! For Gary to practice Med Tech would have been not unlike having Prince Charles testing other people’s urine samples! Or extracting blood from a vein...

Just like Prince Charles had to be educated in the styles and protocols of the monarchy, so too did Gary have to learn the ways of the lomi kingdom. That was why, upon graduation, it was but natural for him to help his family run the panciteria.

You may wonder, why could he not have taken a business or restaurant management program? Gary is not saying. On the other hand, he is Chinese. And to them, business acumen is built right into the very fiber of the DNA!

In 1996, seven years after he graduated from college, Gary felt that the time was right for the Lomi King. No, the panciteria did not abdicate. Rather, Gary and his wife Fatima thought that the time was right for them to open their own restaurant.

The first Lomi King was in Marawoy just north of the city proper. It was not your archetypal lomihan or panciteria in that it also expanded its offerings to include sandwiches, rice toppings and coffee concoctions.

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