Walking along the main Ongpin stretch of Chinatown in Binondo was like being transported to an entirely different world—an intoxicating haven teeming with distinct cultural flavors, heady scents of incense, blaring Chinese music, horse-drawn kalesas, Fookien conversations, and store after store selling traditional Chinese medicines, trinkets, and artifacts. But more than being a cultural hub of Chinese heritage, what really led me to Binondo was the lure of food.
Binondo brings with it the delectable, mouthwatering feasts of flavors the Chinese are known for. Fellow food lovers would not be disappointed by the assortment of traditional and contemporary Chinese meals offered by restaurants in the area. From the usual roasted peking duck and steamed dumplings to the more exotic and interesting culinary concoctions you won’t find anywhere else in the Philippines, a trip to Binondo is a must if you want to satisfy your palate’s ordinary and extraordinary cravings.
Begin with Tasty Dumplings in mind.
Located along the street circling the Minor Basilica of St. Lorenzo Ruiz, also known as the Binondo Church, is a Taiwan-style fast food restaurant called Tasty Dumplings. A well-known meeting place among locals, this restaurant is highly frequented for its healthy helpings of affordably-priced authentic Taiwanese cuisine.
My first bite into Chinatown came in the form of Paigu, thinly-sliced strips of breaded pork served with steaming rice. Crispy and lightly salted, it is one of the bestsellers of the restaurant and I personally recommend accompanying it with the Soya Milk Drink.
If there is one thing that sets Tasty Dumplings apart from most of its contemporaries, it is its healthy approach to cooking. All ingredients are natural and are free of MSG. Even a dish oozing with flavor as the Hong Ma (braised liempo soaked in sweetened soy sauce and topped with fresh spring onion leaves) uses only the most natural ingredients. Spending only a little over P300 for two people, I left Tasty Dumplings satisfied. Not bad for my first stop!
The siopao with a twist.
When you find yourself smack in the corner of Ongpin and Bahama Street, you’ll end up standing in front of a hole-in-the-wall food shop with a no-frills sign that says, “Shanghai Fried Siopao.”
Congratulations! You have just reached your next stop. This shop, plain as it may seem, houses one of the most mouthwatering street delicacies. You simply cannot leave Binondo without at least a taste of the Shanghai-style fried siopao—a tasty bun with lip smacking pork filling served searing hot right after being steamed and pan-fried. If you don’t find the regular asado and bola-bola siopaos sold in stores across the city to your liking, then you have to make the Shanghai Fried Siopao part of your Binondo hit list. You will never look at (or eat) siopao the same way. I’m even told a lot of locals mob the shop during Chinese New Year and both culinary tourists and food trippers alike never leave Binondo without taking home at least a dozen (which sells for around P170) of the tasty treats.
When you seafood, eat food!
I don’t know about you but I am not really the avid fish lover. Let’s put it this way. I am not too particular when it comes to how beef/chicken/pork dishes are served. Pan-fried, deep-fried, steamed, broiled, grilled, whatever, I will gladly eat it. I will even pay (and if I’m really hungry, beg) you to let me eat it. But when it comes to fish, it has to pass my ridiculously high standards. I could fill an entire page of Spice listing down how I want my fish prepared but the bottom line is this: I will only eat fish that does not taste like, well, fish.
And that is why I would gladly recommend eating at the Mandarin Palace Sea Food Restaurant along Ongpin. Their Steamed King Fish is fantastic! One of the most succulent sea food dishes I’ve had the good fortune to taste. Start off with a helping of Cold Cuts and their best-selling Crispy Seafood Roll and I guarantee your meal will not disappoint. Their menu is extensive. Aside from their selection of fresh, top-quality seafood catches of the day, the restaurant also offers Hot Pots, Hong Kong Style roasts, a wide assortment of noodles, exotic dishes like the Braised Pigeon with Black Mushroom Sauce, and old favorites like Sweet and Sour Pork, and Beef with Oyster Sauce.
If you’re looking to celebrate your birthday or a much-awaited promotion, then the Mandarin Palace is the perfect venue for you and your friends. On top of the food, the cozy ambience will make for a hearty dining experience.
From Wholesome Steamed Dumplings to Wanton Desires.
Listed are words that will send any avid food lover reeling with pleasure: quail egg siomai, tasty chicken feet, japanese siomai, pork siomai, fresh lumpia, egg noodles, beef balls, pata tim. All these you will find clustered together within one area of Chinatown’s Ongpin Street.
Now the next few restaurants were not part of my original itinerary, but seeing as how this is, after all, a culinary adventure, it is best to expect the unexpected!
I, for one, never expected that, upon seeing the striking red façade of the MXT Tea House and getting a whiff of the wafting smells of its steamed dumplings encased in bamboo baskets, I would immediately be lured into the restaurant’s cozy interiors. I never expected I would find their Hong Kong style Ma Chang or Chinese sticky rice with meat (wrapped in leaves and sold at P55 a piece) incredibly filling either!
A couple of buildings away, you will taste the best lumpias ever. I was torn between two of Chinatown’s best lumpia houses—the New Po Heng Lumpia House, which serves their lumpia with a special peanut sauce, and the New Eastern Garden Restaurant, one of the oldest restaurants in Binondo that serves a variety of lumpia flavors. I couldn’t choose among the two so I decided to have both! One can never have enough healthy helpings of tasty lumpia!
The Ongpin Mañosa Restaurant introduced me to its special Maki, which is a glutinous meat consommé sprinkled with fresh onion leaves. It is intentionally served with a neutral taste, enabling food lovers to adjust it according to their preferred level of salty, sweet or spicy. Further along Alonzo Street is Ling Nam Wanton Parlor and Noodle Factory. Their best seller, the Beef Wanton Noodle soup, is the perfect merienda on a rainy afternoon. Upon entering the place, aside from visitors heartily finishing their noodle soups, you will be greeted by the sight of the restaurant staff molding the next day’s batch of egg noodles!
The Best Hopia in Town.
Now who doesn’t love hopia? These sweet bean-filled pastries never fail to cap off a satisfying Chinese meal. In Chinatown, whenever you hear the word hopia, people are more often than not referring to Eng Bee Tin, a Binondo institution that serves the famous Special Hopia Ube. Owned by Gerry Chua, the shop provides an assortment of hopia flavors ranging from the original mongo to buko pandan, langka, and their best-selling flavor, ube. Selling at P37 a pack, Eng Bee Tin’s hopias not only make for the best desserts, they are also perfect pasalubongs for family and friends abroad.
The shop, which has branches all around Binondo, also offers a variety of pastilles, tikoy tarts, dried fruits, and other Hopia variations like diced Hopia, and the Hopia Mongo Lite for healthy-eaters.
At the end of it all, culinary variety is the spice of life!
If, after checking out all the food shops mentioned, you still find yourself wanting more of what Chinatown has to offer, then a visit to Bee Tin Grocery or Salazar Bakery will do wonders.
If you are the type who loves playing around in the kitchen, then drop by Bee Tin Grocery as it sells a lot of imported Chinese ingredients you won’t find in other stores across Manila. You’ll find everything you need to prepare an authentic Chinese meal at home—from a variety of Chinese spices and sauces to rice wines, dried mushrooms, fish flakes and noodles. The store even sells Chinese candy preserves, kiamoy, champoi, and a whole lot more. And then, after splurging on Chinese groceries at Bee Tin, check out Salazar Bakery! The oldest bakery in Binondo has a wide selection of Chinese baked goodies—from Huat Kee Fortune Cake, cua pao,and tikoy to mongo bread, moon cakes, and other Chinese pastries—all guaranteed to send your taste buds into overdrive!
Of course, every culinary adventure is different from the other. This makes only the tip of the Binondo iceberg. A lot more culinary pleasures await food passionistas within Chinatown’s endless nooks and crannies. Bring your hearty appetite with you and, a word of caution, do not wear your sexiest pair of jeans!