Manila’s Chinatown dates back to 1594, and is the oldest Chinatown in the world. The area is called Binondo, and I’ve only been there exactly four times in the past. All four times involved visits to restaurants and delis. Each time I discovered something delightful and new. This weekend’s trip was no different.
My brother-in-law Tristan has a favorite pay parking area near Binondo Church (the Minor Basilica of St. Lorenzo Ruiz). When we got there at around 10:30am, nearly every parking slot was already taken. Our friend Elma had Ivan Dy’s Binondo Food Wok map from when she went on the tour. We only had until 2pm to walk around and eat, so it was great to have someone lead us who’d done it before.
Our first stop was Dong Bei Dumplings (624 Yuchengco St., behind the church), home of the best steamed dumplings in town. When we got there, the place was already full! Ivan Dy had a walking tour group already booked, and they took up all five tables. Elma and my sister Joy ordered packs of dumplings to bring home, since they sold out pretty quickly. We said we’d return when Ivan’s group was done.
We thought we’d have coffee and snacks at Cafe Mezzanine, the Volunteer Firemen’s Cafe. Chinatown’s brave Filipino-Chinese firemen are usually the first to arrive at any fire in the city (yes, ahead of the neighborhood firemen, sometimes). The cafe supports all of their activities. It’s located above the Eng Bee Tin deli along Ongpin St., next to Binondo Church. Their eye-catching purple fire truck is usually parked alongside, colored after the deli’s famous ube hopia (pastry filled with mashed purple yam).
Firemen’s hats and other gear decorate the cafe. We ordered espressos and a variety of savory snacks, among them kiampong (fried rice topped with sauteed peanuts), machang (glutinous rice filled with stewed pork and wrapped in a banana leaf), fried radish cake, and crab cake (actually crab balls, served with sweet and sour sauce). People who try only the kiampong are sometimes not impressed; they just do not realize that it is probably meant to be eaten with another viand for a contrast of textures and flavors.
Yes, it looks like a light lunch, but these are actually small servings shared by the four of us. The coffee was quite good. Our bill came to a total of P550 (about USD 13.50). One added plus for us girls was that the cafe had a very clean toilet.
We walked back to Dong Bei, and ordered a plate of steamed pork and kuchay (chive) dumplings, and a plate of fried pancakes stuffed with the same mixture. Wanting more, we later ordered another plate of steamed kuchay-only dumplings. Each plate was P100 (just over USD 2) – there were 14 steamed dumplings per order, and four fried pancakes the size of coasters, sliced into quarters.
These were the absolute freshest dumplings I’ve ever had in my entire life. The dough was soft, yet strong enough to hold the tasty filling either while being steamed or fried. They were served with Chinese black vinegar.
Both the steamed dumplings and the fried stuffed pancakes were made right in front of us, at the next table.
The packs of frozen dumplings we ordered each contained 31 dumplings at P200 (roughly USD 5) each. We bought 3 packs and received one pack free! The instructions were to boil five minutes or steam seven minutes directly from the freezer. We also received small containers of the black vinegar to go with our order. The very kind owner agreed to keep them in her freezer until we were finished with our walk.
We went to Bee Tin, a traditional Chinese grocery on 735 Ongpin St. We bought two kinds of kiamoy (salty red, or sweet black preserved plums), preserved sweet olives (P75) and 250g of Tie GuanYin Oolong loose leaf tea (P150). Elma was looking for White Rabbit milk candies, but there were none to be had.
We moved to another grocery down the road, Shin Tai-Shang, which specialized in Taiwanese food products and assorted dry goods. We bought fruit tarts with salted egg yolk inside them (green tea and plum, red bean, pineapple, and lotus – P40 each). The owner described the filling as somewhat similar in consistency to that of moon cake. We also bought a couple of curried chicken turnovers (P45 each, quite good).
After North Ongpin bridge we came across Salazar Bakery, where we bought fortune cookies (P78).
We then went looking for the corner of Ongpin and Bahama St, where the Shanghai Fried Siopao stall is. They sell steamed pork buns (P16 each) browned on a griddle, among other food items. As soon as we got there a line began to form. We bought some to take home with us for Sunday breakfast (delicious!). As we were waiting for our change, I saw a pedicab pass by with a barking chihuahua in it, riding like a queen. I wish I had taken a photo, but I didn’t want to get accidentally knocked down by a car.
By that time it was just around 1pm and we needed a pick-me-up. In front of us was Sa Lido restaurant (839 Ongpin St.), which was famous for its siphon coffee and roast pork asado. We walked into the place, and saw from an autographed photo that it was a favorite hangout of Manila Mayor Alfredo Lim. There were groups of old men relaxing and chatting, and ladies enjoying noodles. Since we were still full from the dumplings, we opted for iced coffee (P80; a happier price than at Starbucks). They also had a nice clean toilet.
We started walking back towards Yuchengco St., and passed by a sugarcane vendor. We bought one pack (P60) for my 7-year-old niece to chew on. Along with the sugarcane he sold cogon grass roots, which are apparently made into a medicinal juice.
We finally claimed our frozen dumplings and walked back to the car. We spent only P320 each (not including tips and other take-home food), although you could easily spend less than that and still be quite satisfied.
In case you’re planning on a Binondo food trip this summer, please wear light clothing and comfortable shoes, wear lots of sunblock, and bring reusable shopping bags, your camera, and cash in small bills with you. You can buy your mineral water along the way.
There’s still so much of that food map to cover! We’re planning to return very soon. One day I’ll take Ivan Dy’s tour, to be able to appreciate not only the food, but Chinatown’s history and culture as well.