Monday, 30 December 2013

Pinas #2: Eating Our Way Through the World's Oldest Chinatown

Yes, Binondo, with its narrow streets, black as coal river, and somewhat dilapidated walls is the oldest chinatown in the world. Built in 1594, Binondo does not have the touristy feel of other Chinatowns in the western world. Which makes sense, Binondo does not really cater to tourists but to the locals who live in and around the area. At the start of our self-organized walking food tour I warned my friends that the establishments we will be eating in would slowly move from clean and bright towards grotty, just so they do not get suddenly queasy as we explore Chinatown with our mouths and eager bellies.

Fact: I am no stranger to Binondo. Growing up, I've eaten in Binondo with my family. I remember loving camaron rebosado, lumpia shanghai, and sticky sweet buchi rolls. Back then, I could only eat fresh lychees and longans, which are my some of my favorite fruits, if we buy some from Chinatown. Then when I was in college, my brother, father and I would troop to Divisoria pretty regularly to buy RTW stuffs in bulk, which would be resold in Mindanao. Most of the trips would have us meander to nearby Chinatown for a quick meal or a trip to one of the Chinese Groceries to buy some snacks. Of the restaurants I've tried in Binondo, it is Wai Ying that I love the most, that grotty, no ambience teahouse in Benavidez St. About six years ago, when the slimming coffee craze first hit Manila and I was staying in Pinas for about ten months, I would go once a week to my Chinese drugstore suki in Chinatown to get fifty to a hundred boxes per trip for my clients. And then when we were renovating my mother's house in Paranaque, I would travel to Binondo to buy lighting fixtures and other thingamajigs for the house. In most cases, my trip would usually end with a dimsum merienda in WaiYing and me stopping by DEC (Diao Eng Chao) for some of their delicious shakes and a pack of their frozen siomai to take home.

I've walked through Binondo's streets countless times, but I have not really explored the dining choices offered. All too often, I have eaten at my tried and tested eateries. So I was all excited reading about Ivan Man Dy's Binondo Food Wok tours. And serendipitously so, my two college BFFs and I planned an overnighter in Intramuros this holiday season. And since the walled city is very near Binondo, I suggested we include a walking and eating tour of Binondo.

This is how we ate our way around Binondo: First, I perused a copy of Ivan Man Dy's Binondo Wok Tour Map, and crosschecked it with other Binondo food routes from the internet. From there, I tweaked and made our very own Binondo eating route.

Our Binondo DIY Walking Tour Map

We took a taxi from The Bayleaf Hotel to the starting point of our walking tour, The Binondo Church, more formally known as the Minor Basilica of St. Lorenzo Ruiz.

The beautiful pristine white interior of Binondo Church

The bingeing began after a few minutes' walk at Eng Bee Tin. A deli famous to all hopia-loving Filipinos. Hopia, for those not in the know, are bean-filled pastries with either a flaky crust (as most hopias are) or a denser, brown cake crust ( such as the Cube Hopia and the mini-mooncake shaped munggo hopia). Eng Bee Tin makes all our favorite traditional hopias (munggo, munggo with salted egg, ube) and more. I saw Buko Pandan Hopias, Pineapple Hopias and Custard Hopias.

Aside from hopia, Eng Bee Tin sells other Chinese deli goodies such as Tikoy, Kiamoys, Tikoy Rolls. We ate a pack of Ube Hopia and Custard Hopia while walking around Binondo. The Ube hopia is still delicious! The custard hopia reminds me a bit of a less sweet egg pie. It has that milky cream filling texture which pairs perfectly with the flakey crust. But if you ask me, my favorite Hopia from Eng Bee Tin is still the Salted Monggo Hopia. It's their traditional monggo hopia made special with a big chunk of salted egg in the middle. The salty egg meshes well with the sweet monggo filling.

After a few meters of walking we reached Dong Bei, the little shop famous for dumplings. It is a small shop with only a few tables. But the service is brisk and the prices oh so reasonable!

Dumplings being made at the front area of the store for all to see.

A serving of their famous kuchay dumplings: 14 pieces for PHP 100.00, These are soft and very flavorful dumplings! Because I so loved eating them, I bought a pack of frozen kuchay dumplings for PHP 200.00 pesos (31 pieces) which I will serve on New Year's eve.

As per the recommendation of our friendly server, we also ordered some savoury pancakes. 4 pancakes for PHP 100.00. We got 2 kuchay pancakes (which has the same fillings as the kuchay dumplings) and 2 pork pancakes.
The serving size is really big and the pancakes are pretty tasty, but I love the kuchay dumplings more.

As we were nearing the last few pancakes, a familiar thin man with a headset entered Dong Bei and talked to the owners in Chinese. Aha! It's Ivan Man Dy himself with a group of tourists! I think he had about 30 tourists with him so the place was pretty cramped. After we finished our meal, we offered our seats to his guests and Ivan gracefully apologized in case he caused any inconvenience. That was nice, he does seem to be very passionate about his vocation and was very considerate and gracious to the other guests in the restaurant.

We also dropped by the La Resureccion Chocolate store. La Resureccion is a famous traditional chocolate tablea maker. They make a very smooth-tasting unsweetened chocolate perfect for Champorado or tsokolate. I didn't buy any because I have outgrown my love for tablea (I was totally obsessed with anything tablea few years ago) but one of the BFFs bought a sizeable log of Sweetened Tablea Chocolate for only 75 Pesos.

The unassuming storefront of La Resureccion. Be warned, that this tiny, plain looking shop is a bit hard to find. Walkly slowly, so that you won't miss it.

After our eating frenzy of pancakes, kuchay and hopias, we were feeling pretty full so we decided to walk off some calories by walking the length of Ongpin Street, looking through stores upon stores selling gold jewelry.

Clumps of Bamboos provide a landscape of greenery to the otherwise busy urban landscape of Binondo.

Our next stop was MaSuKi, the 83 year old noodle house in Binondo known for its delicious mami. The place looks old but not rundown.

MaSuKi Mami House

We ordered one big bowl of the Asado Wonton Chicken Asado Mami and the waiter gave us three bowls with extra soup. The humongous mami costs only 210 pesos, though there are smaller servings of Mami with prices starting at about 110 pesos.

Our humongous bowl of Mami with three bowls filled with extra soup. This is how to eat MaSuKi's mami: Add some green onions to your mami, then pour in MaSuKi's special brown sauce (which tastes fairly similar to Hoisin Sauce) and enjoy! The clear broth of the Mami isn't really that tasty, but add a few drops of the secret sauce and some green onions and the broth comes alive. However, the best part are the tasty fillings: The beef pares in the mami is oh so soft and tasty, the chicken strips are soft and redolent of ginger and garlic, and the wontons are plump and tasty. To be honest, the noodles while good and slightly chewy, aren't the stars in this mami, those are the delicious broth+ special sauce combination and the tasty meat fillings.

After our Mami fest, we walked our way towards Benavidez and saw Ivan's group at the fried siopao stall. We also wanted to try out the fried siopao but were still so full from the mami so we decided to skip it.

I suggested we go to Diao Eng Chay (popularly known as DEC) and buy their famous shake coolers. I grew up on these shake coolers. Long before Zagu or those milk teas became the in thing in drinks, DEC was already mixing up delicious fruit and milk shakes with pearls and grass jelly. When I was younger, we'd go to Greenhills Shopping Center on weekends and always, my brother and I would buy our favorite shake coolers at the DEC Greenhills branch in Virra Mall before going home. Sadly, I turns out that DEC no longer makes these shakes but they did have some pre-bottled taro drinks and almond lychee drinks so we  settled for these instead.

DEC Almond Jelly Drink

I also bought two pieces of their famous chicken mushroom pie.
DEC's chicken pies may look small at 50 pesos per piece but trust me, these pies are flavor packed and heavy on the tummy. I ate a piece of pie for an afternoon merienda the day after our Binondo tour and I was so full I skipped dinner altogether.

After buying our drinks at DEC we walked a few meters to Quan Yin Chay, the famous vegetarian restaurant in Chinatown, and tried their famous vegetarian siopao (25 pesos per piece)
The bread was delicious, fluffy and slightly sweet. The filling tastes a bit like pansit. One will not mistake this for an asado or bola-bola siopao but well, it is tasty on its own. Personally, I still prefer my bola-bola siopao over this version.

At this point we still had about three eateries on our list: hand pulled noodles from Lan Zhou Lamien, Lumpia from New Po Heng and Dimsum from WaiYing. And as much as our spirits were willing, our bellies were just about to burst from overeating so I suggested we just go to WaiYing for yum cha. WaiYing, being my favorite dimsum place in the whole universe, is my comfort zone. I ordered familiar Chinoy fare to accompany our hot teas: an order of siomai and a saucer of buchi.

The two BFFs said they enjoyed the siomai and the buchi, so I think my mission on spreading the word about the goodness of WaiYing's dimsum was accomplished. 

I did purposely remove a few "important",  not to be missed food in Chinatown as these are quite heavy and deserve another dedicated food trip to be fully appreciated:

Kiampong from Cafe Mezzanine
Porkchop Rice from Tasty Dumplings
Fried Chicken from Sincerity

These plus the hand pulled noodles and the Shanghai fried siopao we skipped shall be part of a second Binondo walking tour. When? I don't know yet. But hopefully before 2014 ends!

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