A Last Look at the Binondo Everybody Loves
As China continues to dredge the sea and build up their great wall of sand on pieces of rock that are rightfully ours, Chinatown, the physical location and the universal concept, continues to exist in place as they always have. In countries around the world, Chinese enclaves have formed as a defense against assimilation, both from the inside and out, and within its borders, a facsimile of an idea of China is borne out through its trade, its temples and its tenacity for survival.
Wherever you go, Chinatown always smells of raw fish and fryer grease, and of medicinals powdered from the balls of extinct animals. Because of its authenticity and access to ingredients, Chinatown is also the de facto spot for Chinese food when you want the real deal.
Chinatown, just like in the movies, or perhaps because of them, is always strung up with red lanterns. Red lanterns, along with dragons and arched gateways, signify that you have entered another space, one that is neither here nor there, a somewhat exotic ghetto where things come fast and cheap. Our own Binondo, established in 1594, shares these traits, but is far more integrated with the life of the greater city because of its origins as a center of trade during the 18th and 19th centuries, and where the mestizos de Sangley (those with immigrant Chinese and Filipino ancestry) came to prominence as wealthy landowners and influential businessmen: the Sycips, the Yunchengcos, the Cobankiats, the Ongpins.
Binondo is said to have the most expensive real estate in the country, yet one would be forgiven for not believing it given the shabbiness of the place, the downkeep of its heritage structures, the general squalor. However, the oldest Chinatown in the world is not immune to the gentrification of the times, and recent years have laid evidence to a Binondo boom. The centuries-old Binondo church (whose bell tower and cornices were recently painted a lipstick rouge by a gay priest, according to a local) stands next to a modern building; high-rise condos, luxury hotels and “Venetian-style communities” are all in the works, built by Fil-Chi developers like Megaworld, Anchor Land and Federal Land, irreversibly altering the landscape and irking conservationists.
The town is changing, alright. While Chinatown will always be the first port of call for newly migrant mainlanders, Binondo is on the cusp of resurgence for the more affluent Filipino-Chinese who call the area home. What, if anything, does this mean for its food?
The ubiquitous Binondo food walks have put Chinatown on the food map, with thumbs-up from Anthony Bourdain, CNN Travel, and even Trip Advisor used as a badge of honor. While it’s a novelty to be sampling beloved comfort dishes in its original environs, it’s not quite the culinary revelation that it may have been in earlier years. Still, it’s always worth revisiting. The classics remain, as they have for years, fare that is not traditionally Chinese but unique to Binondo as a confluence of different cultures.
The dumplings at Dong Bei are freshly made to order, with the ladies kneading the little flour balls right there on one of the tables. The pancakes stuffed with kuchay and the Northern-style boiled kuchay dumplings are a favorite—bearing in mind that kuchay, or garlic chives, is a popular filling and you will be finding it in a variety of dishes whether steamed, fried, boiled, or rolled.
Café Mezzanine or the fireman’s cafe (profits are donated to the Binondo Paco Fire Search and Rescue Brigade, and you can see their ube-colored trucks parked around town) is known for their soups, like the mysterious Soup No. 5 or the Black Chicken Soup. The black chicken is actually a silkie fowl that’s been stewed in an herb broth supposed to promote the yin and yang of your health. Forget about ambience—these establishments are resolutely anti-ambience, unless you find a particular charm in clashing bright colors, plastic tableware and Chinese opera playing in the background.
New Po Heng Lumpia House is situated inside a lovely faded Art Deco building on Quintin Paredes street. Their signature fresh lumpia, rolled on the spot with cabbage, tofu, pork, peanut powder and dried seaweed, is pretty hefty for a mere P50. It’s unlike most lumpia you’ve tried, with a bit of a crunch and a sweetness. You can take it to go or eat in with a garden view of fake potted plants, as the rest of the space seems to be covered with a pile of junk.
Carvajal street is a great little alley lined with vegetable vendors, hidden eateries and shops that sell all manner of religious idolatry. Quik-Snack, a veritable institution since 1967, had, on the day of our visit, just reopened after a period of renovation. The tiled walls have been replaced with faux brick and concrete, and gone were the red pineapple lanterns and fringed brass wall hangings. Quik-Snack had been de-Binondofied, but everything else remained the same, from the third-generation staff to the fact that lard is their secret ingredient. Their most popular snack, the kuchay ah, an empanada with pork, tofu and you guessed it, kuchay, was already sold out for the day.
Quik-snack had been de-Binondo-fied, but everything else remained the same, from the third-generation staff to the fact that lard is their secret ingredient.
There is usually a point during food walks where satisfaction turns to punishment, and that happens around the fifth restaurant. But Sincerity Café and Restaurant, a nearly 60-year-old establishment, is popular for their fried chicken, so one must have a nibble. It had a hint of oriental spice, but otherwise, it’s fried chicken. The oyster pancake, a Hokkien dish and another hit among Zomato reviewers, was unfortunately not my thing, despite the mix of scallions, sprouts, and eggs, I couldn’t get my mouth around the slimy texture of the oysters, and I am already a fan of fresh oysters on the half shell. The Doreen Fernandez-hailed kikiam and duck misua were largely left untouched. Maybe my overloaded gut-brain was already sending out signals to end the carnage.
But we had one more stop, and just one more dish to try at President Grand Palace, the huge, high-end classic Chinese restaurant favored for weddings and large family gatherings—the Gloria Maris of Binondo, complete with a whole menu page of shark’s fin dishes (much to my dismay). We asked for the eel with tausi, which is an off-menu item, so don’t be surprised when they bill you P900 for that one. President, like all the others, is also family run, and regular customers can say they have also grown up with the owner’s sons, who like to hang out at the front of restaurant.
There’s a whole lot more in Binondo to try, from the ancient Toho Food Center, the oldest restaurant in the Philippines, to SaLido, an unchanged café popular with notable businessmen of the area, and Shanghai Fried Siopao, where they fry the bottom of the pao to give it a crispy crust. It’s impossible, and perhaps a bit unfair, to attempt to give everything a whirl in a single day. That these places are a bit out of the way and a bit hard to find are made up for in price, and the romantic idea of eating simple, dependable food in an ethnic enclave makes up for the fact that it won’t be the most stellar meal you’ll have. But hey, it’s good enough for Chinatown. The rest of you are just visiting. You’d be lucky to get through a whole day.
This article originally appeared in the June 2015 issue of Esquire Philippines. Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.