When it comes to great Chinese-Filipino food, the Manila district of Binondo is top on everyone's list. This is not just because it’s the birthplace of the ‘panciteria,’ but also because Binondo's cross-pollination of Filipino and Chinese tastes throws out plenty of novel surprises. Best of all, Binondo's food experiences are all accessible within a few minutes' walk of each other.
As the operator of a Binondo food-themed walking tour, Old Manila Walks' Ivan Man Dy (www.oldmanilawalks.com) is your go-to guy for advice on eating out in Manila's Chinatown. The first thing he'd like newbie eaters to know is that authenticity is not that easy to come by, not even in Binondo.
"Don't think that just because you go to Chinatown, you get the most authentic experience," he tells us. "There are good restaurants and there are not-so-good restaurants. You have to know where to eat."
And the best really depends on the kind of food you're looking for. "If you ask me what my favorite Chinatown restaurant is, it's hard to tell you unless you tell me what you want to eat," says Ivan. "You have to know the specialties [of these places]."
Royal Garden: Dimsum & Lauriat-style dining
A craving for dimsum, seafood, and lauriat-style dining will more than likely lead you to Royal Garden. Yes, it serves earth-unfriendly shark’s-fin dumplings. But that's not what draws Ivan to it: "I don't eat shark’s fin, but I like the [other] food there. It's fancy." he says.
You can load up on dimsum alone, and Royal Garden's dimsum carts give you plenty to choose from: chicken feet, pork intestines, siomai, pork spareribs, and steamed beef balls, among others. Don't hold back.
Royal Garden is open 24 hours daily.
Where it is: 851 Ongpin St. cor. Padilla St., Binondo, Manila. (Tel: 733 1122, 733 1181)
New Poh Heng: Fresh Lumpia
The New Poh Heng lumpia house is a key component of Ivan's walking tour, and that's not just because it serves the best fresh lumpia in Binondo (though, arguably, that fact helps). "We go there because lumpia per se is related to the whole historical theme," explains Ivan. "It was an immigrant food that became part of the mainstream."
The lumpia house is located in a courtyard within an art-deco building. It's easy to miss, as you have to enter the building to find it. But it’s in there: a carinderia-style set-up where they make the lumpia absolutely fresh right in front of you. The large lumpia, served with a drizzling of peanut sauce, is hearty and healthy, quite warm and just ready for consumption; best eaten on the spot.
New Poh Heng is open daily, except Sundays, from 7am to 7pm.
Where it is: 521 Quintin Paredes, Binondo, Manila. (Tel: 241 8789)
Dong Bei: Dumplings
Dong Bei Dumpling is another stop in Ivan's food tour: a ‘hole-in-the-wall’ restaurant that serves the most authentic northern Chinese dumplings in Manila. That is no coincidence, as the proprietor is a fairly recent immigrant from northern China. And it shows in the product: chewy, freshly-steamed dumplings made right on the spot, and served with a filling of ground pork, leeks and chives, with just a hint of ginger.
The menu also features stuffed and fried pancakes, wanton soup and fried rice, all in serving sizes meant to be shared. The downside is the size of the place: there's room for only a dozen diners.
Dong Bei is open daily from 10am to 10pm.
Where it is: 642 Yuchengco corner V. Tytana Sts., Binondo, Manila. (Tel: 241 8912)
Masuki: The Original Panciteria
Don't call it comida China. “It's ’panciteria’ food,” explains Ivan. "It's not Chinese food," he continues. The melding of Chinese and Filipino/Spanish tastes has come up with something entirely new.
Masuki is, for Ivan, everything a panciteria should be—steeped in history, using authentic ingredients, and possessing not a little exclusivity. "It's the type of restaurant that is answerable only by yes or no," Ivan chuckles. "I like it. But if you don't like it, I’ll understand."
Because, for one, the venue takes on the aroma of its rather old-style mami. "It's not the most fragrant [place]. It's old style, very gamey," he says. "I happened to grow up eating it; that's why I like it." The mami that lays claim to Ivan's loyalty is mainly made of miki noodles, with recados added according to taste. You can have a choice of beef, wonton, pork, or chicken mixed with your noodles, a pair of each, or even all four in one heaping bowl.
Masuki is open daily: Sundays to Thursdays, from 7am to 10:30pm; Fridays and Saturdays, from 7am to 11pm. Where it is: 825 Benavidez St., Binondo, Manila. (Tel: 244 0745)