Manila’s Binondo neighbourhood is the oldest Chinatown in the world, established at the turn of the 16th century as one of the Philippines’ biggest centres of commerce. Centuries later it still retains its buzzing and diverse soul, home to many of Manila’s Chinese and Chinese mestizo families (people ‘of mixed race’) and their businesses. Tucked inside its crowded streets are long-standing restaurants and cafes, beloved by locals for their delicious, no-frills Chinese-Filipino food.
Food walking tours around Binondo are now on the rise, offering foodies an insider’s look into the flavourful, timeless and affordable cuisine simmering beneath the neighbourhood’s hustle and bustle. For those who prefer to explore it themselves, here are some suggestions to pin on your map and kickstart your own culinary escapade.
Salido is the embodiment of a local Binondo restaurant: from customers loudly greeting each other across tables, to the clink and clatter of cutlery emptying plates. Its inconspicuous entrance leads up to a room of Lazy Susan-topped round tables and practical orange chairs, giving off an unassuming ambience that is bound to excite travellers in search of ‘the real deal’.
After opening its first restaurant over 70 years ago, Salido now has four branches across Luzon: three in Metro Manila and one in Isabela. If you’re dropping in for a meal, the famous asado pork dish is a must. Additionally, the chami special noodles are perfect for a midday merienda.
Many locals come here for the specialty siphon coffee. You might even catch a few sipping it out of the in-house personal mugs (made by the restaurant for regulars). It’s always popular to pair it with some warm buchi (rice cakes filled with sweet bean paste), and athough some may prefer stronger coffees, those who enjoy lighter brews will like Salido’s.
Conveniently located across from Salido Restaurant is another Binondo favorite, Shanghai Fried Siopao. It sells a wide variety of on-the-go Chinese snacks such as ma chang and siomai, but is especially known for its ‘fried’ siopao. These steamed buns are a Filipino adaptation of the Cantonese cha sui bao.
Siopao has long been a popular Filipino snack: a soft, slightly sweet bun with a meaty pork filling. Usually the bun is simply steamed whole, but this fried variation adds an interesting layer of texture by slightly toasting the bottom of the bun after steaming it. This gives it a nicely crisp skin, while still keeping the rest of the bun fluffy.
As soon as you bite into it, a generous minced pork and vegetable filling bursts with juicy flavour. This makes it difficult not to return for seconds. At only 22 PHP a pop ($0.40 USD), it’s tempting to buy a couple more for the road.
Along Yuchengco Street, just off busy Ongpin, is a tiny shop that is the epitome of ‘hole-in-the-wall’ — and around these parts, that’s saying quite a lot. With just enough room for four small tables, Dong Bei Dumplings can get very full very quickly, so it’s best to drop by during leaner hours of the day.
Through its glass fronts, the handful of staff treat passersby to the artistry behind freshly made dumplings, as they prepare the bite-sized crowd-pleasers right in-shop.
Dong Bei has just over a dozen items on the menu, but the specialties are the kuchay (garlic chive) pork dumplings and fried stuffed pancakes. The kuchay dumpling is composed of a tasty meat filling, finger-pressed into a thin, silky wrap, which is paired with a soy-vinegar dipping sauce upon eating. Bags of uncooked dumplings can also be bought for home, but there’s nothing quite like devouring them fresh at the shop.
Down the street from Dong Bei Dumplings is a Binondo classic with a cause. Café Mezzanine sits right above Chuan Kee, a fast, cafeteria-style Chinese restaurant (which makes it easy to mistake one for the other). This ‘volunteer fireman’s coffee shop’ dedicates all its profits to the Binondo Paco Fire Search and Rescue Brigade. Its choice of decor — fireman helmets and photos of firemen at work — is fitting. The space is a comfortable size and the tables are neatly laid out before large glass windows.
While the menu gives diners many options to choose from, the café is best-known for lechon kawali (deep-fried pork belly) and kiampong (flavored rice). It’s a delicious pairing. The lechon kawali is everything you’d expect from a good version: dangerously crispy skin and tender, juicy meat. The peanut-topped kiampong packs much more flavour than you’d expect from a simple brown bowl of rice. For the more adventurous in spirit, dare to try the infamous Soup No. 5 — a meaty soup where the star of the dish is bull testicles.
Your next stop is tucked away in narrow Carvajal street, where a myriad of makeshift food stalls line the path. Fruit and vegetable stands, fish vendors and even stalls of spaghetti and rice cakes sit side-by-side along this cramped alleyway. Distinctly more accommodating than its neighbours, Quik Snack is a sit-down restaurant with the comforts of cool air conditioning — a delight after lengthy walks through Binondo.
Despite its name, people don’t seem to just come for a quick snack. At an awkward hour between lunch and dinner, families sit down to have complete meals. It has had plenty of time to make itself known and loved, established over 50 years ago with the recipes and passion of the woman who started it all, Amah Pilar. Succeeding generations of the family continue to build on their lola’s foundation today.
The best sellers are kuchay ah and Indonesian tauhu. The kuchay ah, similar to an empanada, is a puff pastry filled with a sweet blend of meat, mushrooms, tofu, chives and other vegetables. Its flaky crust balances out a very tasty filling, that makes this snack addictive, especially when served warm.
The Indonesian tauhu (tofu) is a merry blend of flavours. A generous serving of deep-fried tofu sits in sweet sauce and is drizzled with a spicy-sour one to balance the taste.
This casual eatery serves a number of Chinese plates, but the one that puts it on the map is in its name — fresh lumpia. Lumpia, or spring rolls, are one of the most-loved dishes in Asian cuisine, with several countries having their own variety.
But unlike the famous fried Filipino lumpia (spotted at almost every Filipino party), New Po Heng’s version is no snack. It is an almost gigantic, hearty serving of vegetables, tofu, ground pork, crunchy rice noodles, seaweed, sugar and crushed peanuts on a fresh lumpia wrapper, all rolled up into a burrito-sized log. This hodgepodge of ingredients makes every bite an explosion of flavours and textures that work together deliciously. The lumpia is prepared fresh upon ordering and can be seasoned further with sweet and spicy sauces.
Note that New Po Heng has recently relocated to a stall along Carvajal Street.
This short list is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Binondo’s food scene. Explore these favourites and you’ll be craving more Chinese-Filipino culinary discoveries. But not to worry – in the world’s oldest Chinatown, there are plenty more of them inconspicuously hidden in plain sight, just waiting to be found.