Cover The New Binondo Arch Photographed by Kryss Rubio

Tatler goes on a gastronomic adventure in the world's oldest chinatown: Binondo, Manila. Behind its weary buildings and rustic streets lies dining destinations that have stood the test of time

Built in the 1590's, Binondo is said to have been conceptualised by the Spanish to segregate Chinese immigrant traders from Manila's elite society. Purposefully built near the walled city of Intramuros—the then-headquarters of Spaniards and home to affluent families of the time, Chinatown's location allowed soldiers to keep an eye to the growing number of Mainlanders as well as their businesses. Dominican Friars built the Binondo Church in 1596 for the growing number of converted Chinese Christians.

Through the years, the city grew. Before Makati, Ortigas, and Bonifacio Global city came to be, there was Binondo. Finance and trade were booming within the small town with banks opening on every block, as well as retail stores which sell a variety of goods from jewellery, ceramics, and even bells. Locals then started to integrate their culture through panciterias that catered to workers and students who are in dire need of filling meals that are both tasty and affordable.

But after the havoc that was brought by World War II, the once vibrant and bustling Chinatown stagnated. Much of the businesses left and relocated to the much newer, Ayala-led, Makati Business District.

With its buildings slowly in ruins, dust takes over every corner. But despite this, the food here only grows better, as if every tick of the clock continues to enrich every dish.

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One of its most popular restaurants is located a block away from the Binondo Church, Café Mezzanine. Also known as the Volunteer Fireman's Coffee Shop, the restaurant's profit goes to the Binondo and Paco Volunteer Fire Search and Rescue Brigade. Here, you can feast in a number of Fil-Chi dishes that has evolved through years. One is Kiampong, a traditional glutenous rice dish of Filipino Chinese families. It is made with glutenous rice with sliced pork and sausages, and is flavoured with a mixture of soy sauce, vinegar, garlic, and black pepper. Other standouts from their menu is the special kikiamasado siopao, lava pao, and if you're adventurous enough, the Soup no. 5 that is made with bull testes.

A few-minutes walk from Café Mezzanine, along Yuchengco Street is Sincerity. It opened in 1956 and was named with the goal of the owners (Uy Mo Kean and Uy Lim Bee) in mind, which is to serve diners with a "sincere heart." One should definitely try their Sincerity chicken when at Binondo. Its outside breading is incredibly crunchy with the right amount of saltiness and not oily at all. Meanwhile, the white meat inside is tender as it is juicy. The preparation and cooking time may take a bit longer than usual, but chicken is worth the wait. If you are looking for other dishes to also try, give their oyster omelette and kikiam a go.

At the other end of Yuchengco Street is Dong Bei Dumplings. Here, diners get to watch how their cooks make the dumplings from scratch. This experience is meant to bring the similar tradition practiced by street restaurants in China. Aside from their kuchay with pork dumplings, their fried pancake and xiao long bao is also not to be missed.

Across the Estero Dela Reina is the cult-favourite, Wai Ying. If you are following a strict diet, better leave it at the door as you will have one calorific meal here. They offer a variety of dim sum selections, the best of which is arguably the hakaw, which is so light yet bursting with flavour. It is best eaten dipped in a concoction of soy sauce and chili. Coming in second is the soy chicken that is served with plain rice but is best paired with their very hearty fried rice. If you are a fan of milk tea, then their homemade HK milk tea will be your new favourite.

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Further north of Wai Ying, along the street of Benavidez is one of the most popular mami spots in Binondo. Masuki prides itself in its no-frills, generously served dishes. Their mami is true to the recipe the restaurant had since it first opened in 1930's. The miki noodles that they use are still made by hand, as well as the condiments. To get the overall experience, order the beef wonton chicken asado mami and their no-less-than five inches big asado siopao.

One of Binondo's hidden gems is the Shanghai Fried Siopao. Unlike the other previously mentioned food spots, Shanghai Fried Siopao is only a stall along other fruit cartons and stalls at Ongpin Street. As their name suggests, their bestseller is the Fried Siopao that is served steaming hot and also best consumed steaming hot. The fried bottom of the siopao provides contrast to the pillowy top, and is filled with generous pork filling.

Located just in front of Shanghai Fried Siopao is The Original SaLido Restaurant. The restaurant evokes old Chinese charm, and has been a usual spot for middle-aged Chinoy men in the area. Their menu is filled with Chinese classic dishes and the serving size is meant for groups. What is unique about this place though is their coffee that is brewed through the siphon method which takes around five minutes finish. Aside from their twin pandesals that go incredibly well with the brewed coffee, their buchi, that is bigger than the usual size also leaves a lasting impression.

Meanwhile, the oldest existing restaurant in Binondo, the New Toho Food Centre, which has been around for more than a century and a half is still one of the frequented restaurants in the area. Their bihon guisado is a must-order, together with yang chow and asado.

After decades, even centuries, the food in Binondo is still as brilliant as it was—nostalgic, hearty, and comforting. The cost is low, but the quality is never a miss. Granted that its façade and interiors aren't as extravagant as of those in other cities, but one can argue that the charm of Binondo was never rooted in extravagant interiors nor plush furniture. Its charm resides in its busy streets, beautiful town architecture and the irresistible aroma from clustered restaurants and coffeeshops. When dining in Binondo, every dish invites you to partake in a piece of Philippine history. 



  • PhotographyKryss Rubio
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