I've heard and read about this proud Tsinoy countless of times. When you've had the honor of accompanying No Reservations' Anthony Bourdain around the busy streets of Binondo, you are bound to be noted. First question. "Why aren't you sporting that silk cap with ponytail anymore?" I playfully remark, seeing him in his neat blue and yellow Old Manila Walks polo shirt. It was way more subdued compared to his former tour outfit befitting of a United Nations Day Best in Costume sash. "Well, it's kinda cute when you're twenty-six, but now..." he said and followed with a shrug. We both chuckled.
Visiting Binondo has long been in my To Do list. Originally slated last year, the trip never materialized after a handful of activities nudged it off its space in my calendar. When I finally found the time, I tried my luck tapping the Chinatown Kid, Ivan, into showing me around his hometown. I know I'm not even a hundred miles close to how famous and important his former guests are so I thought it was a long shot. Luckily, he responded to my e-mail and obliged. Now say what you want to say, but when Ivan personally showed me the places in Chinatown most dear to him (places not included in his regular Binondo Food Wok tour), I felt as important as Anthony Bourdain.
Our meeting place was at the Basilica Menor del San Lorenzo-- more popularly called Binondo Church. This prodigious Baroque structure is the easiest to locate, since most of the stops of the tour are in the side streets that surround it.
"Any fond memories in this church?" I asked Ivan. "Well, only the usual... masses, prusisyons," he answered. He mentioned too, that for 8 years, he considered the whole of Binondo (including Divisoria) his playground. He tells me of his adventures (like playing with his angkong's (grandpa's) karitela in the busy streets of Divisoria) with so much fervor, I found it impossible not to feel envious of his colorful childhood. From there, the topic went historical when he asked if I knew that the majority of the Tsinoys here trace their roots to the Hokkien immigrants from the Fujian province (I didn't). The mile-a-minute Chinatown trivia went on while we treaded the bustling street of Quintin Paredes on the way to Carvajal. My ears followed Ivan's words intently while my eyes feasted on the sprightly surroundings-- almost every scene is worth a picture! My nose, well, did its best of not minding the equally dynamic aroma of Chinatown.
We stopped at a corner leading to a narrow alley called Cavajal. For a street as slim, the number of people passing by it is overwhelming. "This here is Carvajal, or to Tsinoys, Ho Sua Hang," he lectures. This street, a payong alley in its early years, is famous for hard to find fruits like Persimmons and Chinese delicacies such as sea cucumbers. Like a kid, my mouth just hung open in wonder at the sight of the unfashioned alley. Take down the banners of the E-load stations and it would easily pass as a setting in a Jackie Chan film. "Come, I'll show you Quik Snack," my eager guide said.
Watch out for the sign high above so you don't miss its location
We stepped into Quik Snack and was greeted by the sight of a busy early lunch crowd. I scanned the small restaurant and immediately concluded that I probably was the only one there without a significant amount of Chinese blood. The wait staff, though busy as if in Diner Dash, greeted Ivan like a long-time friend. I could only guess how many times he's eaten here. "This is one of my favorite places. Good food. Value for money," he remarked.
He proceeded on reciting the names of the dishes to our waiter without even looking at the menu. While waiting for our food, we talk about the dishes Bourdain liked here. Ivan says, Bourdain loved the lumpia.
After a "quik" wait, the dishes landed in front of us almost simultaneously. There's the Fried Tokwa with Sate and Wansuy (P70), a plateful of Sate Mi (P100), Fried Lumpia (P50), and Owa Chien (P170)(Oyster Cake). What ensued after was a meal bursting with contrasting flavors and textures. The transition from the spicy tofu swimming in peanut sauce to the palate refreshing stuffed lumpia was perfect-- as if those two were designed to be eaten that manner. Follow it with the moderately spicy noodles that is in every bite shouting a different flavor (one moment it's wansuy, the next it's chili..) and the wonder is doubled. The Owa Chien, the dish I'm most hesitant about turned out to be the one I liked best. I love how it's sticky, with a tikoy like consistency, besting the drier versions I've had before.
"Full? We have two more stops! Make room for those," Ivan reminded. Though pleased, I am confident that I was not full yet. Our next stop was less than a ten minute walk from Carvajal. I followed Ivan as he masterfully treaded the congested street. We emerged from the alley at the other end and made a right at the wider street named Nueva (now, Yuchengco). "This is the 'stationery street.' All of the businesses here used to be about paper and supplies," he described briefly. It wasn't long when we reached Sincerity Cafe and Restaurant. Its dressed up facade is a far cry from Quik Snack's which, to put mildly, is charming, but is seriously dated.
Sincerity Cafe is best known for its gravy-less Sincerity Chicken (P150 half; P300 whole). Of course we are not to miss that. It's my first first encounter with the well-praised poultry so I didn't know what to expect. From the looks alone, it looked like an average fried chicken.
But it wasn't. It wasn't like any fried chicken I had! If 1 is soggy and 10 is crispy, Sincerity's chicken sits right in between. It's not that crunchy, neither does it flap. Upon a bite you'd know why it wouldn't work with (nor need) a sauce. It's already good on its own-- sweet, slightly salty, and slightly gingery-- with the sauce already well-absorbed by the skin.
Other noteworthy orders in Sincerity include their Kikiam (P50)-- in which the shreds of meat is very much discernible, therefore not just full of extenders as the commercialized version and the Eight Treasure Machang (P100) which is akin to the sticky and savory bringhe I get to eat in our province (Pampanga).
Eight Treasure Machang
After two restaurants, the heavy feeling was sinking in. I don't know if I was obviously slower on the next leg of our walk that Ivan assured me not to worry and we'll have a fewer items in our last stop. The walk to Salido Restaurant located at T. Alonzo was much longer. It not only aided in churning the meals I had earlier, it also gave me more time for sight-seeing. At around 4PM, the busyness of Binondo showed no signs of subduing.
I remember Ivan mentioning that I'll surely find Salido interesting and I'll know why upon arriving. The look on my face made him smile and say "I told you so."
Apart from me and the waitresses, the entire restaurant is filled with men. My stepping into it surely caught their attention. I felt like I've just trespassed a territory, though I surely don't recall seeing a No Woman Allowed sign at the entrance. "This restaurant is one of the remaining, if not, the only remaining gentlemen's club in Chinatown," Ivan related. I've never seen so many old men in one room before this.
Ivan ushered me into the basement of the restaurant, where a large kitchen is hidden. He showed me the pugon oven where they cook their asado, the old-school way.
Salido is one of the last remaining panciterias in Chinatown
We climbed back up and enjoyed the Syphon Coffee (P65) he ordered. "Wow this is what strong coffee is," I remarked upon a sip. "You like it?" Ivan asked. After adding a teaspoon or two of milk, I replied "sure, a coffee can't get anymore bold can it?"
Our meal there comprised of only two dishes- two of their best- if I may emphasize. The Pugon-Roasted Asado (P267 per 1/4 kg) is remarkable not only because of the way it's prepared. Void of any artificial coloring and flavorings, their asado is sweet, reminiscent of a Christmas ham. I've never been a fan of asado probably because I've never had it the Salido way. Their well-talked about Chami (stir-fried miki) for P112 is also notable for its being as good as pancit canton, albeit sloppier. But it was their asado that impressed me more.
Four hours, three restaurants, and who-cares-how-many-calories , Ivan's brief tour of his most favorite places in Chinatown concluded. Not only did I have the great opportunity of discovering some of the institutional restaurants that have withstood the test of time, I also found confidence in exploring the area by myself. Though there are still nooks in this little town that I have yet to trek, as long as I find Ongpin, I'll know my way out.
Your trusty guide to the treasures of Binondo
Aching to explore Binondo? Catch Chinatown at its most festive mood. Old Manila Walks will be holding a special Chinese New Year Wok on February 03, 2011. Check out their Facebook page for more details. But if you'd rather explore Binondo on your own, get hold of the Big Binondo Food Wok Map (P100) available at La Monja Loca Store (Intramuros), Bahay Tsinoy Museum (Intramuros), Silahis Arts and Crafts (Intramuros), the Filipinas Heritage Library (Makati) and Popular Bookstore (Quezon City). E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org for inquiries.