Back in 2018, we ventured to Binondo in Manila where the world’s oldest Chinatown is located in search of some history but mostly for the food.
We discovered both in spades.
In 2020, we returned to discover more of Binondo’s culinary treasures amidst the commotion of its inner-city streets.
Shanghai Fried Siopao
Our first stop back in 2018 on Ongpin Street was Shanghai Fried Siopao and this year was no different.
This small, hole-in-the-wall type joint is – like many other cafes, restaurants and food outlets in Binondo – an institution.
A visit to Binondo isn’t ‘legit’ unless you come here.
Shanghai Fried Siopao specialises in, you guessed it, siopao (pictured below) – fluffy white steamed buns of goodness, also known as baozi in other parts of the world.
These small spongy bread-like porky delights are typically filled with meat (usually pork) and eaten as a quick snack on the go. They are made and cooked on the premises which opens out onto the pavement making them the ideal treat to nibble on as you wander the neighbourhood streets.
Actually, you have no choice but to walk the streets from here. There’s no dining in.
One siopao about the size of your palm will set you back just 20 pesos (approx. 40 cents) but you’ll want at least two.
Sincerity Cafe & Restaurant
Sincerity is famous for its fried chicken (pictured below), although chicken isn’t the only thing on the menu. But it’s really why you come here.
They’ve been doing it for decades and it shows, they really know what they’re doing.
A warning, however.
Cruelly, you will have to look on for quite some time as those before you gorge themselves on succulent pieces of battered deep-fried chicken, before a highly-coveted vacant seat becomes available.
Once one is, expect to bump elbows with strangers either side as you rip into every heavenly bite.
In 2020 when we returned to Binondo, we wanted to add more to our Chinatown foodie mix, so we hit up some more tried-and-tested establishments that have been keeping Pinoys happy for eons.
And one sure-fire (pardon the pun in advance) way of doing that is to give them more pork.
One place famous for it is Cafe Mezzanine (650 Ongpin St.), a well-trodden second-floor street corner cafe that’s built its reputation over the decades not just for great food, but also for its lasting contribution to the funding of the local volunteer fire services.
As a result, it’s sometimes referred to as ‘The Fireman’s Coffee Shop’ where allegedly the ‘firies’ receive a 20% discount in appreciation of their contribution to the community.
Cafe Mezzanine is famed for its lechon kawali (crispy deep-fried pork belly) and its highly-recommended Soup No.5, which we’re told features bulls testicles, an apparently (no bulls**t) delicious dish.
One can only imagine what features in Soups No.4, 3, 2 and 1 that come before it.
But testicles and bellies aside, Cafe Mezzanine’s extensive menu provides a welcome respite from the ‘baboy sweats’ each and every dyed-in-the-wool carnivore experiences on a Philippines trip.
Here we changed things up with a sample of their special camaron (pictured above) instead, a Chinese Filipino dish rooted in Spanish cuisine. Their version is perhaps best described as deep-fried battered shrimp served as small bite-sized discs with a sweetened BBQ sauce-like dip to the side.
Whatever its true definition, the special camaron is a must-try.
Down a narrow walkway (actually marked as Carvajal Street on Google maps) that’s well hidden by the flotsam-and-jetsam characteristic of Chinatown kerbsides the world over, is Quik-Snack.
Look for Ho-Land Hopia & Bakery for entrance to the walkway.
Quik-Snack is one of those Chinese-style cafeterias tucked away off the main thoroughfares of Chinatown that you have no idea what’s inside until you set foot through the door.
What drew us to Quik-Snack was their kuchay ah (pictured below) – small empanada-like circular flaky pastries filled with a subtle sweet mix of pork and vegetables. Lovers of European meat pies and pasties will rejoice.
If at this point you think you can squeeze just one more thing in, a little further down the walkway is New Po Heng Lumpia House famous for their signature lumpiang sariwa.
Lumpia are deep-fried spring rolls, however, New Po Heng’s are much larger than what you are perhaps used to and the outside ‘lumpia’ wrapper isn’t cooked.
But like the testicle soup, we might just leave them till next time.
Words by Matthew Cowan. Matt is The Bureau Chief and rolled most of his way through the streets of Binondo. Follow him on Instagram at @mattcowansaigon