What is authentic nowadays? With the constant assimilation and intermingling between cultures and civilizations, finding the true origin of a certain dish is a hypothesis at best. With that said, I find that the term “traditional” actually better represents what majority claim to be “authentic”. Tradition, as handed down from one generation to another, each innovating or adding their own spin (some for better, others for worse), enriches our collective cultures as we continue to thrive as a species.
I caught up with my friend Ian, a proud Binondo local and grandson of Ma Chi-On of Ma Kong Mami/Masuki fame a little while back. Trading jabs, talking shop, discussing future prospects, and reminiscing about our college days, we eventually arrived at the topic of our earliest memories of Binondo as children, which as you might expect from two portly men working in the world of F&B, were exclusively about food and where to find it.
Ling Nam, T. Alonzo St.
One of Binondo’s oldest and most beloved establishments, Ling Nam, offers what many locals and regulars believe to be the best lugaw or congee in town. We arrived at about half past eight, 30 minutes before the restaurant normally runs out of porridge for the day, and immediately ordered their best selling lugaw/topping combo—Lugaw with Bola-Bola, or as the staff and regulars affectionately call it, “bola-lugaw”.
It took all of a minute for them to place the boiled pork meatballs into a large bowl, fill it with porridge, top it with a freshly cracked egg and chopped spring onions, and bring it to our table. The porridge was the same as every single time I’ve had it; a cornucopia of savory porridge, slightly gamey pork meatballs, the mild zing of spring onions, melded together by the silky texture of the egg—the perfect way to start a morning food crawl.
Eastern Grand Restaurant and Manosa Restaurant, Ongpin St.
Eastern Grand Restaurant, or simply Eastern is a small hole-in-the-wall that specializes and serves a single dish—Fresh Lumpia (with the option of making it “special” by adding seaweed to the usual fillings) in either regular or jumbo sizes. This humble eatery may only serve one dish, but they make it well. Each lumpia wrapper is made fresh every morning (or right after you’ve ordered), and is only filled and rolled upon ordering to make sure that each customer is treated to a fresh roll every single time.
Go to Manosa for their famous Maki soup, a mild-tasting broth based soup with potato starch-coated morsels of pork (or beef) tenderloin, and thickened even further with corn starch slurry; looking more like a thin velouté rather than your standard broth.
Shin Ton Yon/ Happy Delicious Kitchen and Diao Eng Chay, Salazar St.
Shin Ton Yon Chinese Deli offers, what most Binondo locals and regulars would consider to be “the best asado and pork leg/ham hock” in the Metro. Every length of asado is generously coated in a honey and soya sauce basting solution, and is roasted fresh daily, displayed on hooks for all to see, only being chopped and wrapped in wax paper once ordered. Being a deli, Shin Ton Yon doesn’t have any space for diners, which is why they decided to expand their operation by building a turo-turo restaurant called Happy Delicious Kitchen a mere 20 steps away, where you can order all the deli items they sell, along with other traditional Filipino-Chinese dishes.
We crossed the street to Diao Eng Chay, a popular Chinese bakery known for their Chicken Pies, Chioko/Smiling Cakes (Chinese steamed mamon), and Plain Tikoy slices. This little shop offers more than just traditional baked Filipino-Chinese goods, it also offers entertaining banter with its lively owner-operator crew of charming senior citizens, who are more than keen to strike up small talk or gossip with anyone willing to gab.
Masuki, Benavidez St.
How could it not end here? With Ian holding the reigns, there was no way we wouldn’t visit the restaurant he and his family called home. Although I initially wanted to avoid the more popular restaurants in Binondo, I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t want to cover this restaurant. Masuki’s Siopao, Siomai, and Mami (along with the other food items I’ve mentioned) have been a steady part of my diet since before I could write my own name, and coming here as part of this article brings things full circle.
We were welcomed by the familiar sight of old linoleum tile, well weathered tables and chairs, and the smell—the polarizing Masuki mami aroma that draws locals and regulars in like flies to honey, but repels the less-exposed. Ian ordered up the usual—Tai Pao (literally translated to “big bun”, filled with pork asado, pork bola bola, salted egg, and chicken), Beef Mami, and Siomai. By the end of our final meal, we had already spent three hours eating and walking, while taking in the sights and sounds Binondo had to offer.
During its heyday, Binondo was the Chinese gastronomical center of the Metro. Filled with the best Chinese immigrants had to offer with what ingredients they had, this little city within a city boasted culinary treats once considered to be worth traveling for. And while the scene has been in a steady decline ever since, Binondo still has its old guard—stubborn old relics that have withstood the test of time and are patina-tinged examples of what grit and community can offer.