tourist spots

What’s it like to do a Binondo food trip during the COVID-19 era?

Marguerite de Leon
What’s it like to do a Binondo food trip during the COVID-19 era?
What's it like to visit Dong Bei, Eng Bee Tin, Quik Snack, and many other Binondo favorites these days?

MANILA, Philippines – In the last decade or so, visiting Binondo, Manila – said to be the “oldest Chinatown in the world” based on its creation in 1594 – means stuffing yourself with a lot of authentic, freshly-made Chinese goodies. Entire food tours are dedicated to this district, and several must-visits have been established, thanks to intrepid gastronomes. But like all other tourist spots all over the world, business came to a devastating halt thanks to the spread of COVID-19.

Two years after the start of the pandemic, and with Metro Manila about to enter Alert Level 1 – the most lenient quarantine classification yet – how has visiting Binondo for some good eatin’ changed? My boyfriend and I took a trip one Saturday morning to find out.

Back to normal?
WALK ON. Just like it was pre-pandemic, going around Binondo means walking right on the street, winding around lots of cars (parked and moving) and vendors. Photo by Rap dela Fuente

I’d already been to Binondo for food trips several times before, so I had a working idea of how things were like pre-pandemic. And honestly, it felt like things had gotten back to normal – save for a few new protocols here and there. Walking around, it was like nothing had changed: you had to walk right on the street since the sidewalks were choked with parked vehicles and vendors, and you had to dodge a ton of moving vehicles and pedestrians.

If you’re still averse to being around crowds, a Binondo trip is not for you. But on the flip side, if you’ve missed embracing urban chaos, then this will definitely suffice – but I hope you’ve been fully vaccinated and boosted, you’re wearing a surgical mask at the very least, you have a ton of alcohol with you, and you keep as much distance from others as you can (which is a tall order, but do your best).

Dong Bei
DUMPLINGS. Sharing an order of Dong Bei’s famed pork kuchay dumplings on the sidewalk. Photo by Rap dela Fuente

Our first stop was Dong Bei for their freshly made pork kuchay dumplings in black vinegar (P200 for 14 pieces) – a Binondo classic if there ever was one. It was the only food stop we went to that no longer allowed dining in (which makes sense, because the place has always been teeny tiny), so we just took our take-out over to a closed shop front and gobbled them up on the sidewalk, then washed it down with some ice-cold buko juice from a nearby vendor.

Dong Bei is at 642 Yuchengco Street.

Eng Bee Tin
ENTER THE DRAGON. The entrance of the flagship Eng Bee Tin store is huge, festive, and inviting. Photo by Rap dela Fuente

You can’t go to Binondo without stopping by the ginormous Eng Bee Tin flagship store; those are just the rules of the universe. It’s a wonderland of quality, affordable Chinese sweets – all kinds of hopia (including a new durian variant that’s mild enough for wary westerners), tikoy, mooncakes, pastillas, and tarts, among many others. They also have ready-to-eat dimsum, and frozen take-home treats like ube siopao.

And that’s just the first floor. The second floor offers souvenirs and houses their Great Buddha Café, while the third floor is reserved for a museum that’s still in the works. Hot tip: if you need a clean (and air-conditioned!) toilet, there’s one on the third floor.

Social distancing wasn’t enforced much, especially in the line to the cashier, though the place has one of those disinfectant fog machines, and a guard makes sure to take your temperature and spritz your hands with alcohol – the usual pandemic security theater.

The Eng Bee Tin flagship is on 628 Ongpin St.

Quik Snack
FEAST. Clockwise from top: oyster cake, sticky rice, beef in pepper sauce. Photo by Rap dela Fuente

After walking around a bit, we were ready to sit down for a proper lunch at Quik Snack. Hidden in alley-like Carvajal Street, Quik Snack is known for its Chinese-Malaysian dishes. We ordered Ahma’s Fried Rice (a delicious super carbo-loader since it’s made of heavy, savory glutinous rice), Beef in Pepper Sauce (like a much, much tastier bistek), and Oyster Cake (which also had a surprisingly pleasant sticky rice element). These, plus drinks, set us back about P700.

The place was packed, and there were no discernible pandemic adjustments. It’s also air-conditioned, so the risk for infection is higher. I’d say Ahma’s Fried Rice is totally worth the risk, but I don’t want to get into trouble! Proceed with caution.

Quik Snack is on Carvajal St., across a school supply store.

Ho-Land and Shin Tai Shang

After a very filling lunch (with leftovers to boot), we dropped by two more places to get take-home goodies. The first stop, Ho-Land, is part-hopia store, part-mini mart for other Chinese snacks and ingredients. It has always been a very small store with narrow aisles, so just do your best not to bump into anyone. A disinfectant fog machine is also at the entrance.

The second stop, Shin Tai Shang, specializes in Taiwanese items and was where I’d buy these amazing swirl or spiral mooncakes – a treat the size of a baseball, with pastry beautifully spiraled on the outside and filled with mooncake pastes like red bean and taro, plus salted egg yolks. They were amazing, and I was crushed to learn that they had stopped baking them since the pandemic started. The store now only offers dry goods from Taiwan such as bath and beauty products, toys, and packs of tea and chocolate. I really hope they get back to baking in the future, because those yummy pastries are impossible to find elsewhere!

Ho-Land is on 551 Yuchengco St., and Shin Tai Shang is on 815 Salazar St.

Shanghai Fried Siopao
PATIENCE. There’s always a line in front of the fried siopao shop. Photo by Rap dela Fuente

Our last food stop for the day was at Shanghai Fried Siopao, a small shop along Binondo’s main thoroughfare that you simply can’t miss, thanks to the swarm of people always outside it. Unlike the toasted siopao made with monay-like bread that you can find more commonly around the metro, this siopao still uses the traditional steamed mantou, albeit fried after for some yummy toastiness. It’s also filled with a milder-tasting pork-veggie mixture reminiscent of Dong Bei’s pork and kuchay dumpling filling – a fresher flavor profile compared to the usual asado and bola-bola. One piece is just P30.

The crowd can be daunting, especially in the COVID era, but fortunately, the line was fast, and people weren’t allowed to stand and eat outside the shop.

Shanghai Fried Siopao is on 828 Ongpin St.

Binondo Church
LANDMARK. Trust any Philippine tourist spot to have a towering church or two. Photo by Rap dela Fuente

There were definitely more places we could visit for our food trip – Wai Ying’s dimsum, New Po Heng’s lumpia, Sincerity’s fried chicken, Lan Zhou La Mien’s noodles, the list goes on and on – but there was only so much room in our bellies, so we decided to bring our little adventure to a close.

Our last stop was at the historic Binondo Church. Neither of us is religious, but I personally love visiting old churches – they’re some of the few spots in Metro Manila where history and heritage are consciously preserved. I couldn’t go all the way in, though, because they had a strict dress code that banned shorts. Will take note of this for next time – because there’ll be plenty more next-times, of course!

Binondo Church is on 1006 Plaza Lorenzo Ruiz.

@madmilkmargie

Binondo trip with @apocthedeatharchitect 😋😋😋

♬ Chinese Music – Chinese Restaurant Music

All in all, it was a good trip for two people who wanted to get out of their COVID cocoon and have a little fun (and a lot of good food). Again, just make sure you’re fully vaccinated and boosted, and always be mindful of social distancing and sanitizing.

It’s heartening to know that Binondo seems to be right back into the swing of things, and that, in general, tourism in the metro is warming up again. Let’s hope, with everyone working together, that this will last for the long haul. – Rappler.com

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Marguerite de Leon

Marguerite Alcazaren de Leon heads Rappler’s Life and Style, Entertainment, and Opinion sections. She has been with Rappler since 2013, and also served as its social media producer for six years. She is also a fictionist.