Saturday, February 16, 2013

№ 110. Binondo Rising: Part 1

Say "Ahh" for Tikoy, kid.

Binondo is still a study in controlled chaos.

Many Filipinos already know that Binondo is home to Manila's Chinatown. Many Chinese-Filipinos call it their spiritual home, I think, mainly because it's a transplant of their roots in China. I had lived in Binondo for almost two decades before college beckoned me to the hills of Valencia.

Binondo is so different now and yet oddly familiar in equal parts.

For one, it has become gentrified: cleaner, although the esteros still stink; littered less with horse manure and other organic refuse; and, freshened up with new high rises and coats of paint. Another reason for the ambivalence is while I can still eat at the staple restaurants like The President's, Eng Bee Tin, Ha Yuan and Country Chicken, et cetera, there are many that have already upgraded while a few have not done so well.

Fried garlicky peanuts, chicha-corn
(dried and  fried crisp with coconut oil) and other street delights.

Still, Chinatown has retained the charms and roughness of its architectural landscape and the richness of its culinary melting pot (Manila, Madrid, Tokyo, Hollywood, Beijing, Seoul, Shanghai, Taipei and Hong Kong influences). There is still the unadulterated fun of immersing in its many deep cultural crevices. Be cautious then. All sorts of gustatory and retail adventures can be teased out of its old alleys and nooks. It is really hard not to fall for this quirky, unpretentious wonderland.

Arguably, at the heart of Binondo, is its narrow, clogged artery called Ongpin Street. The street was once called Sacristia after the sacristy entrance of Binondo Church which directly faced this street (Traveler on Foot). Then it was renamed Ongpin after Don Roman Ongpin, a Chinese businessman who gave financial support to the Katipunan during the Philippine Revolution of 1896-1989 against Spain (Philippine Travel Guide).

The narrow, winding street is littered with hawkers of fresh and dried fruits, of street foods like sugarcane juice and boiled yellow sweet corn, tiny mom and pop groceries, exotic Chinese apothecaries, old tea and noodle houses, oriental charms, jewelries and amulets shops, and a thousand and one permutations of retail trade. Did I mention the hidden Buddhist temples and Chinese geomancers?

Because it's a living, breathing commercial district and not some fossilized heritage village, it can get crowded (surprise), impertinent (graphic aphrodisiacs, wink wink) and rude (I don't just mean the X-rated DVDon'ts with Chinese and even Korean subtitles). One also has to be careful of pickpockets and potholes. And, the funny smelling puddles strategically placed on the sidewalks.

All told, it's all in a day's immersion into the little place we fondly call Chinatown. So, a word of pep talk, ENJOY.

Yes, enjoy the funky and savory smells, sights, tastes and sounds in full-strength reality.

This is not virtual or 3D. Beware of potholes and many uneven steps. Stop augmenting your experience with Facebook and Twitter feeds. Oh, and stop clicking away and posting on Instagram. Chinatown isn't the westernized, sterile, cookie-cutter, expensive and safe (debatable now as recent memories of Greenbelt, Glorietta and Megamall incidents would remind us) enclaves of the malls.

Three guideposts:

1. GPS and google maps are useful.  Let's start with a basic knowledge of the lay of the land. You don't want to segue into Mordor or beyond The Wall, right?

2. Ongpin, which may seem serpentine (Happy Water Snake Year), straddles two spiritual bastions of Manila. It's Alpha is the Binondo Church (Minor Basilica of St. Lorenzo Ruiz), which is the home of Our Lady of China (Wikitravel) and its Omega is the Sta. Cruz Church, where we used to hear Sunday masses.

Chinatown, the end points and the universe in between

3. Between these end points are the multiverses of Chinatown. If you still have time and energy to explore, there are two intersecting streets that offer continuing crimes of adventure: Salazar Street and Gandara / Padilla Street. There are actually several other eskinitas or narrow, shaded alleys where Temples and a few panciterias are tucked away. Explore away and get lost. No Diagon Alley, unfortunately, Potterheads.

 - Salazar Street is short but just as dense with humanity. This is where I bought a unique, mild-flavored (star anise?) Taiwanese sausage (pork casing stuffed with glutinous rice) which came with sweet soy sauce.

- Sabino Padilla Street (formerly Gandara Street) is where we found the restaurant which serves the best Black Chicken soup, bar none! It was just a throw of the Chinese dice.  Lucky find. We didn't know anything about the eatery at all. A first try and a must try!

One more thing, for those who crave the familiar, there's a Seattle's Best at the corner of Gandara and Ongpin! Starbucks, in fact, has found a home in Lucky Chinatown Mall (along Reina Regente, near Binondo Church). Just in case you get lost study the map below. But maybe the best way to explore is to start with familiar points and stray to the unknowns--- without a map on hand.

View Larger Map
Bento Box February 7, 2016
Happy Chinese New Year! To kick off our monkey business here's a food trip.

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