For as long as I can remember, I’ve hated Chinese food. There is a taste to it that I simply do not like, it’s a kind of rancid, putrid overtone that almost all Chinese food has.
I am not entirely sure what it is, it sort of tastes like Vetsin, or the evil monosodium glutamate that American foodies will warn you against, but that’s not the whole story. I’ve eaten and enjoyed many Ajinomoto and glutamate-rich foods, but have never had problems with them. It’s something specific to Chinese food that really gets me.
Sure, I can eat home-cooked Chinese food. It doesn’t seem to have the same putrid flavor when mom cooks. Is this a mother’s love? But even then dishes like chop suey aren’t really my favorite.
Well, I have eaten at exactly one Chinese restaurant that was actually good, and I would recommend: Phoenix Court at the Bellevue. But everywhere else I’ve eaten has been nothing but disappointment.
People tell me I’m just not eating authentic Chinese food. I’m eating at “localized” places like Northpark or Luk Yuen which don’t know how to prepare proper Chinese food. In China, the food is better. Okay, fair enough. But since I have no intention of going to China any time soon, I’ll have to make do with the next best thing: Binondo.
Binondo is home to Manila’s China Town and had scores of Chinese immigrants who prepare food the way it’s made back in the mainland. They do every thing authentic, down to not washing their Woks so that the accumulated taste of years of cooking is passed down to you, the end user.
It’s like a video game RPG where you level up your tools with each dish you cook, right? Can’t be that bad, despite the obvious sanitary problems triggering my spider senses like mad.
Well so here I am in China Town. Here’s to some pleasant Chinese snacking!
Wai Ying Fastfood
Our first stop is a restaurant called Wai Ying fastfood. We almost missed it because it looked like a real hole in the wall. You’ll see the telltale dead ducks hanging from the glass window at the front. This is but a portent of the death and devastation you would find inside…
I won’t regale with you what a sad, dingy place the restaurant is, a true hole in the wall if I ever saw one. Just setting foot inside gave me shivers. I am a little eccentric when it comes to cleanliness: I’m no neat freak and I go out into rural areas where mud is aplenty and the wood is moss-grown. But this kind of urban jungle, where it feels like a rat is hiding behind ever chair and cockroaches are planning vast colonies just above the ceiling are just not for me.
The place reeked of the “Chinese food smell” and it was already starting to engage my gag reflex. But I will ignore all of that now so we can try the highly-recommended hors d’oeuvres.
We got just one: hakaw.
I have avoided hakaw all of my life because I am allergic to shrimp. My allergies were especially strong in my childhood. Today, though, I can eat shrimp-infested maki without flinching, so I think I’ve kicked the habit.
I thought wrong.
After wolfing down the slimy-looking hakaw, I chewed on the fat shrimp as my teeth tore through the slippery wrapper, reaching into the gushing shrimp juices inside. Strangely, as I am not intimately familiar with the shrimp flavor yet, I was struggling to find the taste.
The hakaw tasted very bland, to be honest. It felt like eating wet paper with some thick tasteless meatball inside. I did not enjoy it at all, but the big issue was the aftermath: a few minutes after eating my lips started puffing up and turned swollen white, and I borrowed a friend’s mirror just to check. Sure enough, my tongue and throat were itching and my lips looked like they were ready to burst. It was not good.
To get around the problem, I ordered the cold milk tea. It was very good! It’s much better than Chow King’s Naicha. It doesn’t have the sago pearls, but it’s quite milky and just the right sweetness. It’s great milk tea.
And luckily, it was enough to calm down my allergy. Cured, I was ready to move on to my next challenge.
This is the poor carcass I saw hanging out at the front of the shop. Not satisfied to kill its prey, Wai Ying also sees fit to desecrate its corpse by slicing it into small pieces until you can no longer even recognize its proud visage in life. Loads of veggies are added into a thick soup of death, smelling strongly of Vetsin and some other ungodly mix.
Okay, time to take the plunge.
One slurp of the soup made my insides churn. I do not know what was in the dish in particular, probably some onions, sauteed in the stock, with lots of MSG and the duck’s corpse giving off its death throws. But all I know is, I did not like this soup stock.
I went on to slurp up the noodles, which were stringy and a bit crumbly. Al dente it is not. They didn’t really taste good and felt like the instant noodles you can get from any 30 peso cup of noodles.
Then I ate up the duck. It was again surprisingly bland. There’s none of the fabled “gamey taste” ducks have. But all I was tasting was the nasty soup stock all over again, this time seeped into the duck’s innards.
It was at this point that my stomach could take no more. I felt like heaving, seriously, and looked around panicked trying to find the bathroom door. There’s no telling when I might need to throw my cookies.
Ugh. I took a lot of deep breaths and managed to calm down after a long time. But this was not a promising start to my Journey for Chinese Food Redemption.
Dong Bei Dumpling House
Our next stop was a dumpling specialist. This is the fabled Dong Bei, which has endorsements from Trip Advisor, as shown by the Trip Advisor sticker proudly displayed on the glass at the front of the shop.
Dong Bei’s shop was a lot cleaner and more conducive to eating compared to Wai Ying’s slaughterhouse. At one side table the cooks were busy chopping huge stacks of vegetables no doubt to put into their kuchay pie.
So yes, we started with the Kuchay Dumplings.
These look a lot like unfried Gyouza. And I tried them, to be honest they taste just like raw Gyouza. The filling is a mix of vegetables — green onions and the like, and then mixed with some pork. Its rolled into the dimsum wrapper and then steamed.
The taste was not so bad, which I guess was a huge relief compared to Wai Ying. However, I’m not a fan of steamed dumplings, they just seem to lack a kick. I would have liked frying this instead, but then it would just be like a fried gyouza dumpling from a good Japanese restaurant. And we can’t have that in a bad evil Chinese restaurant!
To check if Dong Bei really had the mettle, we went ahead and ordered another classic: Xiao Long Bao.
This Xiao Long Bao is one again steamed, as it should be instead of fried. It should have rich broth inside. This is the first time I am eating Xiao Long Bao, so I have no idea what it is supposed to taste like.
When I ate it though, it tastes just like Pancit Molo. The broth was just like molo broth, and the pork inside was like the pork meatball I have in pancit molo. Even the wrapper is just like what I have in molo. The only difference is, this isn’t swimming in soup and instead has the soup hidden inside the wrapper.
I was pretty disappointed, to be honest, that it would taste so pedestrian. It was supposed to be some of the best Xiao Long Bao in the metro. After discussing with my friends who have tried the Xiao Long Bao from Din Tai Fung, this dumpling apparently falls short of those.
However, I survived, and that’s whats important.
To help me recover, I ordered some Herbal Tea to wash it all down. This was actually pretty good. It tasted like Gulaman, but not as sweet, but with a more glutinous, thick texture. Minus the gelatin, and it had a leafy flavor to it that wasn’t bad at all. I recommend it if you ever see a can.
New Po Heng Lumpia House
This lumpia was surprisingly bad. It’s fresh vegetable lumpia, but what surprised me was the size. It was huge. Before you bite into it, it looks like a Mexican burrito.
Once you bite in, though it was clearly Chinese in origin, replete with the bad connotations that has for me. It’s basically veggies, fresh cabbage, carrots, and bean sprouts. Now, that wouldn’t have been so bad, but I would have preferred it fried to make the skin crispy and add extra calories and unhealthy cholesterol. But hey, like they say, everything good in life is either immoral, illegal or fattening.
But this was fresh so it wasn’t fried, it was as is, and let’s just hope the cooks washed their hands and the veggies thoroughly before serving, because as is the trend with all Binondo restaurants, the place is a real hole-in-the-wall and not really inspiring of cleanliness and sanitation.
The real problem was that they laced the entire thing with crushed peanut paste and mascovado sugar. I felt like I was eating a peanut dessert, except I had tons of veggies to go along for my sweet tooth. I don’t generally relate dessert with veggies, so this dish tore up my mind in a different way.
Sincerity Cafe and Restaurant
Add this point, I’ve had my spider senses tingled, my stomach raped, my tastebuds disappointed and my mindblown. Can’t really get much worse, right? Well as Winston Churchill said, “When you’re in hell, keep going.”
So I plod along this alien city, daggers staring at me from every shadow with assassins waiting to poison me with every bite I take.
So we thought we’d bring out the big guns: the Sincerity Cafe is a four-star restaurant, a rarity anywhere but especially rare in a hole like this, which has gotten rave reviews from everywhere and could be considered an urban treasure of Binondo.
We decided to start off with the house specialty: Sincerity Chicken. This is a fried chicken dish and to be honest it amazed me with the very crisp batter fried perfectly. The rest of it was chicken and it came out as good fried chicken should. The artistry in frying this chicken was no doubt top class; the skin/batter was perfectly crisp and melted in your mouth one biting, until you hit the succulent meat inside. It’s great!
Well, except for one thing. It has a rancid pungent scent and aftertaste that I can’t quite place. It’s the “Chinese Restaurant Flavor” that I utterly despise. It must be born of the Wok never having been washed for the past twenty years. I swear the restaurant owners must panic anytime they leave the wok out in the yard and it starts to rain.
My Japanese friend told me the chicken probably had some Five Spice, a popular Chinese spice which I am not familiar with as I have not seen it in the groceries where I live. It’s not something I have cooked with or grew up with, but if this is what it tastes like, I count my blessings.
It’s a shame, the chicken would have been epic if not for that strange, pungent, almost medicinal and herby taste.
It’s a pile of poop! Well no it’s actually Machang
Next up is the most unappetizing-looking dish I ate all day long. Just to set your mind at east, it’s not what I thought it was, it’s glutinous rice molded with lotus leaf and chicken (or pork, or maybe both) and loads of Vetsin and other stuff I don’t want to name. It’s called Machang.
This dish… I didn’t really like it. It’s a shame, but I think I would have liked it if not for the same “Chinese Taste” the chicken had. It reminded me a lot of Paella, except Chinese-flavored. It was great, the rice was well cooked, it was sticky and savory, but the Chinese taste ruined it all.
And lastly here’s something called an Oyster Cake. I honestly didn’t know what to expect. I thought the Oyster Cake would be something like a Mooncake, but it’s not. It’s basically an omelette with some poor oyster’s innards tossed in.
As I’ve come to expect by now, it had that reeking Chinese taste. Sadly, that was enough to make me not enjoy it. The egg was expertly fried, and the oyster was slimey soft and nice to chew, reminded me of tikoy actually, but the rest of the taste didn’t suit me. However this tasted best among everything we ordered here in Sincerity, because the Chinese taste was noticeably less compared to the chicken and machang.
So what now?
Well my stomach has been abused enough. We just went around looking for dessert and other stuff. Here’s a suprising find, it’s a Chinese knock-off of Yakult, called Jinwei.
The bottle is huge, much larger than our normal Yakult bottles, and tasting it, the probiotic drink was very thick and gooey — something I am starting to think is a trend with Chinese cold drinks. The taste was very, very close to Dutch Mill’s original flavor, except much thicker. It was not bad.
Fears of poisoned Chinese milk imported from the mainland aside, I would order and drink this again.
What really made me happy though was Lord Stow’s Bakery. There are two Lord Stow’s branches in Binondo. One is in Lucky Chinatown Mall, the other is along the footbridge near Binondo Church. The name of the street eludes me.
Lord Stow’s made the entire trip worth it. In retrospect, I should just go to Glorietta and order some egg tarts from there. It’s safer than risking pick pockets in Binondo and I would have avoided all the nasty food disasters I went through all day.
This tart is just heavenly.
The tart has a flaky, somewhat crispy but also kinda makunat crust, which is delightful in its contrast. What gives it life though is the custard, which is creamy, not too sweet, just right. Creamy and rich, bursting in egg flavor, it’s the perfect custard and I could easily eat a whole box of this without trying, even after all the junk I ate earlier.
I will remember to pick up some Lord Stow egg tarts whenever I see them, they are sooooo good!
After this disaster of a road trip through Binondo’s snaking streets, I’ve come to the conclusion that Chinese food is really not for me. It’s been a scathing review of Binondo’s food scene, but you should not take this as definitive judgement that the food here is inedible; far from it.
I opened this entry with a tirade on how I hate Chinese food, and the rest of this entry should be read with that in mind. People will like and dislike different things, and this is simply a case of me not liking food that I really do not like. I gave it a chance, but obviously it’s not for me.
From now on, I will probably stick to Chinese fine dining. For one reason or another, I find fine dining Chinese food to be palatable and even delicious. Phoenix Court is one such place. I will look to trying other fine dining places like Shang Palace, Crystal Jade, and others in the future.
That will probably be for the best, both for me and for Chinese cuisine.