Pepper Guide: The Best Places in Binondo According to Masuki Kitchen’s Ian MaJune 28, 2016
When you want to discover the best of Binondo, tap a local. For a Pepper.PH exclusive food crawl, we tapped Binondo native and chef Ian Ma, great-grand nephew of the famed “Noodle King”, Ma Mon Luk. Ian Ma is a part of the fourth generation of Binondo Chinese-Filipino families that has contributed to the rich food culture which surrounds their district. His side of the family has grown Masuki Noodle Restaurant under the Ma Mon Luk tradition, adapting the age-old recipe to suit the local palate for a sweeter, more Filipino-friendly taste.
Ma Mon Luk is renowned to be the originator of mami in the Philippines, and the legend that the word “mami” comes from Ma Mon Luk’s name is true, Ian confirms. “Mi” translates to noodles, and “Ma Mi” translates to noodles of Ma. Because of this regional origin, Ian warns against ordering mami in a Chinese restaurant outside of the Philippines. The Ma family name was bestowed upon their ancestor by an emperor for having cared for the imperial horses, and “Ma” literally means “horse”. So unless you want to be laughed at for ordering horse noodles while in Hong Kong, stick to ordering “mi”.
As for Ian, he’s making his bones in the restaurant business by way of his own path. He earned a prestigious scholarship at Enderun College, and worked part-time jobs throughout his studies in order to cover the rest of his tuition. Since graduating with a degree in International Hospitality Management and Specialty in Culinary Arts, he has been a part of the Solaire VIP Kitchen team, and the MIL consulting team that has supported restaurant concepts like Wholesome Table and the Antonio’s group.
However, right now Ian works independently to focus on his gastronomical roots, Chinese food. A vet in the Chinese kitchen (he’s been rolling his own siopaos since he can remember), Ian knows his Chinese food not just in its awesome flavor but also in the components and cooking approaches that make it so. He takes Pepper.PH to some of his favorite childhood eateries in Binondo and shows us why Binondo is unlike any other food destination in Metro Manila.
Sincerity is already famous for their crispy fried chicken that has a distinct crunch and flavor, which attracts customers to the busy Binondo streets for a bite. Ian tells us it’s likely used with cornstarch to hold its crunch longer. Although we couldn’t resist ordering some chicken, we were there for the Oyster Cake. Ian’s favorite dish on the menu, the Oyster Cake has a distinct glutinous and chewy texture that Binondo locals love. The secret to this texture? Kamote flour, a frequently used ingredient in Chinese cooking.
One of Ian’s favorite aspects of Chinese cooking is the endless variety of ingredients, and Sincerity is exhibit A of the ingenuity in their use. Like Masuki, Sincerity is a homegrown family-owned business that’s been around for decades. Ian has a soft spot for restaurants with a story, and with a natural charisma and boundless energy he colors our walking tour with innumerous stories throughout the day of his extraordinary childhood in Manila.
497 Yuchengco St, Binondo, Manila, 1006 Metro Manila
Telephone: (02) 241 9990
New Toho Food Center
Arguably the oldest food establishment in Binondo, the ironically named New Toho Food Center has been in operations since 1888 and is said to have been a favorite snack spot of national hero Jose Rizal. Its purple walls are dusted a shade darker from its open entrance that welcomes the city air like a theater stage breaking the fourth wall. The restaurant is inexplicably cool in temperature, and is an ideal place to enjoy a cold drink and some pulutan to escape the raging heat of the city streets.
We enjoy the Pinsec Prito – fried wonton dumplings that are more of wonton chips since the average amount of pork you’d encounter in a wonton are either pea-sized or non-existent – a snack that rivals favored Hai Shin Lou wonton chips. Ian also recommends the spicy squid, doused in various spices, sesame oil and chili.
While eating, Ian tells us that Chinese food is different from other cuisines as it aims to encompass all the tastes in one dish – sweet, salty, sour, spicy, umami – which is why no Chinese dish is truly complete without MSG. “If there’s no MSG, it’s something else: liquid MSG, chicken powder, Knorr… That mixture of satisfaction and regret you feel after eating Chinese food? That’s Chinese food. It’s a perfect balance.” Ian tells us with a laugh.
422 Tomas Pinpin St, Binondo, Manila, 1006 Metro Manila
Telephone: (02) 242 0294
Estero Fast Food
Literally located immediately next to an estero (the back of their kitchen overlooks it), Estero Fast Food is an open-air food hall that is best known for its crispy frog legs. The bitter smell of grey water leisurely flowing 5 meters away from us could possibly be credited for its flavor, though it definitely is responsible for a unique dining ambiance. Their crispy frog legs are offered in a number of ways – adobo-style, sizzling, with chili sauce or with garlic. But we decide to stick with the classic: crispy frog legs coated in batter and deep-fried.
As we munch on frog legs that Ian spot-on describes to taste like “a combination of fish and chicken”, he tells us to visit the Arranque market next time we are in the area, the same market where Estero sources their frog legs. “You’ll find anything! Snakes, turtles, frogs,” he says. “For cooking or for pets?” I ask. “That’s up to you,” he responds slyly.
Ongpin, Binondo, Manila
Telephone: (02) 644 4028
New Eastern Garden Restaurant
Another new restaurant that’s been around for ages, New Eastern Garden Restaurant is probably 3 meters wide and 15 meters long, with 5 small square tables lining one side and a counter and small kitchen on the other. We dropped by for their classic lumpia and a new version with shredded nori.
Ian claims this as the best lumpia as it is “simple and has only the good stuff.” He admits his bias, having grown up coming here with the whole family whenever they would want lumpia, and a lumpia craving exclusively meant a visit here and nowhere else. He points out the simple interiors that reflect the other restaurants we have visited. “Most of what you see in these institutions are older than us,” pointing to a fan-shaped metal napkin holder in art deco fashion. Something to admire about Binondo is its appreciation for tradition and preservation.
954 Ongpin St, Santa Cruz, Manila, 1003 Metro Manila
Telephone: (02) 733 6226
Masuki Mami Restaurant
We could not not drop by Masuki on this tour. The flagship restaurant has a post-war charm, with sturdy, low wooden chairs and textured checkered tiles harken back to a pre-Internet era yet make it quaintly Instagrammable. Ian orders us the basics: Masuki’s trademark giant siomai, the beef wonton chicken asado special mami, and the asado special siopao with salted egg inside that makes me wonder why siopao is made any other way.
Ian takes us on a tour of the upstairs kitchen, pointing out the antique noodle woks that have been discolored – flavored, even – with age. He takes us into the room where the noodles are made fresh each morning, pointing out the hard narra wood table and giant 7 foot rollers, an old-fashioned noodle kneading set that is one of three still in existence and use in the Philippines as far as he knows. Demonstrating how to knead the dough on the table, he hops on one leg and throws his other over the roller, using his body weight to pound on hypothetical dough, and breaking a sweat after a minute. “It’s a lot harder than it looks. I’m not even joking, the guys who do this every morning have abs from this,” he says.
931 Benavidez St, Binondo, Manila, Metro Manila
Telephone: (02) 244 0745
For dessert we capped off our food crawl in a typical Chinese Deli. “There’s no real dedicated dessert place to visit while in Binondo,” Ian explains. “If you’re going to do dessert, you usually do it in a restaurant you’re already in.” But for the food crawl he takes us to one of his favorite snack stops as a child, where he would frequently get his baon.
Diao Eng Chai Chinese Deli
In Diao Eng Chai, Ian becomes a child again in his favorite candy shop. He points to various almond flavored snacks in a fridge – a pudding, a drink, a cake. The shop is an air-conditioned refuge and smells endearingly sweet. He points us to some of his favorite snacks in and behind the main counter – haw flakes, deep-fried ampao in 3 flavors, colorful smiling cupcakes. He tells me on Chinese New Year, everyone rolls peso bills into a straw and sticks them into these smiling cakes like birthday candles. The first one to wake up and go downstairs gets to keep all the money.
We finally settle on sweet, cooked tikoy – plain and roll versions, the latter filled with yellow mung bean. The flour-coated tikoy tastes exactly like gulaman with a more palatable gooey texture, and the subtle yellow mung bean adds balance to its immense sweetness. After 6 hours of walking around Binondo we’ve run out of steam and daylight, legs aching and stuffed to our necks in food, though Ian is raring to show us more of his hometown. As we silently savor our final sweet bites for today’s excursion in the comfort of Diao Eng Chai, Ian chitchats with the storeowners about food and we wonder if even the fast-paced city can keep up with Ian Ma?
845 Salazar St, Binondo, Manila
Telephone: (02) 244 8816