Toho Food Center. Photo by Anson Yu, Coconuts Manila
As early as the ninth century, the Chinese have been coming to the Philippines not only to trade, but also to share their cuisine with us. Here, Coconuts Manila presents 14 Chinese restaurants with at least 45 years of operations in Metro Manila — from Binondo and Sta. Cruz to Caloocan City — that have helped shape and define Chinese food for Filipino foodies.
1. Toho Food Center
Move over Ambos Mundos (c. 1888), this is Manila's oldest restaurant, and it's still owned by the same family that founded it. Despite its new brand name, however, most people still refer to Toho by its original identity: Antigua. According to the book "The Governor General’s Kitchen," Antigua was founded by Manuel “Po Kong” Bautista in 1866. He named his restaurant Antigua because he was said to value things whose qualities have proven their worth over time. As for its current name, the owners say that it is the English translation of the Hokkien word "just enough.” Historical personalities who have dined here include four Philippine presidents, actor Fernando Poe Sr, actress and singer Katy de la Cruz and Manila Mayor Arsenio Lacson.
Must order: During the 1930s, some of the more popular dishes on its menu included dishes like sopa de nido (bird’s nest soup), camaron rebosado (fried shrimp), pinsic frito (fried wonton) and bijon tostado (toasted fried bihon) — all are still in the menu. Toho's bestseller is pansit canton (stir-fried noodles, P125). It is said that people used to line up as early as 11 a.m. and again at 5pm just to buy the freshly cooked noodles. Another must-try is roasted pork asado (P180 for one-fourth kilo). Cooked fresh daily without the use of artificial coloring, it is beautifully sweet and tender and usually sold out by afternoon.
Hot foodie tip: It is possible to get a taste of the past here at Antigua. Toho offers dishes you don’t normally find in other Chinese restaurants, like pat mi shrimp (battered fried shrimp in spicy sauce, P220). Another item that is not on the menu but you can whisper gently to the waitresses' ear is fried milk (P180), dry-toasted noodles with bits of pork and shrimp that's covered with a sauce made from milk.
Get here: 422-424 Tomas Pinpin St, Binondo, Manila; +63 2 2420294. Mon-Sat 9am-9pm, Sun 9am-2pm.
2. Ilang Ilang Restaurant
Lomi. Photo by Anson Yu, Coconuts Manila
According to the late food chronicler Doreen Gamboa Fernandez, this eatery got its name from the street where it is located, not from the flower. It was originally a noodle shop opened by a cook from Xiamen named Mr Nua and his son Eng Guan, and became a fully licensed restaurant in 1945. But unlike the panciteria around Plaza Sta Cruz, Ilang Ilang did not benefit from a lunchtime crowd, it was their dinner service that was more lucrative. Today most of its business comes from catering parties.
Must order: According to the book "The Governor General’s Kitchen," Ilang Ilang was known for its wide variety of noodle dishes. Regulars still swear by their bowl of lomi (thick noodles cooked in a thick and starchy egg broth, P115). They are also known for their rellenong hipon (stuffed deep-fried shrimp, P175), rice wine spare ribs (P195) and chami (P115). They are also the only ones we know who make fried gabi (P15), little balls of fried mashed taro that works well as a snack, a dessert or even as accompaniment to a savory dish.
Hot foodie tip: Because of Ilang Ilang's catering operations, it has a variety of dishes you wouldn't normally find in a regular panciteria. Some dishes require to be ordered in advance, like the braised pork with cua pao (P580) and eight treasures stuffed chicken (P480).
Get here: 551 Ilang ilang St. San Nicolas, Manila. +63 2 2419297, +63 2 2423266. Daily 8am-10:45pm.
3. Ramon Lee’s Panciteria
Pinsec frito. Photo by Anson Yu, Coconuts Manila
Ramon Lee came to the Philippines from Guangdong province with the goal of opening his own restaurant and earning enough money to go back to China to marry his fiancée Wong Yok King. In a few short years he was able to tick both boxes, but then World War II broke out and his restaurant was destroyed. Not one to wallow in despair, he immediately reopened at a new location on Ronquillo Street. His wife gave him a recipe for fried chicken and it became an instant hit. Mr. Lee knew that not everyone could afford to order fried chicken, so he introduced six-peso set meals that included the dish. One fan of Ramon Lee's fried chicken was Ferdinand Marcos.
Must try: The value lunch meals are still available with soup, rice, chicken and two side dishes, however they now cost P155 (inflation, darlings!). A whole fried chicken sets you back P330.
Hot foodie tip: Aside from fried chicken the menu boasts other panciteria classics such as cameron rebosado (deep-fried shrimp, P240), ampalaya con carne (stif-fried beef stir with bittergourd, P220), pata tim (sweet braised pork, P295), morisqueta tostado (fried rice, P35 per bowl) and bijon guisado (fried bihon, P200). Filipino dishes have also made it to the menu: kalderetang baka (beef and tomato stew, P245) and, a recent invention, sisig (P215).
Get here: 540 Ronquillo St, Sta. Cruz, Manila, +63 2 7330642. Mon-Sat 10 am-10pm, Sun 9am-10pm.
4. Ma Mon Luk
Siopao. Photo by Anson Yu, Coconuts Manila
Ma Mon Luk arrived in Manila in 1918, with nothing but a determination to make his fortune here so he could go back to China and marry his sweetheart. He worked as a street vendor peddling chicken noodles from two large metal cans that he balanced on his shoulders. Being a natural showman, he would attract customers by singing and performing tricks. Eventually he became so popular that people would seek him from his post on the corner of Onpgin and Salazar Streets. Eventually he saved enough to open his own restaurant in the 1930s. It was then that he named his dish Ma’s Mi or literally Mr. Ma’s noodle. The name stuck and Filipinos now refer to any noodles-and-broth dish as mami. Ma eventually earned enough to marry his sweetheart and bring her to Manila. He went on to introduce a new dish, the siopao, to the general public. At first people were hesitant to try it, but Ma succeeded in not only making them try the hot steamed bun, it went on to become one of the best-loved Chinese dish in the country.
Must try: It is not hard to decide what to eat here as you have only two types of mami and two types of siopao to choose from. Pair either one with siomai (pork and shrimp dumpling, P45 for two pieces). A warm bowl of their regular chicken mami (P95) and asado siopao (roast pork siopao, P45) will only set you back a mere P140.
Get here: 545 Quezon Blvd, Quiapo, Manila, +63 2 7337596. Daily 9am to 8pm.
5. Boy Ching Woo
Pancit Shanghai. Photo by Anson Yu, Coconuts Manila
When war broke out between China and Japan, Nicolas Woo Sr fled to the Philippines as a refugee from Macau. He ended up in what was then the small town of Caloocan (the concept of Metro Manila did not exist back then). To survive, he opened a small panciteria on the corner of Mabini and J Rodriguez Streets. It later became popular for its line of noodle dishes such as the lomi, miki and pancit alanganin ("alanganin" means incomplete in Filipino and this dish is essentially pancit lomi without the egg). When his son Nicolas “Boy Ching” Woo Jr took over the eatery, he added more dishes to the menu such as battered chicken, lechon con tokwa (roast pork and bean curd) and beef rumble (chop suey but with beef strip instead of liver). The restaurant has since moved to its own building further inside J. Rodriguez Street and is now being managed by third generation Woos.
Must try: Signature dishes that have become popular like pancit alanganin (P80) and pancit miki guisado (fried thick noodles, P80). You definitely get your money’s worth if you order the pancit Shanghai (P120), a big bowl of flat egg noodles stir-fried with ham, roast pork, garlic and vegetable. The signature battered chicken (P170) is worth a try as is the beef rumble (P180) which is a bit on the sweet side.
Hot foodie tip: They also have other classic panciteria fare like pata tim (P400) and a selection of Filipino dishes such as sinigang (P120) and crispy pata (P390). Interestingly enough they also offer lasagna and baby back ribs for take away.
Get here: 103 BCW Building, J Rodriguez St, Caloocan City, +63 2 2871430, +63 2 2831499. Daily 11am-11pm.
6. Chuan Kee
Since the 1940s
Kiampong. Photo by Anson Yu, Coconuts Manila
Businessman Co Bio Tsing founded this popular corner eatery in Chinatown. It was originally a grocery with an eatery attached, but it became well known for its kiampong (rice cooked in pork stock). When Co retired to Hong Kong in the 1990s, none of his children were interested to take over, so Gerry Chua of Eng Bee Tin bakery bought the place and gave it a 21st century makeover but retained its old-world charm. Chua has since gone on to open a more upscale version of the restaurant on the second floor, which he now calls Café Mezzanine.
Must try: Definitely you must try the kiampong (P38), available as soon as the store is open at 6 a.m. Chuan Kee is also among the few Chinese restaurants in Binondo that you can try herbal tonics lovingly prepared by Tsinoy moms and grandmothers for their family. Among them are the xibut soup (P160) and the go kong (P135).
Hot foodie tip: They also have the supposed aphrodisiac “Soup no. 5” (P220) on the menu. But according to Chua, the reason it is called as such is because of the five herbs used in the soup. The restaurant is also popular for its line of fresh fruit shakes (P50-P55).
Get here: 650 Ongpin cor Yuchengco Sts, Binondo, Manila; +63 2 2888888 loc 119. Daily 6am to 10pm.
7. Ongpin Mañosa Co.
Lomi. Photo by Anson Yu, Coconuts Manila
The word mañosa supposedly means “skillful” in Spanish. But since most of our Spanish words are filtered through Mexico it could also mean “clever.” If that was the intent of the owner, then he probably wants to imply he is skillful and clever when it comes to cooking and running a restaurant. But another possible explanation as to why the owner named this restaurant Mañosa is that it was his family name. Whatever the reason, this restaurant must be doing something right to stay around for nearly seven decades. In recent years it has expanded to a number of locations around the city, but regulars say that the best one is this branch.
Must try: Despite starting out as a panciteria, the menu at the original branch stay close to its Tsinoy roots. You won’t find pata tim or ampalaya con carne, as in other panciteria. They emphasize more on dishes that are close to the Tsinoy’s heart like maki (pork meatballs in starchy soup, P100) or the machang (rice dumpling, P80).
Hot foodie tip: They are also known for noodle dishes, all of which they serve from bowls that runneth over. Popular among regulars is their chami (fried thick noodles) which is available as a regular (P105) or special (with added extra topping, P135) order.
Get here: 926 Ongpin St, Sta Cruz, Manila; +63 2 7333179. Mon-Sat 9am to 10pm, Sun 9am-9pm.
For the complete list of 14 restaurants, read the original story at the Coconuts Manila website.