I normally hate driving to some areas in Manila. Binondo, in particular, with its mad traffic and congested alleys is pretty hard to drive around. If I have to go here, I’d rather commute or take my scooter instead of the car. It doesn’t help that I drive a secondhand manual car with a really hard clutch that has conked out on the road more than once. But a few days before Chinese New Year, I found myself driving through Binondo’s streets and actually enjoying it.
Thanks to an invitation from Ford Philippines, I got to test drive the all-new Ford Focus for a festive food trip around Binondo led by popular tour guide Ivan Man Dy. The group was composed of fellow travel bloggers Izah and Dom and food bloggers Richard and Franny. We met up at the Ford office in Bonifacio Global City at noon and got to pick the color of the car we wanted to drive. Izah and I gravitated towards the blue car, because of its sleek and elegant look. (The Ford Focus comes in Candy Red, Winning Blue, Ingot Silver, Lunar Sky, Frozen White and Panther Black.)
Aside from being a really attractive car, the all-new Ford Focus has a lot of smart features for its segment that make driving more convenient. The Active Park Assist function allows drivers to parallel park totally hands-free by using sensors to help identify a feasible parking space, which is really useful for parking in tight streets like Binondo. The smart keyless entry lets drivers lock and unlock the door without taking the key out of a bag or pocket.
The wide dashboard with all the buttons looked really futuristic. Being behind the wheel felt like I was in the cockpit of a spaceship or a fighter jet. You can sync the car to your mobile devices like mobile phones and music players. Then, you can voice control the devices to answer or make phone calls or change the music hands-free. Another cool feature was audible text messaging. People in the other Ford Cars were sending text messages to us on directions and driving tips, which was translated into voice messages. Testing out the different features of the car made the drive all the more enjoyable through the traffic. I can really see how useful having this type of car would be for long road trips.
After a smooth drive, we arrived in Binondo and parked by the main landmark, the Binondo Church, where we met up with Ivan Man Dy of Old Manila Walks. After a brief stop at Ramada Hotel for drinks, we made our way to our first food stop, Cafe Mezzanine, a restaurant which specializes in comfort food cooked in the Hokkien-style. I didn’t have breakfast and lunch in anticipation of the food trip, so by the time we got here, I was starving. I quickly finished the bowls of Kiampong (rice cooked with soy sauce, pork, veggies and topped with salted peanuts) and Special Fish Ball Soup (a light soup with veggies and fishballs).
Normally these dishes are served in bigger bowls per order, but we were given just the right portions. We were also given some Lo Tau Hu (Stir-fried tofu). The soft texture of the tofu covered in hot & spicy sauce went well with the sourness of the pickled radish. To wash it all down, we had cold kundol or Wintermelon tea, a really refreshing drink that reminded me a lot of the taste of aratilis, which my friends and I would just pluck and eat directly from trees in our village.
Our next stop was Dong Bei Dumplings, a small hole-in-the-wall eatery that serves potstickers from the Northern part of China. Ivan told us that everything here was made from scratch within the four corners of the walls. When you eat, you often take for granted the work that goes into making the food. It’s a tedious process to grind all the meat they use for the filling and to hand-roll the dough for wrappers, for a plate of dumplings that most people eat in five minutes flat.
There were two variants of the boiled dumplings. One was filled with ground meat while the other more flavorful one had scallions mixed into the filling. Ivan suggested we dip it into the “dirty-looking” sauce, which had bits of chilli that really enhanced the flavor of the dumplings. We also got to try Deep-Fried Scallion Cakes, which had a light flaky crust and a savory filling, which I found really great. This is just good old comfort food at its finest.
The Guo Ta Tou Fu (Tofu Burger), bite-sized crispy meat patties sandwiched in between two layers of tofu, was also really good. The texture of the crunchy filling and soft tofu went well together and tasted very fresh and healthy.
One of the most interesting dishes of the trip was the Stir-Fried Chicken with Carrots and Cucumbers. The chicken was spiced with cumin, reminiscent of Indian cuisine. Ivan explained how migration within China led to the creation of different cuisine and Islamic-Chinese dishes, such as this, which is quite different from the typical Chinese dishes most people are familiar with.
After the filling meal, we stopped by a stall selling a row of assorted nuts and Chinese preserves like plums, ginger preserves and kiamoy, which we got to sample. I found the taste of the ginger preserves a bit too strong, but happily munched on the pieces of plums and kiamoy, which my cousins and I just love.
Our last restaurant stop was Awi’s Cafe & Restaurant, where we sampled their special, the Awi’s Lo Bihon. By this time, all of us were pretty full, but Ivan urged us to taste the Bihon. The black vinegar added a bit of sourness to the soup, while the pepper brought out the flavor. This went really well with the restaurant’s signature tropical iced tea. The restaurant owners also served us Coffee Spareribs, tender meat coated with a sweet and tangy flavor of coffee (almost caramel-like) and sesame seeds.
The last dish was Gabi Cake covered with scallions and vegetables. According to Ivan, gabi is an extender which is used in Chinese cuisine to make meals last longer. It was chewy but pretty good!
Before heading home, we made a last stop for pasalubong shopping at Holland’s Hopia, which sells a range of Chinese delicacies including machang, hopia and tikoy. I found the “Ti-Koi” shaped like a fish really cute.
The regular Big Binondo Food Wok usually covers more restaurants, but even so, we all felt very satisfied with the trip. Though I’ve been to Binondo before, I left with a better appreciation of the rich history behind the place and the food, thanks to the stories shared by Ivan. It was really fun to rediscover Binondo and try out new restuarants and dishes that I admit, I would have probably overlooked had I gone to Binondo on my own. It also didn’t hurt that we had such a great ride going there and back as well.
Thanks to Ford Philippines and Ogilvy for this Chinese New Year food trip around Binondo! Additional photos by Ford Philippines. [More event photos here]
NOTE: A version of this blogpost was published as “Drive, Walk, Eat” in Manila Bulletin’s Style Weekend.