The Philippines is home to a spectacular archipelagic feast. With more than 7,000 islands scattered across its waters, different locales vie for the title of the country’s food capital. Filipinos, whose discerning palates are partly swayed by the narratives behind each bite they savor, know full well that that’s a tall order.
To be considered a food capital by Pinoys, a place must not only whet the appetite, it must also speak to the soul by way of adventure, cultural identity, and meaning-making.
Manila dwellers need not look far. Their home is a foodie’s paradise. Even Manila’s visitors are often surprised to discover that cradled in the city’s busy streets are districts steeped in rich culinary history and cultural heritage that are smaller food capitals in their own right. Discover the sumptuous secrets of Manila’s districts and you might just be surprised at what you’ll find.
Ermita: Middle-eastern Menus
Manila’s mini food capitals are melting pots where various cultures intersect. This intersection often paves the way for the creation of a new heritage. Ermita, for example, is now known to locals and tourists as the go-to for Mediterranean and Middle-eastern fare.
Ermita’s storied past adds to its charm. It was once home to the country’s early art scene. Its streets were peppered with exhibitions, galleries, and artist groups associated with the post-war Mabini art movement. And where art is, food follows and flourishes, thanks to patrons who bring friends and pass on the knowledge of good eats. Considering its buzz then and now, it makes perfect sense that restaurants like Shawarma Snack Center (SSC) thrive in the area. The Middle-eastern restaurant is a favorite of foreigners nearby who crave for a taste of their homeland. Shawarma and shisha enthusiasts often go out of their way to dine at SSC because of its authentic vibe.
Districts that contribute to Manila’s ever-changing foodscape shaped by community-building, respect for all cultures, and a shared love for cuisine.
In the past, SSC boasted a more extensive menu that included pescatarian options like fish biryani. Today, its simplified offerings have been tailored to fit the Pinoy’s budget meal concept. If you’re a meat lover, don’t deny yourself the chance to savor SSC’s shawarma with either beef or chicken. Vegetarians need not feel left out; SSC’s falafel sandwich is just as filling. Both set meals come with soda, but a sweet yogurt drink makes for a great addition and can even double as dessert.
Malate: Asian Favorites
Ermita’s “twin” district, Malate, was a haven for Manila’s culturati and literati. The place has seen its own evolution through the decades, from being known as a watering hole for the country’s top artists, performers, and wordsmiths to its infamous reputation as a red-light district. Today, Malate is the city’s very own Koreatown. Despite its many transformations, the district still holds the same allure, if not more.
Consider its new Korean “identity,” which started with the arrival of several Korean grill restaurants riding the surge of popularity of Korean dramas and pop stars, also known as the Hallyu Wave. Old timers like Korean Village, which had recently closed its doors after nearly 50 years of service, paved the path for samgyupsal joints like Makchang Korean Barbecue and Fantastic Chef, all of which are located around Remedios Circle.
Before the Hallyu Wave took over, Malate drew crowds with their Japanese cuisine. The proof lives: Tanabe still stands to this day, along with smaller and newer spots that let customers fill up on Japanese fare. There are also the classics which have fortunately stood the test of time, even through the pandemic: Café Adriatico, Bistro Remedios, and Casa Armas all offer delectable Spanish cuisine. Aristocrat, a legend among Filipino diners, still serves its famous chicken barbecue.
A friend who was born and raised in Malate shares a typical foodie itinerary that can easily stretch past midnight. “Malate and Ermita would feed you at whichever hour you please," she says. “Post-CCP show night caps in Malate would be Lola Ising’s adobo rice with Claude’s dream as dessert at Cafe Adriatico. Or the Aristocrat’s chicken barbecue with java rice paired with the sago gulaman. In Ermita, it would be biryani rice and shawarma platters at Shawarma Snack Center, all of which you could have as breakfast or lunch. ” Nicolas narrates.
To drum up tourism in Malate, the Local Economic Development and Investment Promotions Office (LEPIDO) and the Fil-Korean Trade and Cultural Association Corp held an event last November 2021 titled “Manila K-Town Fest Cha-cha-cha.” It was a means to hype up the Manila Koreatown post-pandemic lockdown.
Binondo: World’s Oldest Chinatown
Talking about Asian cuisine in Manila is never complete without Chinese food, which has heavily influenced the Filipino palate. And a discussion on Chinese fare isn’t complete without mentioning Binondo—the world’s oldest Chinatown that celebrated its 428th founding anniversary last March 2022. The district was established as a settlement for Chinese traders and migrants during the Spanish colonial rule. Since then, it has further grown roots as a center for business and tourism in Manila.
While Toho Panciteria Antigua is touted as Binondo’s (and the country’s) oldest restaurant, Chinese deli chain Eng Bee Tin is a testament to the district’s progress as a gastronomic destination. “Eng Bee Tin started in 1912 when my great grandfather [Chua Chiu Hong] came from China as an overseas worker. He came here hoping for a better life,” recalls Roche Chua, deputy finance manager of Eng Bee Tin and its group of restaurants.
Around that time, China was experiencing drought and famine which led to the Chinese diaspora. Chua recounts that her great grandfather’s friend agreed to put a roof over his head in exchange for Hong’s help at his friend’s bakery. This was where Chua’s great grandfather learned how to make hopia, Eng Bee Tin’s core product.
There were numerous ups and downs, but today, Eng Bee Tin oversees several restaurants that are favorites in Binondo and beyond: The Great Buddha Café, Mr. Ube, Chuan Kee, and Café Mezzanine to name a few. Of course, Eng Bee Tin, which started as a small bakery and is now a full-blown chain of pasalubong centers in Luzon is part of this success story.
Manila dwellers need not look far. Their home is a foodie’s paradise... steeped in rich culinary history and cultural heritage that are smaller food capitals in their own right.
Here's a scrumptious summary of what you can enjoy in Eng Bee Tin restaurants: For Cantonese delights inspired by Hong Kong’s dim sum and claypot dishes, head to The Great Buddha Café and order the beef tendon claypot rice. Mr. Ube, on the other hand, specializes in dishes with high-quality noodles. Then there’s Chuan Kee, where you can gorge on street-food staples like fish balls and kikiam. Last but certainly not the least is Café Mezzanine, Eng Bee Tin’s love letter to the firefighting volunteer community in Binondo. It features comfort food like salted egg shrimp and breakfast bangus; 100% of the proceeds here are donated to the operations of the Binondo Paco Fire Volunteer, an advocacy that traces back to Roche’s father’s personal endeavors as a firefighter and boy scout.
If you’re in a rush, Carvajal is the ideal place to get Filipino-Chinese takeout. But if you have time to spare, follow the path of the queues. Culinary delights abound where long lines are in Binondo’s cramped alleyways. On busy days and peak hours, for instance, New Po Heng Lumpia House enjoys much fanfare, thanks to its filling, savory lumpia. One bite and the delicate spring roll wrapper opens to reveal meat and vegetables bursting at the seams.
For a dim sum party that’s one for the books, you can’t go wrong with Wai Ying on Benavidez Street—if there’s available seating, that is. The eatery is always packed, but its wide selection of fried and steamed dim sum (not to mention the cold cuts platter) are worth the wait. Or, you can make a beeline for Estero Fast Food, a Binondo icon and mainstay on any Binondo food trip itinerary. Pair dim sum with mounds of pancit and Yang Chow fried rice. Feeling like a foodie daredevil? Then the frogs’ legs and bull testicle from Soup #5 would be your best bet.
Tondo: Street Eats Rule
Tondo isn’t a locale popular for its food, but that’s slowly changing with Ugbo, which sits at the heart of residential Tondo. Their main attraction? Street food galore, eat-all-you-can, and paluto, where visitors can pick from a selection of dishes cooked on the spot. There are also shops of freshly squeezed fruit shakes and juice that go for a fraction of the price you’d normally pay for in malls.
The volume of stall offerings might be overwhelming at first: skewers of meat dripping in savory sauces, steaming hot rice with a variety of seafood best eaten with bare hands, and more skewers of fish balls, chicken balls, and an entire gamut of street food can be found lining the area.
This is quintessential Manila.
Locals and visitors alike laud initiatives like Ugbo because it boosts tourism in the area and provides livelihood opportunities. The same can be said of Ermita, Malate, and Binondo— districts that contribute to Manila’s ever-changing foodscape shaped by community-building, respect for all cultures, and a shared love for cuisine.
Editor’s Note: This story was originally published in the 2022 print issue of Made in Manila, commissioned by the Department of Trade, Culture, and Arts of Manila (DTCAM) for the City of Manila. Edits were made for the GRID website.