By Gene Gonzalez
Call it crazy, but after a decade (with the promise that I would never spend my Chinese New Year in Binondo) I was back braving the traffic and literally the almost back-to-chest crowd moving one slow step at a time, not in cadence with the happy beating of drums of the picture perfect and colorful lion and dragon effigies welcoming the prosperity or good fortune for the year.
One can also have a seeming burlesque take on street urchins making use of an old blanket and a carton box simulating the movements of the lion dance as they beat on styro boxes for their drums, quite hilarious, but a sign of present methods on how to make a fast buck.
Hungry and looking for a place to eat became concurrent with muttering four letter words and blaming oneself for this consequence I had been experiencing.
We had started in Binondo Church and had visited all my favorite classic lunch spots (since I was holding office in Intramuros, just a jeepney ride away) and ended up almost in Plaza Sta. Cruz. All the eating places, even the pricier seafood restaurants, were also fully packed. So with such a big area that was traversed on foot we did end up finding a place to eat across the Meisic Mall called Hao Kang, which serves quick snacks and modern Hong Kong style desserts.
One thing that got our curiosities so tickled was this poster of what looks like a copper hotpot filled with a colorful arrangement of fruit cut into cubes and balls with glutinous rice dumplings aesthetically served on shaved milk ice with a topping of creamy mango sorbet. Though we were only two and this was a shared date serving for four people with a rather distant pricing from the other menu items, we used the New Year alibi of being sumptuous and threw all caution or propensities of a sugar rush to the wind. We did order some quick serve nibbles such as corn patties (fried custard with corn) with a crisp panko crust, fried pork dumplings with a crisp nori wrap and some baked chicken pasta (typical of Macao) but unfortunately, since it was a peak day, they ran out of cheese so we just cancelled it. Horror of horrors! Before the even food arrived, our dessert was brought to our table and I just felt so helpless. Being famished, we started wolfing down the dessert to a point where we realized how this cold smoking tower (hot pot served) was so good that it was almost an issue for confession, and we slowed down tasting every combination of crisp melon and watermelon, dragon fruit, chewy glutinous rice balls, large mango cubes, and a creamy top of mango sorbet with shaved milk ice. With freshness like this on a warm day, one can only be consoled with the type of finesse this dessert was composed.
I guess we will just have to comeback maybe in a group of four or more, so that we may be able to sample their other creations, but I’m glad I did try out this top of the line shaved ice dessert that we put away in 35 minutes.
By this time, our notion was that the lines could have cleared (which seemed to be everyone’s notion, too), and as we got to our favorite dumpling place, near the church, the line had gone even longer. We crossed Ongpin st. and got to Carvajal, a famous foodie alley and saw only two people lining up at Quick Snack. Even if we were assigned to a table nearest Siberia, I did get to order some of their classic bestsellers (I guess when you have a place this old with so many patrons, every item on the menu is already a bestseller). We started with Indonesian tofu, deep fried to form a thin, crisp crust on the outside streaked with chili sauce, topped with chives, fresh cilantro, crushed peanuts, and a tasty soy based sauce. The quekiam was as good as I remember it years ago with a crisp crust and small cubes of pork and back fat bound together exuding flavors of five spice powder and garlic. The lumpia was also quite consistent, flavors of vegetables and peanut, but I miss the textures produced by noodles and a mix of hotee.
Then there is Quick Snack’s miki bihon guisado, which is a great example of food combined to produce desirable textures such as thin bihon and thick miki. One can up to now look at the menu and browse through one’s choices of toppings whether it be seafood, mixed, or renions.
After this very late lunch, where savories came after dessert, the problem of going back home with no public or private taxis was there. We casually took a long leisurely walk, where we ended up under the bridge in Quiapo. Again, this was nostalgia, as I bought Vienna bread, French bread, and pan de sal from the old Vienna bakery. Our last stop was on the other side where, for our breads, we chose some dark slices of glazed excelente ham.
In retrospect, I guess the little New Year field trip was a great renewal despite the heat, the maddening crowd, the queues, and the tight spaces, after all we Filipinos have the bragging rights that this is the world’s oldest Chinatown!
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