I GOT A TEXT FROM MY COUSIN Dr. Joey inviting me to an old panciteria in Sta. Cruz, Manila. All I knew was we were going with someone who grew up in the Chinatown area and is familiar with the secrets of Chinatown dining.

I braved the traffic of Manila and ended up beside the Sta. Cruz church. From there, I walked to Ronquillo Street and looked for an old panciteria. As soon as I walked in, I saw in bold letters, RAMON LEE PANCITERIA, 1929. I immediately liked what I saw.

Another friend who joined us, Wiljun, told me how, as a little boy in the 1950s, he would tag along with his father to these early food places. And that?s how he was introduced to Chinese cuisine.

Ramon Lee?s is your typical Manila panciteria, with slow-moving fans, dark brown chairs, thick glasses and delicious food. To most of our parents, this was their comfort food.

Chinese cuisine has evolved since those early times, but I am very curious at how our parents had their own simple food trips. Many diners still come here and reminisce about those days when life was simpler and traffic was nonexistent.

I really couldn?t decide what to start with. We ended up ordering quite a few dishes, starting with hototay soup, which was delicious. Then we dug into Pinsik Frito? deep-fried wantons stuffed with ground pork, followed by Lumpiang Shanghai, Camaron Rebusado, Lengua Baboy, Lapu-lapu Slice, Camaron Relleno, the house specialty Crispy Fried Chicken, Pancit Canton and Shanghai Fried Rice.

These are your typical panciteria bestsellers, and I loved them. I was also eyeing dishes such as Pata Tim, Lechon Kawali, Shrimp with Green Peas, Ampalaya con Carne, Peg Yok Frito, Fried Meatballs, Pancit Bihon and a few others for a comeback.

However, the stuffing of the Shanghai, Camaron Relleno and Pinsik were not great that day. Tired cook, maybe? Also all over our table were cups of sweet and sour sauces for all the deep-fried ulams.

All in all, it was worth the trip. On the side streets of the Sta. Cruz rotunda are Ongpin, with its own interesting dining choices, and Florentino Torres, which has Wah Sun, another old panciteria, and Ambos Mundos, an old Spanish restaurant?two other dining institutions I have been to. This area is truly a dining destination.

Ramon Lee Panciteria is at 540 Ronquillo St. in Sta. Cruz, Manila (7330642).

E-mail sandydaza@shaw.ca