The Chinese-Filipino community’s reaction to Chinese New Year being declared a special nonworking holiday has been mostly grumbles: “What, another business day lost this year?”
The Chinese don’t like the idea of 24 hours of lost profits.
I myself agree that it’s an unnecessary holiday because, unlike, say, the minority Muslim religious group, the minority Chinese ethnic groups are largely acculturated and will have celebrated the Gregorian New Year. So, it’s politically unnecessary.
But long weekends are always nice, and it’ll give an extra day to recover from the gridlock of tonight, when Chinese families will be rushing across the city to celebrate in whichever house or restaurant has been designated the gathering place of the evening.
It’s also the time for many publications to pull out and publish a dusty list of old Chinese restaurants, the contents of which haven’t changed for decades, much like the restaurants themselves.
Dining places in Binondo like Antigua (now known as the New Toho Food Center), Mañosa, or Ling Nam, have, as part of their appeal, the nostalgic quality of being stuck in time, with recipes passed down over the years and a steadfast refusal to change.
Nostalgists love the quaintness of Binondo because it’s an exotic day trip to the past. But, otherwise, it’s a dump. The creeks need to be unclogged and cleaned up, the traffic is at a permanent standstill, and the air quality is toxic.
Its population density actually makes it ideal as a testing ground for pedestrianization during work hours and electric tricycles to join the pedicabs and calesa as an alternative way of getting around. And most of the good food isn’t there anymore.
There are good snacks, such as the siomai at Wah Ying, still the best in town, or the fried noodles with liver at Mañosa, or the kikiam at DEC. But for the good food, one has to go where the Chinese foodies live these days: Greenhills.
My list of favorite Chinese restaurants hasn’t changed much since last year, either. If you want to splash out on good festive food, the best place to go is still Choi Garden on Annapolis Street. Most regular customers are assigned a handler, rather like an LTO fixer, who can speak Fujianese or Mandarin and whose number you can keep on speed dial and who will joust to get you a table on a Sunday night.
Guests are also assessed on their level of importance and assigned a chef of corresponding competence, which is why I get a much better meal when I go with my business magnate uncle than when I take my friends there myself.
That is terribly undemocratic and goes against the basic principle of a restaurant, which is that you should get the same meal whoever you are, as long as you’re able and willing to pay for your meal.
I have a love-hate relationship with Gloriamaris, which is around the corner on Missouri Street. It isn’t quite as large as the biggest Chinese restaurant in the world—the West Lake restaurant in Hunan with 5,000 seats, and 80,000 sq m of floor area over 5.8 hectares of land—but it does feel like it sometimes.
Despite that, it’s difficult to get a seat on weekends, which one would assume to be a testament to the food; but the quality varies tremendously from meal to meal for no good reason.
And, finally, up on Wilson Street, the Hai Kang Seafood Restaurant is a bit dingy, but not any more so than President in Binondo, and it has the same cheap and cheerful clatter and above-average food. It’s no place for intimate conversations or to take VIPs, but the food is consistent, and for a good meal I would go there rather than Gloriamaris.
I’m partial to these three restaurants because, despite having mostly Cantonese menu, as most upscale Chinese restaurants in the world do, they also cater to the tastes of the mostly Fujianese community in the Philippines.
Choi Garden now does a good interpretation of the Xiamen oyster omelette, which used to be something only home-style places like Mann Hann did; while Hai Kang will, upon special order, produce the most famous, and expensive, Fujian dish, called “Buddha Jumps Over The Wall” (in delight, presumably, not in terror), a lavish layering of southern Chinese delicacies (scallops, abalone, sea cucumber, and shark’s fin if you ask for it) stewed in a special porcelain pot.
Opposite Mann Hann, incidentally, is a little store called Little Store, which cooks food to-go for families, an old local Chinese practice called tiap chai, because women were expected to work as well.
Its busiest night is Chinese New Year’s eve, because, really, what family has the time to cook an even number of dishes (preferably eight upwards), for the traditionally correct feast after a workday?
Perhaps that is the day that should be a special nonworking, cooking holiday.
Choi Garden, 12 Annapolis St., Greenhills, San Juan; tel. 7277489
Gloriamaris, Missouri St. cor Connecticut St., Greenhills, San Juan; tel. 5700921
Hai Kang, 227 Wilson St., Greenhills, San Juan; tel. 5706325