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Quezon City dwellers know two things about Banawe Street in the Santa Mesa Heights district: First, that it is a bustling center for all kinds of auto accessories and parts. And second, that it is the heart of Quezon City’s own Chinatown, where lovers of Chinese cuisine converge to sample dishes from some of China’s eight regional cuisines.

Banawe, Quezon City
Two traditional Chinese arches or paifang, inaugurated in 2013 and located on both sides of Banawe St. facing Quezon Avenue, mark the entrance to the city’s Chinatown district

Cuisine from the region of Fujian—where most of the Philippines’ Chinese Filipino immigrants come from—hails at the top, followed by some Cantonese, Jiangsu (or Shanghai) cuisine, Beijing, Hunan, and a little Sichuan.

Variations on Chinese, from neighboring east and southeast Asian countries—Taiwan, Malaysia, and Singapore— have also found an appreciative audience in Banawe. There are also a number of charming cafes and coffee shops which have livened up the scene.

We’ve made a quick round of the restaurants around the Banawe area, which will have its own Chinese New Year festivities for the upcoming year of the Fire Rooster. If you should find yourself in the area, here are some you may want to try.

1. King Chef Dimsum Kitchen
238 Banawe St. cor Panalturan Street, Quezon City. +632 3610571, +632 3611332. 11am-12am

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Dimsum breakfasts are the Asian man’s equivalent of brunch—filling, full of interesting small bites, and enjoyable over an extended period. Everyone has their favorites; chance are, Dimsum Kitchen has it.

Older members of the family might like the slow-cooked Special HK Congee (P220), with abalone, lobster beef tendon meat, pork stomach slices, and chicken, their roast meats over rice (P160-210), or the wide array of constantly updated steamed dimsum trays, like X.O. Siomai (P105), and Seafood Bundle rolls (P105), with glass noodles, crabstick and fish; and deep fried dumplings like the Crispy Duck Wontons (P120), shaped like golden money pouches; Crispy Seafood Mango Balls (P95), and fried Shrimp Puffs (P110) shaped into triangles.

There’s also a slightly wider than usual selection of desserts like their Malay Cake (P95), a steamed cake made with pumpkin; Mango Balls (P85), sticky rice dumplings filled with mango, and salted egg siopao or lava “bombs,” which are having more than than their brief moment of fame.

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King Chef has several “promo hour” blocks during the day, when dimsum prices are reduced by 30-35 percent (8-10 am, 2-5pm, and 9pm to midnight), daily meal promos, and a discount card for dine-in and take-out orders. A new selection of dimsum items is coming out on the 23rd, right in time for Chinese New Year.

This branch of King Chef is not to be confused with their original banquet restaurant hall at 987-989 Banawe St., which also has dimsum and short orders, but has a more extensive menu for lauriats and feasts.

2. Mandarin Sky
478 Banawe St., Quezon City. +632 7406134, +632 7405783. 10am-2pm, 5pm-12am

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Mandarin Sky is a surprisingly small venue for the kind of menu it offers. It embraces a more modern and colorful interpretation of banquet hall decor. It accommodates big groups for lauriat feasts, hot pot meals (although some say that isn’t their strength), as well as all-day dimsum, served from a cart that moves around the room.

Mandarin Sky embraces its ethnic as well as geographic heritage, as well as its ingredients at source; the family that owns the restaurant hails from Dagupan, where they obtain some of their most prized seafood. As such, it’s nice to try some of their more unique dishes like their Laway Chicken (P360, half portion or P720 whole), a steamed white chicken with piquant garlic mixed in with peanut; or their famous Deep Fried Oysters with XO Sauce (P350/510/680), lightly coated and fried, and very umami – just the thing to go with beer.

mandarin sky

Orders are generous, so order with controlled abandon. Hot Prawn Salad, also available cold, a bit pricey at P640 for the small portion (that’s good for 2-3); meaty crab rice (seasonal price); Stir Fried Shrimp with Scrambled Egg, which highlights the freshness of shrimp (P400/600/800), and delicate Sliced Abalone with Seasonal Vegetables (P470/705/940), or with Black Mushroom (P520/780/1,040). Serving is solicitous, even if you don’t splurge on their more expensive dishes, like crab and freshly steamed fish, sold at market prices.

Tikoy is for sale at the door.

3. Tien Ma’s Chinese Cuisine
168 D. Tuazon St. cor N.S. Amoranto Avenue. +632 2565761. 10am-11pm

tien ma's

Tien Ma’s cuisine is considered Shanghai/Taiwan cuisine, depending on whom you talk to. We’re talking classic xiao long bao soup dumplings, stinky tofu with pickles, and sticky, deeply glazed lacquered chunks of pork belly. Their branch, located on the far end of Banawe, along N.S. Amoranto St (also known as Retiro Street in the old days), is their oldest, but it is big and airy. The debate about who has the best – which is to say the thinnest – dumpling wrapper for xiao long bao, as well as the best soup filling rages like a fire, but it’s safe to say Tien Ma ranks among the best in the metro.

The restaurant makes it easy for you to pick, with pictures of their specialties flashing on multiple screens inside the restaurant; there’s also a glass-framed kitchen, from which tray upon tray of hand-folded xiao long bao comes out in a steady stream. On weekends, they say, they send out as many as one hundred trays, fresh from the steamer.

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Everyone has their favorites. Ours are their Three Cup Chicken (P199), which is good, though somewhat on the oily side; their Fried Stinky Tofu in Special Sauce (P199); Taiwan-Style squid (P199); and their fusion-flavored Taiwan Noodle with Pork and Sate Sauce (P120, single portion).

Their mains are inexpensive compared to their xiao long bao, which come eight pieces per tray (P240) and come in Classic (P200), Black Mushroom with Truffle Oil (P240), and Cheese (P210); the cheese is sort of cream-cheese and curd-like. Even better: you can have a combination tray of all three flavors in one tray for P240 – a good option if you come in as a couple. It is worth the splurge.

4. Tra Vinh
109 Cordillera cor N.S. Amoranto Avenue. +632 2469069 ext. 496. 11am-10pm

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This is the true sleeper hit of the bunch: a Vietnamese restaurant that started out in Perth, Australia by Vietnamese immigrants in Perth’s own Chinatown has made its way to here. Even Anthony Bourdain has visited this restaurant.

What’s interesting is that Tra Vinh, located in the Mekong Delta region of Vietnam, has well-documented records of Hoa Chinese immigrants during the 19th, which influenced their cuisine accordingly – and Tra Vinh’s restaurant, not more than a few steps away from Tien Ma, reflects this in their menu – with hotpot dishes, spicy noodles, steamed and fried whole fish, but with the quiet complexity of fresh herbs and spice flavorings infused into their soup, sauces, and dressings.

It’s a best of both worlds affair. Go Vietnamese and start with a sweet Prawn Pomelo (P250) or tart green Prawn Mango salad, prawn crackers on the side. Pile the greens, shrimp, and fruit on the cracker, or eat it all together, or faintly five-spiced Stuffed Chicken Wings (P165). The must-try starter is the crispy Vietnamese Pancake (P250) served with various meats on the side, vegetables, and herbs. Grab a lettuce or mustard leaf, break off a bit of the pancake, add the meat, veggies and herbs, and roll it up to eat.

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There’s lots of pho, which is customizable, and their noodle soup menu cannot convey how good their pho is, so share. Combine their classic pho noodles with raw beef (New Zealand rib eye slices, P170/220/28), go lean with their Chicken Noodle Soup (P150/200/250), or go fancy with the Braised Duck Noodle Soup (P240, one size) or their all-in combo, the Tra Vinh Special Noodle Soup (P230/299).

Hotpot lovers will enjoy the celebration dish that is their Special Vietnamese Fish Soup (P999, good for sharing), cooked tableside, with a whole fish inside a rich, nourishing broth with vegetables – and noodles, if you like; you can eat the soup with rice.

5. Third Space Studio Cafe
N. S. Amoranto cor Banawe Street. +63917 8338283. 11:30am-9:30pm

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Few things has as much leverage over the diner’s experience as the delicate strands of memory and its nostalgic undertones, which is a theme in restos like Cafe Juanita in Kapitolyo, or Chef Mo’s Ribhouse, just off the Maginhawa Street, which plays LP records off an old turntable.

Third Space creates its own poignant interpretation of history and its connections to the neighborhood. Kitschy Chinese lucky cats and Rizaliana artsy sculptures first catch one’s eye going in, but you will then be drawn by the mixed furniture, the disarming, affectionate Chinese Filipino family portraits and photos on the wall, and the ethereal vintage Chinese female ads of a long-past era.

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The menu in consistent with its Chinese-Filipino connections. There is tapa, just like there is congee, lechon sisig (P235), just like there is delicately skinned Sweet Spicy Eggplant cooked in oyster sauce (P185), as well as a stream of comfort food items that celebrate connections and togetherness (Birthday Spaghetti, Chicken Wings, Canton Noodles).

Milk tea and milk shakes are also in the menu. Try the Milo Pastillas signature shake (P135), or have a Wintermelon Milk Tea (with pearl or nata “sinkers”, of course).

6. Lam Tin Tea House
30-U Banawe Street. +632 7080989, +632 7080990. 7am-10pm

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This restaurant is as “greasy spoon restaurant” as greasy spoon restaurants get—the food served quickly and well, forget what the place looks like. Lam Tin, with its pastel orange, green, and yellow decor may not seem the height of refinement, but the bustling activity tells you lots of food is consumed in and out of their premises.

The menu is a mix of Fujian, Cantonese, and Sichuan, and ordering family-style is easy-peasy – from classic Broccoli with Shrimp (P260), Mapo Beancurd (P200), to Wanton Noodle Soup (P115). Noodle lovers should try their Noodle Feast (P250), with everything in it. Chinese Filipino classics like Lechon Kawali (P210) and Sago Gulaman (P45) are also there.

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Delivery orders are accepted between 12pm and 8pm, while reservations are accepted on all days except Sunday.

7. Drip Cafe
46-A Banawe cor. Maria Clara Street. +632 5732253. 8am-11pm

drip cafe

This small gem of a restaurant stands out in the hubbub and chaos that is the portion of Banawe Street between Quezon Avenue and Maria Clara Street. Built on a converted two-story Art Deco home, whose stately lines, curved window corners, and high ceilings hint of a genteel Banawe neighborhood we no longer see today, but are reminded of. The lower floor, where one orders food and can sit on a bar counter by the window, has the same bluish-gray muted tones upstairs, where you can bring your food, your coffee, and work quietly in peace at the same time.

All-day Filipino breakfasts and meals are on the menu, as well as pastas, and sandwiches. While the coffee is strictly “second wave,” they make good brews from Filipino coffee bean roasts, which is part of their proposition. You won’t go wrong with their Drip Brew Coffee (P140), an Iced Mocha (P130), and various slices of cake that are on the display like cheesecake or the elegant Chocolate Dome (P115).

Photos: Rennell Salumbre

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