Delicious Ongpin On My Mind
By Walter Ang
June 1, 2000
Philippine Daily Inquirer
Onyx black gulaman thrown in a blender with crushed ice. The whir of the machine announcing to the world how the two ingredients were mixing and blending. The resulting draught was poured into a tall plastic container and served promptly. Instant gratification on a hot, humid day.
We were in Chinatown, in an eatery just a stone's throw away from the historic San Lorenzo Ruiz Basilica, more popularly know as Binondo Church. We came over to end our busy week with a short break from the summer heat. Our objective was to get our black gulaman shake fix and just hang out.
We sat ourselves in a booth by the window and inspected the motley crew of characters passing by. Shirtless, sweaty men carrying loads of boxes down the street. Old ladies, white hair in neat buns behind their heads, with grandchildren in tow. Celphone-toting, braces- wearing teenagers armed with plastic bags filled with textbooks. It's almost June and students and parents are scrambling to get things ready for school opening.
Parked across the street was a cordon of heavy-duty firetrucks painted in bright purple. Everyone loves a firetruck. It must be some sort of ethereal connection with our childhood as we played with toy versions and saw Sesame Street features on these large metal vehicles. Painted across these large firetrucks are big letters spelling out, "Ube Pumper." How's that for a name?
Smack in one of the intersections of busy Ongpin Street, with its green walls and white ceiling fans, is Chuan Kee Chinese Fastfood / Cafe Mezzanine. This place has been around forever. Prior to its renovation several years ago, it was one of those typical, seedy Chinese eating joints with layers of grease covering every available surface. Some people will argue that hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurants wouldn't be worth going to if it weren't seedy. It's what gives it character. This little deli isn't seedy anymore, but it still retains an otherworldly charm. Now it's sparklingly clean, well-lit, and has friendly servers with large nameplates. Not unlike a hamburger fastfood restaurant.
While you won't find any burgers in here, what it does have will leave you watering at the mouth. The place offers meals for as low as P40. Customers view the choices from large neon placards hanging across the counter. A little gauche, but what do you expect? No one seems to mind though, as the fast turnover of tables will attest.
One dish this deli is known for is their Soup No. 5. A subject of countless jokes among high school students in Chinese schools in the area. For a ridiculously high price, you can get a tiny bowl of soup that has bulls', eherm, male parts in it. This is, of course, supposedly a potent broth that can boost male virility.
We skipped that entry and ordered for ourselves some kiampong, literally, salty rice. Warm, brown, and glutinous; served in little plastic bowls. We picked out a sidedish of kikiam to go with our rice. Not those puny little ones that fishball vendors sell, mind you. We got a humongous piece that had to be sliced up. We were attended to by servers who all wore clean uniforms and had ready smiles on hand.
One of the best things I love about the place is that, as you enter, there is a sensor that calls out in an robotic, almost female voice, "Hello. Please come in." It's absolutely hilarious. I crack up every time I hear it. It even has another message for outgoing customers, "Thank you. Come back again." I'm sure we will.