Los Ambos Mundos and Wah Sun Panciteria
Anson Yu discovers the delights offered by two of Manila’s oldest restaurants and the spirit of fusion that ties them together.
Los Ambos Mundos
While there are plenty of restaurants offering Filipino cuisine around the metro, the one that stands out for me is Ambos Mundos. What makes it unique is that it is reputedly the city's oldest running restaurant, having first opened in Manila's Quiapo district in 1888; it has been managed by the Gaudinez family for at least four generations.
In 1997, the restaurant moved to its current location along Florentino Torres St. in the Sta. Cruz district. It is easily accessible via the Doroteo Jose Station of the LRT and the Recto Station of the MRT 2 line. Despite the new location, the restaurant still manages to have the feel of a bygone era, its interiors decorated with bull fighting posters, Amorsolo style paintings, wooden furniture, and red tablecloths with white lace covers. Tables are laid out with mismatched tableware and meals are served in old-style dinnerware that have little flowers printed on them. But most diners agree that the biggest attractions are the two statues of pot-bellied pigs that stand guard at the restaurant's entrance.
The restaurant features two dining areas, the ground floor seating area cooled by antique ceiling fans and an air-conditioned seating area on the second floor. This type of arrangement used to be very common with local restaurants in the mid-20th century, when air conditioners were not as common as they are today. Back then, if you wanted to escape the heat, you had to pay a little extra to dine in a more comfortable setting. But today, prices are the same no matter where you dine in the restaurant.
The reason why this restaurant is called Ambos Mundos or "both worlds" is that it offers Spanish and Filipino cuisine. The recipes for these dishes have been in the Gaudinez family for generations, though the current owner Greg admits that he sometimes tweaks them to fit today's tastes and health concerns. The Filipino selection is quite extensive, offering everything from laing to five different kinds of sinigang. But what I find rather interesting is their take on Spanish cuisine. Long before fusion cuisine became trendy, local cooks were already taking dishes from elsewhere and adopting it to local taste and ingredients.
The Ambos Paella, for example, instead of being dry like Spanish paella, is moist and slightly sticky, as that is how most Filipinos prefer it. The rice, instead of the golden yellow color imparted by saffron, is reddish because of achuete. But like some of its Spanish counterparts, it is generously crowned with bits of chicken, pork, mussels, shrimps, and crab.
Another good example is their lumpiang ubod. It takes the concept of a Chinese spring roll, but uses the heart of the palm tree as the central ingredient. In most other restaurants, the roll is pre-wrapped and left it in the fridge until it is time for it to serve. Here, they will prepare this dish only when it is ordered. Everything is made fresh, including the wrapper. Not only that, the filling is generous, with whole shrimps and peas included. It is then topped with a thick peanut sauce and crushed garlic.
Wah Sun Panciteria
Speaking of Chinese inspiration, you can sample more dishes that blend Chinese and Filipino cuisine from the Wah Sun Panciteria across the street. While it is not as old as Ambos Mundos, it has quite a history of its own. It opened in 1955 by the Leung family, who manages it until today. It has survived nicely despite tragedies like a fire and the death of its owner/founder.
The dining setup here is similar to that of Ambos Mundos, with an open air lower section and a much larger air-conditioned upper section. What sets it apart from Ambos Mundos is the menagerie you will encounter on your way to the second floor. Don't worry, these won't end up on your dinner plate--they are pets of the Leung family. Aside from the different varieties of birds and fishes, the collection also includes a crocodile and a Burmese python.
The menu here is very interesting. First you have the old fashion Panciteria dishes with Spanish sounding names like pinsec frito (fried wontons), chuletas de gallinas (boneless chicken) and isda sarza blanca (fish fillet in white sauce). You then have dishes that you can find in more conventional Chinese restaurants such as sea cucumber with shitake mushroom and scallops and broccoli. But somewhere in the middle are dishes that are unique to this restaurant, such as yuk suy kay (chicken with mustard leaves)and the pat mi ha. The latter, one of the restaurant's signature dishes, features battered fried shrimp in thick brown sauce. What it lacks for in visual appeal is more than made up for in flavor. The spiciness reminds me a bit of like curry or sate sauce, with a sharp taste tempered by the sauce's creaminess. A delectable dish, especially when combined with rice.
The restaurant's noodle selection is just as extensive, with more than two dozen varieties on offer. But the one that is a must try is the fried milk bihon, as you would hard pressed to find this elsewhere. The dish consists of crispy fried bihon topped with a creamy white sauce with ground pork, garlic, and liver. Maybe this is a tasty Tsinoy attempt to come up with their version of a spaghetti carbonara.
If you can't make up your mind as to which of the two restaurants to dine in, don't fear as you can dine in one restaurant and order a dish from the other. If you do that, the staff from one restaurant will ring a bell to inform the other restaurant of your order. How is this possible? Simple. This is because Greg Gaudinez, the current owner of Ambos Mundos, is married to Kathy Leung, the daughter of the founder of Wah Sun Panciteria. How is that for fusion?
History and food. What a wonderful marriage they make. Not just in Manila, but all over the Philippines as well. Basta Pinas, Makulay ang Kasaysayan!
How to get there:
Take MRT 2 to Recto Station. Walk towards and across Rizal Avenue. Turn left at the next corner to Florentino Torres St. Ambos Mundos is a few steps from the corner.
Anson Yu is a freelance writer and a home-grown Binondo boy. He gives walking tours of Binondo and other parts of Manila under Ivan Man Dy's Old Manila Walks.
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See Ambos Mundos' contact details here.
See Wah Sun Panciteria's contact details here.
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