Downtown Cebu. Sleazy even in the brightness of high noon. Walls and ancient shop fronts shed paint and plaster. A dirty old man, in every sense, sold goat-eyelash cock rings beside a stall displaying cheap plush toys. Neon drained out of the glass tubes of signage’s desperately clinging to buildings. The unease of knowing we were being followed by eyes was overcome only by the sheer nostalgia of having spent many an after-school afternoon in its more glorious days. We were on the mission for Mingnan, an old Chinese haunt beloved by the Chinese and Pinoys alike. Each wrong turn and dead end allowed for discoveries and rediscoveries that the getting lost became quite the enjoyable game. Lost in amazement and our own thoughts, while in the background, random characters in a blur of their own. Tucked into a quiet side street and marked by a tarp bleached out by the sun, finally, Chingri-la!
Walking into a Wong Kar-Wai restaurant scene, we made our way past the South China Sea of tables teeming with the babble of shrewd business deals. Eight chafing dishes in a glass display cements the widely held notion that the Chinese invented the stir-fry. We went for the classics: Sweet & Sour Pork, Pork & Vegetables, Tofu and Chinese Fried Chicken.
Not having Good Morning brand towels over our shoulders to merit table-sharing with the ground floor patrons, we were led to the second level space reserved for special occasions, like torture and summary executions as the stained walls and floors seemed to suggest. The tables were the classic family-of-eight with a Lazy Susan, let’s call it Suzy Wong here, topped with a table caddy true to lauriat-style dining.
The staple Sweet & Sour Pork screamed authenticity here with a reduction from scratch as opposed to the bottled sauce prep. I especially loved the generous cuts of zucchini, red & green peppers and red onions cooked but still retaining a slight veggie fiber crunch. Thankfully leaner offcuts, the meat itself was left unseasoned taking on the full flavor of the sauce.
The Pork & Vegetables stir-fried in oyster sauce also wouldn’t be too unfamiliar to the local palate. I expected downtown cooking to leave vegetables over cooked and wilted but, again, the vegetables here shine through with an excellent doneness.
The Tofu, done in a black bean sauce, had a slightly chewy outer texture as with most fried tofu. It reminded me of Mapo Tofu without any spice.
A soft-batter coated the Fried Chicken enough for a definite layer but not to tip the coating to meat ratio in favor of the former. I’m sure we’ve all come across restaurants serving chicken-flavored fried flour. The chicken was nothing revolutionary but helped tie the entire meal together.
It was a relatively great experience to get with the bygone feel of the area. I was only ever slightly so disappointed I had to eat rice but happier that none of what we had was urban legend feline. To cap off the meal, we had the classic Filipino-Chinese dessert: toothpicks.
Mingnan Chinese Cuisine is located near Princess Bazaar on Osmena Bvld., corner Plaridel St., Cebu City.