My fondest memories of my grandmother often involve our trips to Chinatown in Ongpin. In the summer, it was almost as if we were visiting Ongpin every other day, stopping in various shops and bakeries, and then having lunch in her favorite vegetarian restaurant before heading back home. Chinatown’s been such a normal part of my life that I don’t really think twice about it anymore. They say when you get so used to something, you start forgetting about its shine. I think that’s true.
Being invited to The Great Buddha Cafe somehow reminded me of how much I miss those trips with my grandma. It made me realize that my memories of her wouldn’t be the same if we had our bonding sessions somewhere else. Chinatown was where she could feel a piece of her original home, so she was always so happy just walking around here. (Of course, it used to be cleaner before.)
To be honest, I feel like I would’ve brought her here for a change of scenery if she was still with us today.
This restaurant is actually just a part of a whole concept laid out by the kids of Mr. Ube, aka the owner of Eng Bee Tin. On the upper floor, they plan to open a museum showcasing the history of the famous hopia brand, as well as illustrate how hopia is actually made from start to finish. It’s not a different idea from what I’ve seen abroad, and mind you, a lot of tourists flock to those spots. I actually think this is a step in the right direction for this iconic brand. As of this writing, the museum isn’t open yet though.
The ground floor is where you can find the whole lineup of Eng Bee Tin’s products. They actually make a lot of other things aside from hopia ube.
On the second floor is where you can find The Great Buddha Cafe where visitors can rest and eat a large selection of familiar Chinese favorites. They put twists on some of the dishes, and we’ll talk about that a little later. I actually find the set-up of this floor a bit weird since the counter for the cafe is really far from where the tables are set up. In between them are shelves of souvenirs that feature both Chinese and Filipino-themed items.
I’ve rambled a whole lot already so let’s get to the main point of today’s post, which is a little feature/review of The Great Buddha Cafe. Since this was a media event, they actually prepared an entire table filled with everything they have to offer. For such a small cafe with such limited seating, I was surprised by the number of dishes available.
There’s a good variety of familiar Chinese food included on the menu, and just to mention a few favorite, they have dimsum, rice toppings, and even various kinds of noodles.
Despite the impressive display, there is only so much we can actually eat so they prepared a few of their specialties for us to try. Read on to see the dishes we got to sample for the evening.
Cream Cheese Nai Cha (Php 130)
A modernistic take to the classic milk tea. They put a giant chunk of cream cheese on top, but I find that I prefer if they made it a little less thick and a bit more creamy. Something that melts right into the milk tea rather than breaks off into solid pieces.
Although it has a pleasant milk tea flavor, I do personally find this a bit sweet. My friends enjoyed it a lot though. (I always drink my milk tea with maximum 30% sugar, so that’s your reference point.)
Pork & Shrimp Siomai (Php 128)
No Chinese restaurant would serve dimsum without this item. The siomai here is nice and juicy, but also very similar to many I’ve had before.
Pan-Fried Dumplings (Php 148)
This is like a cross between gyoza and fried dumplings. I love the golden color of the base, and the filling is quite generous. You get a bit of crunch and a bit of juiciness at the same time.
Ham Sui Kok (Php 148)
Anybody who enjoys crunchy, chewy savory glutinous rice will enjoy this. The filling isn’t overly flavorful but I thought it complemented the slightly sweet glutinous shell. I just didn’t like how oily it was inside. When I bit into the ham sui kok, oil oozed out from the center! Other than that, the delightfully chewy and crunchy texture of the shell is probably the best bit about this.
Hong Kong-Style Honey Asado
Ah char siu. I kind of feel like every char siu sold in Ongpin follows the same recipe. Nearly all of them taste the same, with varying degrees of sweetness. I’m just glad these aren’t dry and aren’t too sweet either. Available as a rice topping (Php 220), or as ala carte options in a Small Order (Php 290) or Large Order (Php 550).
This crowd favorite is available as a rice topping (Php 210), as half-chicken (Php 350), or as a whole (Php 600). I thought they cooked the chicken well since it wasn’t dry, but the dipping sauces could be better. By the way, I forgot to snap a pic of the chicken before we ate it so I’m using the one from the spread they prepared for media photos. The chicken in reality is served on a platter with a bit of the chicken’s juices on the plate.
Beef & Tendon Claypot Rice (Php 260)
This is one of their bestsellers. There were loads of tendon in here but only one piece of beef. I guess that’s an advantage if you love tendon, but I personally wish they could’ve added more beef for balance. I also wish there was more than one strip of vegetable so that I could comfortably call this a complete meal with rice and protein and veggies. The flavor of this dish was spot on though– just enough sweet and salty.
Pork Ribs Glazed with Honey Garlic Sauce (Php 320)
I was surprised by how sweet this was. It didn’t capture the balance between the honey and the garlic, leaning more towards honey. The pork was tender and juicy, but the glaze can still be adjusted.
Golden Custard Buchi (Php 98)
Eating buchi is one of my guilty pleasures. I’m a fan of normal buchi or black sesame-filled ones. This version by The Great Buddha Cafe makes use of custard to fill. It’s a bit sweet, but I love that crunch from the shell and the sesame seeds. I still prefer the classic one more though! 😉
Peanut Balls (Php 128)
This was the most shocking I think. I was expecting the balls to have this soft, pop-in-the-mouth filling of peanuts, but boy was I wrong. What I bit into was something hard and nutty-sweet. It’s like super packed Chocnut in texture when you eat it, but it’s not as cloying as Chocnut. I was hoping so much to like this but it’s very different from my expectations.
Writing this post on the heels of the Din Tai Fung one doesn’t really mean I’m recommending any one over the other. It just so happened I got an invite to The Great Buddha Cafe during their grand launch and since it was located in Ongpin, for once closer to where I live, I had no reason not to check it out.
The two of course kind of have very different purposes and are on different price ranges, with The Great Buddha Cafe being more accessible and familiar, methinks. They have a good amount of choices, mostly classic and relatable. I think the prices for their dishes are just a little higher than normal Ongpin restaurants but it’s not unreasonable.
As a restaurant in itself, I can’t say they’re doing anything different from what many are doing. The dishes are more or less similar to other Chinese restos, with variations here and there. But if you look at where The Great Buddha Cafe fits within what Eng Bee Tin wants their guests to experience when they visit the museum, I think it makes a lot of sense.
After your meal, you can go snap photos with the large golden Buddha, like what my friend Gilbert did below. I definitely think there’s some fun to be had at The Great Buddha Cafe apart from a full tummy. Give it a try when you’re in the area and tell me what you think! 🙂
The Great Buddha Cafe
Full disclosure: I was invited to attend a taste-testing event for this restaurant but I received no compensation for writing this post. All opinions stated above are my own.