How to choose the best carinderia/food stalls in Manila

For minimum wage earners with a family of four in Metro Manila, that is, those earning PhP 382.oo per day (roughly 8.50 USD) food options are narrow. It can range from eating two meals a day, which is not good for the health, or buying a recently advertised sauce-like concoction that can be mixed with rice called Sarsarap, which according to Jimmy Santos, its endorser, is at the price of one jeepney ride, that’s 7 pesos. If one is willing to risk diseases such as kidney stones, liver problems, and death of taste buds (as this product is in the lowest echelon of taste) then, by all means, go ahead.

But for those who have a money to spare for food which means a whopping 50 per cent of one’s daily wage spent on food, then the options are widened, a little bit, although not that much. Unlike in other Southeast Asian metropolis where street food are fairly decent, the array of food sold along the sidewalks of Manila is dangerous at worst and bland and oil-drenched at best. But good ones are not lacking.

Philippines Rice Crisis

Below is a simple guide that you can use to get the best out of the side walk culinary tradition of Manila:

  • The rule is, the farther they are from the main thoroughfares, the cheaper are the food. A price difference of four pesos per dish and one peso for a cup of rice will mean a lot if you compute your total consumption in a month. That’s 5 pesos a meal multiplied by 3 and again by 30. That’s 450 pesos of savings a month.
  • Look for a City Health Certificate or a Sanitary Permit or the equivalent. This, however, calls for discreetness. You don’t want to face the ire of the person selling the food by asking her at point blank whether she has those permits. You can make use of your observational skills by looking around. They are required by the local government to post these. If you find none, then I suggest you think twice in going there again for your next meal.
  • Look for clues on how they wash their plates, spoons and forks, and glasses. I have this horrifying experience in Hanoi when a woman serving me a bowl of  pho ga (chicken noodles) used a bowl reeking with detergent suds and then dipped in a grayish water and was rinsed with a little hot soup then without batting an eyelash gave me the pho. What made me almost regurgitate what I ate was when I saw after I finished the bowl that the pair of chopsticks I used were merely dipped in soapy water and was given to the next customer.

(But being a poor student, I was left with no choice but to smile and act as if I did not see a thing. I vowed never to let a similar death-defying experience happen again.)

If a carinderia does not show any evidence of running water, run for your life!

Bringing your own utensils, although a very smart action, may not be socially wise. It is a blatant assault on the food seller’s attempt on sanitation that can lead to really bad service, small food portion, or a scornful look.

  • The more food choices there are the better is the carinderia, generally.
  • But be careful with “recycled dishes”, e.g. sisig, lechon paksiw, dinuguan, menudo. These are dishes that can use ingredients from a previously cooked dish which has not been completely sold out. According to health authorities, dishes that were heated up several times contain more bacteria after it has cooled than those heated for the first time.

Spotting reheated dishes is fairly easy. Look at the pan used where the steaming dinuguan or caldereta is served. If there are marks of dried sauce or brownish hardened residue, the probability of it being reheated is high. Moreover, since they are left-over, the amount of the dish in the display will also give you an idea. Suspect if they are served in a small plate of a smaller pan relative to the rest of the dishes served.

  • Silog, a totally Filipino invention is a good value for your hard-earned money. And the best thing about this is the convenience, not to mention the price and the different combination of egg, friend rice, and meat. Almost all medium-sized and bigger carinderia have this.
  • It is not suggested to drink the cold service water provided by these stalls. It is unimaginable that they will bother boiling the water nor will they pay for water in containers that have undergone reverse osmosis. In your dreams. You can either buy a bottled softdrink, which is not good for your health and with mark up comparable to those in Hyatt Hotel (Kidding. But almost.) or just bring your own water canister.
  • Ask for free soup. All carinderia in the Metro have complimentary soup, with no exception. This soup is an equivalent of the French bullion or a lighter version of a bouillabaisse, if you’re lucky it can contain a small cube of meat or a few leaves of cabbage.
  • As a rule of thumb, the more suki or regular customers a carinderia has the more reputable it is. You may also ask the seller the province she came from. Filipinos are regionalistic, if you want to be a preferred customer, go to a carinderia whose owner, or at least the woman serving the food came from the same province as you did.
  • Establish friendship/network/rapport with the woman selling the food. engage her in a coversation about her family, politics, love, any topic that you can think of. This may mean bigger serving, a rare knowledge on what is the specialty of the house, and discounts. Addressing her using her first name will mean so much for somebody who passes the day serving strangers and nameless faces. It is discouraged to talk about the actual food you are eating (for reason you will learn if you indeed decide to talk to her about the food she is cooking).


An old print of a food stall during the Spanish era in the Philippines.


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