Photo Credits to Pauline Wee and Corban Villa

Slice of Home: Filipino Panaderia Review

The place run and frequented mostly by Filipinos promises to "bring back happy memories of home away from home." We interviewed staff and visitors about how the bakery brings them comfort and a taste of familiarity.

Mar 6, 2023

Take Bus 170 to the Hazaa Bin Zayed Mosque on Hamdan Street, walk about 200 meters back the way you came, turn left into a side alley, scan the shops for a friendly, curly font spelling out “Panaderia”, and you’ve found it: Panaderia Manila Bakery.
It is a simple store, with not much more but a long display cabinet and two sets of tables and chairs. But the lights are warm, the breads look tasty, and for many of Panaderia’s most loyal customers — it is the taste of home that makes it special.
Names can tell a lot about a place like this. The word “panaderia”, from the Spanish words “pan” (meaning bread) or “panadero” (meaning baker), roughly translates to bakery. The word dates back to the Spanish colonization of the Philippines, and you can see that legacy in the names of breads like Pan de Sal (literally “salt bread”, 1 AED for 3 buns), Pan de Coco (coconut bread for 2.5 AED), and the unmistakable Spanish Bread (a roll with a butter and sugar filling for 2.5 AED).
Keep looking and you will also see the unmistakable influence of the West, or more accurately, the legacy of over fifty years of American colonization of the Philippines. You can find hints of that history in the way most things are named in English (Cheese Roll, Choco Twirl, Star Bread), in the use of enriched white flour for nearly everything, and of course, in the inclusion of some plain old American things (donuts, banana cakes, and crinkles) for the less adventurous consumer looking for a common treat.
There is also the unmistakably American-influenced Sausage Bread, a more rudimentary pigs-in-a-blanket which is quite literally a bright red hotdog baked right into the dinner roll. No hotdog bun slicing required!
Photo Credits to Pauline Wee and Corban Villa
Other breads tell about neighborly recipe-sharing origins. Siopao (a white bun usually stuffed with meat) comes from the Hokkien Chinese word 烧包 (shau-bao, literally “steamed bun”) and Hopia (a flaky pastry traditionally stuffed with red bean) derives from 好餅 (hó piá, literally “good pastry” – cannot get more literal than that). Both were brought over by immigrants from Fujian, China, who used local ingredients to recreate their own taste of home.
Make no mistake though: you won’t find any of this bread in Spain, America, or Fujian. These are Filipino breads through and through: just as Filipino as the Kababayan (meaning “countryman”), Kalihim (meaning “secret”), Ube Bar (ube being everyone’s favorite Filipino purple yam, and no, it is not taro), Bitso, Monay, or Coconut Macaroon. Some are a little different: smaller, bigger or slightly differently shaped (buchis are shockingly 3x the size they are back home, and the hopia onion is looking a lot like an empanada), but it is hard to pinpoint whether it is the influence of the UAE or just a variation among local bakers.
Regardless, for the over half a million Filipinos currently living in the UAE, these breads — and by extension, the panaderia experience — are the closest thing to being back home.
Panaderias are not uncommon in Abu Dhabi — walk through the city and you’ll probably find one every 500 meters or so. My favorite one, Manila Pinoy Bakery, is right across Al Wahda. Each is owned by a different person, but almost always a Filipino who then hires more Filipinos, usually from their home province, to staff the store. There are probably hundreds more all throughout the UAE.
Photo Credits to Pauline Wee and Corban Villa
Corban and I headed over to Panaderia Manila on a cool Saturday night. It was smaller than we thought, and a lot quieter, which gave me the perfect excuse to strike up conversation with the staff.
For context, I’m ethnically Chinese but born and raised in the Philippines, so I usually engage in a little song-and-dance explanation when I first open my mouth and speak Tagalog. But after the initial surprise of the face-accent mismatch, Filipinos are always incredibly warm and friendly, especially when they’re free to speak in their native Tagalog. It’s a friendly, sing-song language, filled with lots of “ah” sounds, Spanish-esque and American loanwords, and inexplicable but intuitive grammar rules. Thankfully for me, if you can’t remember something, you can always use English, and it will fit right in.
The lady at the counter was from Bulacan, a four-hour drive from the capital city of Manila. Previously, she was a domestic worker in Hong Kong, but when the 2020 rallies broke out, she lost her job and was forced to return home. Thankfully, she quickly found this new job and has now been working at Manila Panaderia for over a year. The owner of this bakery that brought her there was also from Bulacan, but has had this bakery for ages, and has lived in the UAE herself for over 30 years.
Photo Credits to Pauline Wee and Corban Villa
We sat down on the plasticky chairs and had four pastries: the Pan de Coco, Cheese Bar, the Choco Twirl, and Buchi. Unfortunately, the pictures are not very aesthetic, but rest assured — the pastries hit the spot. In particular, the Cheese Bar knocked it out of the park. When they tell you there’s cheese in there, they’re definitely not lying.
One of the ladies that came in while we were deciding sealed the deal: “sampalin mo ako pag hindi masarap” (slap me if it’s not good!).
Total bill? 10 dirhams. Ask to get your bread reheated if you’re eating it on the spot, and it really doesn’t get cheaper, easier, or tastier than that. And if the reviews mean anything, I’d say fellow Filipinos agree.
When I first came to Abu Dhabi in freshman fall, I didn’t think much about bread. I missed other stuff: mangoes, candy, cool weather, and so on – but when I stumbled upon Manila Pinoy bakery while trying to walk off my food coma from the Seven Stars Hotpot across Al Wahda, I could not say no. I got a little overzealous – I got yema cake, brazo de mercedes, kutsinta, and way more carbohydrate-based snacks than any reasonable human could digest – and trundled home with an even more severe food coma, but feeling incredibly thrilled and victorious.
I visited a few more times, sometimes with friends, and sometimes alone. I probably should have gone slightly less, for the sake of my arteries, but I couldn't help it. I just had to get that bread. The network of Manila Pinoy Bakeries / Panaderias became my place of comfort, nostalgia, warmth, cultural sharing, and deliciousness. When home felt particularly far, it filled the void that only round, perfectly-browned bread buns are able to fill.
Still, I am not going to try to convince you that panaderias are the pinnacle of Filipino cuisine. They definitely aren’t (not when adobo, sisig, and sinigang exist!), and they do not try to be. They exist to serve dozens of working-class Filipinos ducking in for a quick breakfast, or an afternoon-break snack – they just go above and beyond to serve that itch for a familiar flavor.
For me, they’re a reminder of simple delights from my childhood, the comfort of Filipino culture, and the many awesome things and interesting influences that, like bread, I am made of. All in all, they make me just that little bit more excited to go home.
Corban Villa is Web Chief and Opinion Editor and Pauline Wee is a Contributing Writer. Email them at
gazelle logo