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The Filipino Foodie Guide to Metro New York

Posted: Feb 19, 2012

Manhattan has not always been a hotbed for Filipino cuisine, but with the recent spate of Filipino restaurants opening in the city, that may not be the case for long.

A few years ago, there were Filipino restaurants in the city that made their mark in the foodie world. There was Cendrillon in SoHo, Elvie’s in the East Village, Bayan Cafe in Midtown East and Dragonfly in Greenwich Village. Alas, one after the other, the restaurants closed down, or in the case of Cendrillon, moved to a new neighborhood (Hello, Ditmas Park in Brooklyn) and found a new name, Purple Yam.

Then, there are the usual go-to places, specially when one doesn’t want to take the 7 train to Queens or the PATH train to Jersey City. Cafe 81 is still a happening place in the East Village; people still flock to the cozy Grill 21 for their delicacies; Chef King Phojanakong’s Kuma Inn in the Lower East Side still has its loyal diners.

While businesses were trying very hard to stay afloat, Chef King seized the opportunity and opened another restaurant, this time in another up-and-coming neighborhood in Brooklyn. He called the place Umi Nom, and like Kuma Inn, it has also gained a loyal following.

In recent months, more Filipino restaurants opened in Manhattan, with some foodies heralding it as the renaissance of Filipino cuisine in the city.

Sa Aming Nayon opened its doors this year without much fanfare. Located in the East Village, the restaurant has been serving traditional Filipino dishes. It’s a family-run restaurant with no-frills decor. Dining there actually gives you the feeling of dining in a relative’s place.

Aside from the dishes tasting like home-cooked (just like how Mom or Lola cooked it), the place is run by friendly people, who take their time out to chat with the diners to ask about their dining experience.

Then there’s Pan de Sal, which also opened a couple of months ago in the Gramercy neighborhood of the city. Their goal for now is to introduce Filipino pastries to New York foodies. They are pushing the restaurant’s namesake, the traditional Filipino pan de sal, with a savory filling of pulled pork or corned beef or chicken adobo.

A block away is Pan de Sal’s older sister restaurant, Grill 21. In midtown, it is now the go-to place for Filipinos who crave for a taste of home.

According to the two restaurants’ owner Marissa Beck, she looks forward to the day when Filipino food would be as accepted in the mainstream as Thai or Vietnamese food. “We can do it. Our food is really delicious and through our restaurants, we get to showcase that part of our culture,” Mrs. Beck said.

From being a pop-up concept, Maharlika has evolved and found a brick-and-mortar home on First Avenue. Its previous incarnation was as a reservations- and weekends-only place that took over the French restaurant Leon in the East Village and, for a short time, 5 Ninth in the Meatpacking District.

With Maharlika settling in its more permanent home, owner Nicole Ponseca and her partners, chef Miguel Trinidad, mixologist Enzo Lim and restaurateur Noel Cruz have been serving sumptuous meals and libations to hungry (and thirsty) New Yorkers.

Mainstream media have been quite generous with their accolades.

New York Times, in its recent feature on chicken skin, quoted Ponseca who said that Filipinos love their chicken skin chicharon, which they serve at Maharlika as an appetizer. For some reason, it is only now that chefs are discovering (or maybe becoming braver in introducing) chicken skin in all its crunchy glory.

Then, there’s the balut, arguably the most famous item in Maharlika’s menu, thanks mainly to mainstream America’s curiosity about this duck egg. Indeed, Maharlika is the only place in the city that offers balut to its diners.

For people who enjoyed them as a pop-up, they will be happy to learn that Maharlika still serves the regular brunch fare they have become famous for. Yes, we’re talking about Eggs Benigno and Eggs Imelda, and their version of sisig, preferably downed with an order of Pacquiao Punch.

They have also ventured beyond brunch fare and are now serving Filipino lunch and dinner. They also have an appetizer that is sure to raise the eyebrows of some, or make one quip, “Say what?”.

It’s called “puqui-puqui”. Yes, you read it right.

I first encountered the dish a few years ago during a trip to Laoag City in Ilocos Norte for a series of features we were doing then for Balikbayan Magazine. Our hosts brought us to La Preciosa, one of the city’s best restaurants that served traditional Ilocano dishes.

Apparently, it’s a traditional Ilocano dish made by mashing boiled (or grilled) eggplants and mixing it with fine, scrambled eggs, shallots and diced tomatoes. At Maharlika, Ponseca describes it to non-Filipino diners as the Filipino version of the Middle Eastern/Mediterranean dish baba ghanoush.

It is really good. A first, I didn’t think I’d like it. But I did. It was yummy.

Nicole said that they “want to uncover Pinoy roots and forge a love affair for the country of our parents through the discovery of Filipino food.”

This desire led her and Miguel on a journey throughout the Philippine archipelago - from the northernmost tip of Luzon all the way to Mindanao - to talk “food” with cooks of every kind: manangs and yayas; carinderia owners, and renowned chefs from all around the country. That adventure is now encapsulated on the menu of Maharlika, which – showcases their own “modern-and-authentic” interpretation of what makes Filipino food unique and delicious.

A few doors down from Maharlika is Ugly Kitchen, which is transformed into a Filipino pop-up called Bar Kada every Sunday. With Chef Aris Tuazon manning the kitchen, Bar Kada offers a delectable stream of comfort Filipino food.

Indeed, the East Village is regaining the Filipino businesses that lorded it over back in the day. With Maharlika and Krystal’s Cafe 81 duking it out with Sa Aming Nayon and the pop-up Bar Kada and Johnny Air Mart thrown in the mix, Filipino foodies and foodies who love Filipino cuisine have a growing list to choose from.

Imported From Philly

It is not only Maharlika which has been getting attention from the New York Times. A few months ago, they made a big feature story on Philly-Pinoy, a small restaurant cum grocery store in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn.

When the article became viral, foodies went to Red Hook in droves to try the authentic Filipino dishes - served turo-turo style. Most of them went back to Manhattan (or New Jersey) disappointed.

Philly-Pinoy is not open every day. In fact, they do not have regular days that they are open. Their schedule is dependent on the arrival of cruise ships at the Brooklyn Pier. It could be one or two days a week, sometimes three. Sometimes it’s every other week. Why so? The store/restaurant’s main clientele are Filipino cruise ship workers, who according to unofficial data, comprise at least 50 percent of the workers.

“We are able to provide them a taste of home,” said Benjamin David, an Indian-American. Benjamin and his brother worked in a cruise ship before. His brother met Rowena, a Filipina who was also working with them, got married and moved to King of Prussia, Philadelphia, where they opened the first Philly-Pinoy.

Everything is still cooked in their Philly kitchen and Benjamin brings them early in the morning to Brooklyn, in time for the docking of the cruise ships. Most of the time, their dishes get sold out by 1:00 pm.

When we visited, there was a steady stream of Filipino workers, five to six at a time. Some would go to the liquor store across the street to buy some beer. Others would go to the bank or check-cashing facilities nearby. Then they eat lunch.

“Our most popular dish is dinuguan, followed by adobo and ginataang sitaw at kalabasa,” Benjamin said. True enough, a little after 12 noon and the dinuguan was no more. He was also running low on the adobo and sitaw at kalabasa.


In the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn is Top Chef alumnus Dale Talde’s new restaurant. He is calling it Talde.

Talde intends to serve Southeast Asian flavors and dishes. The place has been getting a lot of buzz in the foodie circle way before its opening, mainly because of the chef’s stature as a reality TV star and as an accomplished chef from Buddakan, one of the hottest and hippest restaurants in Manhattan.

According to food blog Grub Street, Talde is the chef-owner, with partners John Bush and David Massoni of Thistle Hill Tavern, and they’re envisioning an “Asian-American” menu for the spot. The place has around 70 seats, 20 or so at a “chef’s table”–style counter with views into an open kitchen.

Talde started off offering dinner, and probably will add lunch and brunch depending on what the neighborhood wants. In fact, that is what Talde wants to become: a neighborhood restaurant, Talde tells Grub Street, somewhere to eat or order from “two to three times a week.”

Lechon in the City

One of the most recognizable dishes in every Filipino gathering is also the star of the buffet spread: the lechon. During the holiday season, the rest of the more traditional Christmas foods – ham, queso de bola, pan de sal, bibingka (a rice and coconut cake topped with salted egg or cheese), puto bumbong (made with sticky rice, topped with brown sugar, margarine and grated coconut), pancit – take the back seat in deference to the roast pig.

Traditionally in the Philippines, the lechon is cooked between three and a half to five hours, depending on the pig’s size. On a spit or a bamboo, the pig is slow-roasted over a bed of charcoals, until the skin turns to a smooth and glistening golden brown.

Here in the US, many restaurants prepare their lechon mostly through an oven. For family gatherings, I’ve seen pigs roasted in a huge backyard in West Covina or on the rooftop of a Brooklyn high-rise.

At Legal Beans, Cebuana Mimi Escudero does it the traditional way. And since she’s from Cebu, she prepares her lechon the way she remembers it.

Just like the way adobo is cooked, lechon also has a myriad ways to be prepared, cooked and served.

When you eat Cebu lechon, forget about the liver sauce. The moist meat and the crispy skin are flavorful enough to stand on their own, no condiments needed. Others opt to dip it in garlic-infused vinegar while others eat the lechon as it is. With Mimi, she prefers it eaten with her home-made achara, which is pickled green papaya.

Cebuanos have long been mighty proud of their lechon.

In 2009, celebrated chef and writer Anthony Bourdain visited the Philippines for his No Reservations show on the Travel Channel and he made his way to the Queen City of the South. After tasting the Cebu lechon, Bourdain proclaimed that in his hierarchy of pork list, Cebu’s roast pig is the best he ever had replacing Bali and Puerto Rico in his book.

The not-so-secret tip Mimi shared about their Cebu lechon?

“We put in a lot of lemongrass, scallions, herbs and spices inside the pig’s cavity and we sew the stomach properly to make sure that the juices don’t drip once the roasting starts. You can’t also rush the cooking, it has to be evenly slow-roasted,” Mimi said.

With her chemistry background, preparing a Cebu lechon became quite scientific for this businesswoman. She studied the distance between the pigs and the flaming coals, the size of the charcoal used, the frequency of mechanically turning the pigs around and the time necessary to make sure that the lechon is perfectly roasted, its skin is crispy and bronzed with an orange hue and the flavorful meat inside still moist from the juices.

“It took me about 20 pigs before I perfected my formula and it was done through a trial-and-error method. I don’t want to serve lechon that I will not eat and I didn’t want to start selling lechon without me knowing the entire process,” she added.

That was what we observed when we took Mimi’s invitation to visit her Legal Beans branch in Jersey City, her attention to details to make sure that the lechon they cook are all consistently done. Legal Beans in Jersey City is a no-frills barbecue place that serves pulled pork sandwiches, among others. Inside is where Mimi grills her lechon, four at a time. Diners can actually watch the lechon being cooked to perfection.

Mimi is married to an immigration lawyer-turned-businessman, hence the Legal Beans brand. They started their business with their original café, called Legal Grounds on Grand St. in downtown Jersey City and they also opened their next branch, Legal Beans along Garden St. in Hoboken.

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