Filipino food is bitter, sour, and bursting with the bright flavors of fruits and vegetables only found on island nations. The cuisine is a result of the legacy of colonization, and pinning down one identity in the cuisine is often almost impossible in a country of over 7,000 islands. In New York City, Filipino restaurants illuminate this wide diversity.
When I was a young girl being raised in Brooklyn—one who came home to a table of sweet kakanin desserts for my after-school snacks and hearty meals of rice—I didn’t think of the day that our dishes would become something New Yorkers would be lining up for, or that they would be part of what has been named a new food-trend “explosion” by Bloomberg News.
The saltiness of the staple patis (fish sauce) is perfectly balanced with mouthfuls of white rice in every bite. The nearest market where my family could buy patis was in Queens, just below the 7 train overpass in Woodside, which has been the main hub of most immigrant Filipino families who arrive in New York for decades. Filipino immigrants dine together in restaurants, and the whirring of the train blows past but is never loud enough to interrupt Filipinos having a conversation. Today, Brooklyn and Manhattan serve up a delicious menus, including one spot by first-generation kids with their own interpretation of those home-cooked meals.
Below are four restaurants that showcase the journey of Filipino immigrants, their first-generation children, and the flavors they introduced to New York. From home-cooked meals served on cafeteria trays to carefully constructed, small-portion dishes, these spots remind visitors that Filipino food is more than a trend.
Baby’s Grill & Restaurant
6828 Roosevelt Ave
This is Lola’s (Grandma’s) kitchen, complete with the lola making sure everyone is OK. The restaurant’s owner and namesake, Baby, can always be seen sitting at her table and checking in with customers while she watches Filipino soap operas and peels vegetables. Baby’s is a traditional cafeteria-style turo-turo (“point-point”), where customers can assemble their combo meal by pointing to whatever looks the most appealing. The menu is filled with every dish you’d find at a Filipino party or event, like lumpia (egg rolls), pancit (rice noodles), and my personal favorite combo, ginataang langka (jackfruit in coconut milk) and daing na bangus (fried milkfish). Not only do I love these dishes because they remind me of home and family, but the taste is simultaneously savory and sweet whether you have a bite with the coconut milk or soy sauce that brings out more of the flavor of the vegetables.
6902 Roosevelt Ave
Krystal’s has been the mainstay restaurant of Filipino New Yorkers for years. Walk down from the 69th Street station of the 7 train, and you’ve reached the home of Filipino immigrants, overseas workers, and their businesses on Roosevelt Avenue. Krystal’s is the place where families pick up a fresh batch of pan de sal (bread) or host a child’s birthday or karaoke party on the second floor. The menu is overwhelming: breakfast, lunch, merienda (snacks), and dinner options are available at all hours of the day, with each dish delivering standard Filipino flavors. Try the classic pancit bihon (sautéed rice noodles with beef, chicken, or shrimp) or sinigang (sour shrimp soup with tamarind broth and vegetables). The bakery serves fresh desserts every day, and everyone must try the ensaymada (sweet bread), halo-halo (sweet dessert drink), and bibingka (coconut rice cake). These three treats are the main reasons I travel to Queens.
201 1st Ave
A Filipina eats with her hands. She understands how to hold her thumb at the correct angle with her palm full of food to direct it to her mouth. It is a test of skill and a prayer in every bite. Jeepney lets New Yorkers experience kamayan—the tradition of eating with our hands and using banana leaves as our plates—in their famous kamayan feasts. The word “jeepney” is a Filipino nickname for jeeps, a main mode of transportation that came from all the leftover American military hardware after WWII. Jeepney, known for its kitschy art and decoration, offers an overwhelming and colorful variety of Filipino breakfast options at the silog (sunny-side up egg, paired with beef, sausage, or milkfish) station for brunch, and dinuguan (boneless pork shoulder in beef blood) for dinner. When the dish arrives to the table it may seem like too much for just breakfast, but it will leave you more than satisfied.
F.O.B. comes from the phrase “fresh off the boat,” a derogatory term used to describe immigrants that now has been appropriated and embraced by many folks of Asian descent. The chefs in the F.O.B. kitchen put a twist put on classic dishes like sinigang and pancit, tweaking recipes to appeal to the palates of New Yorkers. It’s a chance for people to ease their way into traditional Filipino dishes without going straight to Lola’s kitchen and going in on beef blood or salted duck egg. For example, the laing (a dish with coconut milk typically made with taro leaves) is made with kale. While gentrification has bled its way into this area of Brooklyn, frequenting Filipino-owned restaurants that cater to this neighborhood brings support to a cuisine—not just socially, but financially. F.O.B.’s specialty is grilled and barbecued food, made with distinctly sweet sauces, that recall the smells of the Philippine islands. The chefs in the kitchen recommend the barbecue on skewers, as they spend most of their time and care marinating the meat—the most popular item on the menu.