New York – There’s a saying that goes, ‘You can take the Filipinos out the Philippines; but never the Philippines out of the Filipinos.’ And I guess that’s why even in the freezing cold, 8,593 miles from the Philippines, Pinoys in the Big Apple still love their dinuguan, sisig, kare-kare, adobo, and pan de sal. After all, that’s one of what I call the three F’s of Filipino culture – food. The other two are faith and family.
“Masarap naman kasi talaga ang pagkain natin, lalo na kung lutong bahay,” said Melchor Evangelista, the man in the kitchen of Manhattan’s oldest Filipino restaurant, Grill 21. The 8-year old fixture in the Gramercy neighborhood of New York is understandably frequented by Filipinos craving Filipino dishes.
According to the staff, garlic rice is a famous staple. In Tagalog, it’s “sinangag.” I tried it with the restaurant’s bestseller, their “sisig,” a dish made of pig snout, pig ears, liver and other innards, on a sizzling plate topped with fried egg. The Grill 21 version has “chicharon,” that’s one difference from other versions I’ve encountered. In the kitchen, the preparation of this beloved “pulutan” dish is also not common.
“We don’t take short cuts,”he said. “Sisig is the most difficult to cook. You have to boil the meats; then grill at hiwain nang pinung-pino. There’s a lot of steps and each step is all about timing. For instance, the meats can’t be over-boiled.”
The result was a circus in my mouth. The meats were crunchy enough to release a pleasant mix of savory, salty and sweet flavors with each bite. I’m getting hungry, just recalling how good it tasted in my mouth. Chased down by another Filipino favorite – San Miguel Beer. I ordered San Mig Light. Grill 21 offers all San Miguel Beer products, including Red Horse Beer.
While it is expected and understandable why Filipinos would flock there, Grill 21 has also created a following among non-Filipinos. Apparently their American customers enjoy the coconut-infused dishes; while Koreans typically order the “dinuguan,” a dish made out of ox blood.
“My dinuguan recipe is from my mother-in-law. I asked her to teach me over the phone, all the way from the Philippines. Now I use it here,” Melchor said, adding that the recipe involves the usual sauteing the meats (ox meat, fat and innards) in garlic and onion. “But the secret is in the sauteing technique, to make the flavors come out”
Alas, I was unable to try the ox blood dish. Instead, I got a taste of the Grill 21 “kare-kare,” a traditional Filipino ox tail stew in peanut-based sauce. I grew up in the Philippines, loving my mom’s cooking. This was one of her specialties. I remember her laboring in the kitchen, on special occasions, grinding peanuts, to make the sauce from scratch. And the aroma wafting in the air was enough to make me crave. I was interested to see how this dish will stack up.
I didn’t have to wait long. After a taste of the “sisig,” the server came out of the kitchen with a tray featuring a bowl of the dark yellow dish, a small cup of white rice, and a tiny container of “bagoong.” I called this triumvirate the winning combo. I’ve heard of Filipinos cutting rice from their diet. One of my first questions is: “Do you still eat kare-kare?” Because the dish is oozing with deep and rich flavors, the bland taste of freshly-cooked hot white rice is the perfect equalizer. And because the peanut sauce tend to be on the sweet side, the salty shrimp paste is best to enhance the taste.
After two dishes, I was full. The staff had lots of stories to share about their 8-year history. The service was reminiscent of the enthusiastic hospitality Filipinos are famous for. The food was on point. Melchor summarized it best: “traditional lutong bahay ‘yung style namin at may halong pagmamahal.”
The lease of the restaurant is up and negotiations are underway. Here’s wishing Grill 21 many more years of yummy service to the neighborhood.
A few blocks away is a cafe/patisserie by the same owner of Grill 21, Mrs. Marissa Beck.
“Her first restaurant was successful, Grill 21; that she decided to put up another one,” said Ron Digao, restaurant manager of the 3-year old Pan de Sal. “Mahilig ang Filipinos sa merienda; so Mrs. Beck thought, of introducing that concept in the neighborhood. We serve coffee and cakes, and the pan de sal sandwiches para dun sa mga mahilig mag-kape-kape.”
According to Ron, the bestsellers are their pan de sal sandwich variations of chicken adobo, spicy sardines, corned beef. Apparently a hit, not just among Filipinos; but also non-Filipino patrons who first become interested in what pan de sal is about.
“They try it and end up liking it. Then they come back with friends, to share the experience,” Ron said.
The cafe offers two sizes of their famous specialty – a bigger size for $2.50 bigger; and a mini one, about the size of a fist, for those concerned about portion control. Because it’s also reasonably priced at $1, it’s also an attractive order for the budget-conscious. I chose to try the mini ones, so I could taste all three variations. My favorite was the chicken adobo; but isn’t “adobo” everybody’s favorite?
By 4 .m. that day, I was full. But I only had an hour to digest everything I ate from lunch to merienda because happy hour was rolling in at 5:00p.m. And our last stop for the day was The Ugly Kitchen Gastropub, owned by Chef Aris Tuazon, Melchor’s cousin. The 4-year old hotspot in the East Village serves specialty Filipino foods; along with interesting cocktails. Some of which are Filipi-nized, like the Calamansi Whiskey Sour that bar tender Risa Chu taught me how to make.
Here’s their Filipino twist to the cocktail favorite, using calamansi, the Southeast Asian citrus fruit:
- Fill a rock glass with ice.
- Mix in 2 ounces of Whiskey.
- Put half an ounce of sour mix.
- Add an ounce of Calamansi juice concentrate.
- Give the mix a good shake.
- Our into a glass and garnish with lemon.
And with that, I raised my glass to end my day of discovering local Filipino hubs in a great city that, according to the U.S. Census is part of the state that’s home to about 300,000 Filipinos and Filipino-Americans. We are growing in numbers. Together, we can work toward building a stronger economic presence in the American landscape. Being enterprising is an integral part of that. And supporting these Filipino establishments is key to the success of these businesses.
So the next time you find yourself in New York, you know where to go. [END]
Jannelle So is taking a break from 20-years of print and broadcast journalism career that began in the Philippines and continued in the United States. She is credited for creating, hosting and producing America’s first and only locally-produced daily talk show for Filipinos, that ran for 8 ½ years under her leadership, making it the longest-running Filipino talk show outside of the Philippines. Connect to her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram; or email her at email@example.com.