The Food in Two Worlds Podcast: Filipino Pop-Up Restaurant in NYC Offers Menu with Attitude

Longga sliders with ‘bagoong’ mayonnaise. (Photo: The FilAm)

Welcome to Food in Two Worlds ™, a new series from Fi2W.  Our goal is to make you hungry for the flavors that immigrants from around the world have brought to the US, and for you to gain a deeper understanding of the people who make, grow, sell and consume food in immigrant communities.  

Each time you step into a restaurant or your home kitchen, shop for food at a market, or buy from a food street vendor, you are not just feeding yourself, you are participating in a vast and intricate system that reflects culture, history, politics, economics, ideas about health and identity, and much more.  Food in Two Worlds ™ will explore all of these topics in immigrant communities.  We’ll also tell you about restaurants and markets where you’ll find really good food, and we’ll even include recipes.

We hope you enjoy this new series and we invite you to contact us with your ideas for future podcasts and blog posts. Get in touch.

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By Cristina DC Pastor, founding editor of The FilAm, an online magazine for Filipino Americans in New York.

Pop-up restaurants are a relatively new dining concept, and Filipinos are curious about them. So when Maharlika Filipino Moderno opened its first pop-up in Manhattan’s East Village earlier this year, the question after ‘what’s on the menu’ is ‘what’s a pop-up’?

When Maharlika (Tagalog for royalty) opened early this year, the only way to go was temporary and transitional. Pop-ups, which were sprouting all over the major cities, including foodie-haven New York, became very attractive to owner Nicole Ponseca.

“We didn’t have enough money and I was getting impatient,” said Nicole. “We rode on the wave.”

Pop-ups are short-lived, shared arrangements with existing restaurants. The pop-ups need not invest in kitchen appliances, furniture and utensils, and their use is covered by the lease agreement, providing for a lower overhead. Sometimes, the pop-up has no need for an entire restaurant, just a small counter space where the takeout orders are collected, and the kitchen where the food is prepared. As noted by The New York Times, pop-ups allowed new restaurants to “experiment without the risk of bankruptcy.”

Maharlika’s original site belonged to Nicole’s former boss whose restaurant closed on weekends because it wasn’t doing so well. She offered to rent the place for brunch on those days.

On its first two days, Maharlika had four guests. She started praying and wondering if leaving her ad agency job was a wise decision.

Word of mouth and social media must have worked in tandem to announce Maharlika’s presence because on the third day, the place was packed. There was at least an hour’s wait for a table, Nicole said. “Within three days, it took off.”

Food blogs dished out good review after another. Serious Eats calls Maharlika “an exciting dining experience.”

“I wasn’t happy with the Filipino restaurants around New York. I didn’t think there was anything targeted toward my age group, 20-something Filipino New Yorker,” recalled Nicole when the idea to open a restaurant that would connect her with her Filipino roots came to her in 2002.

Maharlika by her definition, is a modern version of Filipino food, style and service. It is not fusion, she stressed. It is 100 percent Filipino ingredient.

“The irony of making it modern is to hark back to our rustic roots,” she said. “Nothing about the way we prepare our food would require opening a pack of Mama Sita if you want to cook kare-kare or pre-packaged tocino if you want to make Tocilog. We embrace everything about being Filipino. Everything from scratch.”

No “one-pot dish” technique either where all the vegetables are cooked at the same time for convenience, and end up soggy and sapped of all nutrients. The meat is braised individually and separately from the vegetables. Every component of the dish is “done to the minutes,” preserving its integrity, she said. “The dish is still flavorful and vibrant with nutrients, and the presentation is a feast.”

Dominating the menu are dishes, such as Adidas, or chicken feet boiled then grilled like barbecue; sizzling Sisig, which Nicole likened to the Korean Bibimbap; and the Arroz Caldo porridge with tripe bits and ginger.

“On hindsight, it was really the Filipino community that came out in droves, in support,” said Nicole. “It was a sight to see the families, the young, hip men and women bringing their non-Pinoy friends, sharing longsilog and laing. It was heartfelt.”

Kings and queen of Maharlika (from left) Enzo, Nicole and Miguel. (Photo: The FilAm)

Nicole, who collaborates with business partner Enzo Lim and executive chef Miguel Trinidad, is dismayed that Filipino food was never a crossover success the way Thai and Vietnamese cuisine have been since the late ‘90s. “We’re not competitive enough.”

But with new restaurants emerging, Filipino chefs making their way in the culinary world, and foodies always on the lookout for the next unique, great taste, she said Philippine food will soon “get its spotlight.”

“It’s the perfect time,” she said.

RECIPE: Maharlika’s BBQ Sauce

This simple and flavorful barbecue sauce can be used as a marinade or brushed on grilled chicken, beef or pork. It uses banana ketchup, a Filipino sauce that is made from bananas, even though it is dyed red to look like tomato ketchup.  It’s available in many Asian food markets.

Prep time: 5 min

Ingredients

  • 1 3/4 cup of Jufran Banana Sauce (also called banana ketchup)*
  • 10 tablespoons Silver Swan Soy*
  • 10 tablespoons sugar
  • 2 tablespoons minced garlic
  • 3/4 cup white wine

*Available at Asian food markets.

Procedure

Combine all the ingredients in a bowl and and mix thoroughly using a whisk. 

Meats can be marinated in the sauce for up to 24 hours, covered and refrigerated.  Skewer meat, grill until properly cooked, brush sauce on to finish.  Place skewers on wooden plate and banana leaf, garnish with lemon zest and scallions.

Fi2W podcasts are supported by the New York Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundationwith additional support from the Mertz Gilmore Foundation and the Sirus Fund, and are produced in association with the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism and CUNY-TV.

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