Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Manila in Manhattan

New York has seen a tremendous growth in both the amount and diversity of restaurants serving food from, or inspired by, Asia and the Pacific Rim. Be it authentic Chinese food from a specific province, the Ramen craze or Koren style fried chicken (more on that later), it is a great time to be a fan of food from that part of the world.

Couple this with the porcine take over of NYC food culture and you have to ask yourself one question:

"Where are all the Filipino restaurants?"

I was lucky enough to to grow up with a big posse of Filipino friends, including my best friend from High School. Beyond an affinity for covering any couch, chair or settee with plastic slip covering, what struck me about my friends of Filipino heritage was was how easily I was welcomed into their homes and families. The Filipino love of family, friends and life in general stayed with me and inspired me. Generous to a fault, willing to help out in any way. That is the Filipino way.

Oh, and one more thing. They know what to do with a pig.

While Filipino cuisine may not be as diverse or storied as other food from the Pacific, it is good and has its own unique flavors. And now we have Maharlika.

Maharlika is a new Filipino restaurant in the East Village. It is as good a calling card for, and intro to, Filipino cuisine as you will get. The moment you walk in the door you are warmly welcomed by the owners and staff. The place is decorated with family photos and traditional Filipino totems. It is fun, quirky and comfortable. For those not familiar with Filipino food they will give you a quick crash course.

Once you see Tang on the cocktail menu and Spam on the dinner menu you understand that you are in the hands of people that love their culture but don't take it to seriously. A creative cocktail menu should be your first order of business. Start with a Pacquiao's Punch, named after the great Filipino fighter, to loosen you up and get you in the right frame of mind. Then it is time to tackle the food menu. Here are a few highlights:

A hot dog is not something one usually thinks of as an appetizer, but The Longga Dog makes the case that this has been a huge oversight. Meaty and spicy with atchara (pickled unripe mango) and bagoong (fermented fish, shrimp and salt) mayo, it is must for any hot dog lover. It is substantial enough for two people to share.

Two fried spring rolls, impossibly long and thin, make a play for dominance in the spring roll wars.

Kare Kare is a hearty, meaty dish that features oxtail braised in peanut butter served with long beans, batchoy and eggplant. It tastes just like it sounds, and it is good.

Grilled batchoy (bokchoy) is smoky and delicious, a perfect side for the hearty food.

Then there is the Sizzling Sisig. Pig ears, snout and belly (broiled, grilled, sauteed), served on a hot skillet with rice mixed in. I am not a die hard, tip to tail eater. I thought twice about ordering this. Thank God I did. It is delicious. The meat is all finely chopped, mixed with a magical assortment of condiments that turn it into a dish that defies expectations. Get it. Devour it. Smile.

A note about eating at Maharlika. They will present you with various condiments throughout the meal that are intended for specific dishes. Use them. They transform dishes from good to great, even sublime.

By the end of my first meal there I had met and talked with two of the owners, one of the chefs, the bartender and other staff. When Nicole, one of the owners, started playing 80s club music and Latin Freestyle I knew I was home. Maharlika will make you feel full, happy and at home as well. Anyone know where  can get a wooden shield with weapons of the Philippines for my living room?

Maharlika - 111 First Avenue (Seventh Street)

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