Para, Mama!

Maharlika and Jeepney are Filipino restaurants in New York City that have been open for a few years now. Both of them trendy and owned/staffed by the same group of energetic, talented Fil-Ams, they’ve managed to carve their own space in an overcrowded restaurant scene.

While the two restaurants do cater to Filipinos with their witty riffs on Filipino pop culture in the names of their dishes and cocktails, their use of Filipino beauty queens (mainly from the seventies) in the images on their menus and walls, their signage proclaiming sari-sari stores and the inevitable jeepneys, they also court other Americans in their offering of fashionable fusion food.

We were in Maharlika about a year ago and, a few weeks ago, we finally got to try Jeepney. The food, in both places, is good. It’s almost impossible for the food not to be good because the two places capitalize on the natural way that flavor is created in Filipino cuisine – the liberal use of bagoong, patis, and sugar; the even more liberal use of crab fat and the fattiest cuts of beef and pork. In Maharlika a year ago, we tried the sisig, kare-kare, kalderetang kambing, and a pancit palabok enhanced with sea urchin roe. We ate the food with relish, everything was truly delicious, but afterwards I felt as if I had dunked my face in a bowl of fat.

In Jeepney, we were able to try many dishes because we were with another family and could share the food. We had a decent lumpiang shanghai, a pork bun filled with humba and therefore called humba bao, and a tinola served as chicken pot pie and covered with puff pastry. I had high hopes for the tinola, but was acutely disappointed. It was not very flavorful for one and, even worse, it was served carelessly, the soup under the puff pastry cold when it should’ve been piping hot.

We also had a fried fish in sweet and sour sauce, Bicol express, chicken inasal, a burger, talangka fried rice, garlic fried rice, and coconut rice. The dishes were all good – none was objectionable, but none bowled us over either. The place was tiny, loud, and crowded, and there seemed as many non-Filipinos as Filipinos. Which, I suppose, is the point of the place.

I have to quibble over a few things about the experience – how the place is not flexible enough to allow family-style eating comfortably (we had to eat from tiny platitos!), the over-selling of pop culture ephemera as a signifier of hipness (coinciding with the premiere, the restaurant offered Star Wars-themed cocktails and appetizers and our server kept reminding us to watch the movie and wished, rather tiresomely at that point, that the Force be with us), the mild duplicitousness of the same server who kept telling us that the food we were ordering was not enough and therefore made us order more than we could eat.

But these quibbles, I understand, are not valid. I’m a home cook (in other words, I know that a decent tinola is not that hard to make), a suburban mother on a budget, and I’m just not the target market of the restaurant. The restaurant is not inexpensive – it cannot be, I suppose, because of their location in the city. For the prices they were charging, however ($18 for a burger and $13 for a cocktail), I really wanted better food or, at least, a better experience. The cold tinola was particularly disappointing.

Who’s the target market of the restaurant then? Perhaps young, single Filipino professionals and their friends. The owner, according to a New York Times article, conceived of the two restaurants when, working in advertising in the nineties, she wanted to bring friends of hers who were interested in Filipino cuisine to a nice restaurant, nicer than the ones in Queens, one that plates food attractively and serves cocktails. Filipinos from other states also seem to love the place. We were there, in fact, with family visiting from North Carolina. They love the restaurant and have been going there every December when they visit New York.

Here’s more quibbling: There’s something about these supposedly trendy expressions of Filipino culture that alienates me. I’ve just had too many difficult jeepney rides in my younger years to feel comfortable valorizing the jeepney as a positive expression of Filipino culture, much less associate it with gourmet food. I mean, of course, the jeepney is Filipino, but is it colorful, jaunty, and jeproks (which is the name of a salad in one of the restaurants)? Perhaps only for people for whom it was never a necessity.

There’s a lot more to say about this topic, but I have to think it through (a rather slow process these days) before I continue yapping. For now, I think I just have to say that that cold, flavorless tinola really hurt.

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