Filipino cuisine gains foothold in New York
NEW YORK — The tuna jaw is a great arc of meat, curved like a boomerang, its underside all bone and gleaming skin.
At Tito Rad’s Grill in Woodside, Queens, tuna jaw is offered in three sizes, which increase in menace. Smoke from the grill burrows deep into the flesh, which diners peel off the bone in creamy strips.
In the Philippines, this is
inihaw na panga, a specialty of the island of Mindanao. Mario Albenio (known as Boyet), the chef and owner of Tito Rad’s, grew up there, on a farm in Tacurong City in the province of Sultan Kudarat, where his mother ran a carinderia, or small roadside restaurant.
Tuna jaw reminds him of “going to the beach, playing guitars, booze,” Albenio said.
“I wanted to be a forester,” he went on with a sigh. “Close to nature.” Instead, he followed his mother’s lead and cooked, in Manila and then New York, where he opened Tito Rad’s in 2006 with his wife, Susan Albenio (known as Toti), close to the strip of Roosevelt Avenue called Little Manila.
At the time, Filipino food was little known in America outside of immigrant enclaves. Only in recent years has it begun to move into the mainstream, at restaurants like Maharlika in Manhattan, Bad Saint in Washington and Lasa in Los Angeles, run by second-generation Filipino-Americans unbound by tradition.
Their approach to the cuisine of their childhoods is a mix of scholarship, invention and battle cry.
Tito Rad’s is a reminder that fine Filipino cooking has been with us all along. For here, as for the last decade, is ukoy, fritters of shrimp ensnared in deep-fried tendrils of bean sprouts and carrots, with club soda in the batter to give it a lift.
And immaculate cylinders of lumpiang shanghai, often compared with Chinese spring rolls but more slender and delicate, their crispy skins like gilded air. And tortang talong, whole eggplant buried in an omelet with only the stem peeking out and the bronzed eggs disclosing seams of pork and shrimp.
Sisig, typically a hash of pig face (snout, jowls, ears), is here all pliant pork belly, reduced to juicy rubble, baked and then half-charred on a hissing skillet in a lacework of onions, whose sweetness cuts the fat.
A rinse of lemon and the meat arrives still cooking and crackling as it lands on the table, smoke rolling off the hot plate and a raw yolk (on request) trembling at the center.
Alongside that daunting tuna jaw might be kalderetang kambing, goat braised in tomato purée, with green olives leaching brine and liver pâté extending its dark mineral contour. More liver pâté is loosened with vinegar as a dipping sauce for lechon kawali, hunks of pork belly that emerge from the fryer equal parts shatter, sink and chew.
Ampalaya, or bitter melon, is tossed into a pan of scrambled eggs at the last minute, so it loses none of its color or crunch. It’s still defiantly bitter, but with a cooling freshness.
Langka, or jackfruit, is slowly undone by coconut milk, until its texture is somewhere between short rib and potato.
Best of all is laing, a tangle of taro leaves, flown in from Hawaii and carefully pruned of their stems, saturated with coconut milk and braised into a soupy, sublime mess. (Be warned: For most of the vegetable dishes here, pork and shrimp lie in the depths.)
A few years ago, Tito Rad’s (the name means Uncle Rad’s, short for Conrado) took over the storefront next to its original location. Now there’s a backroom for spillover and sprawling parties, outfitted with wooden slat windows and green wall panels, which Albenio wistfully said was meant to evoke outdoor dining.
Tables are covered in white paper, quickly stained by the procession of dishes. The front window is etched with the restaurant’s logo, a man in a fedora, testament to Albenio’s love of hats.
Dessert is another crowd of plates: airy turon, lumpia with oozy guts of caramelized banana; a threesome of dense cassava cake, jammy ube halaya and leche flan, akin to crème caramel; and langka ice cream, made by Nenette Albenio, the chef’s sister, which tastes of sheer voluptuousness and, improbably, the scent of sampaguita, Philippine jasmine.
One night, there were slices of birthday cake, too, insistently shared by a 75th birthday party in raucous swing. With the cake came a story, of how the woman of honor had never married, how she had instead devoted her life to bringing her relatives to the United States, all of them now assembled here. The inscription in the icing read: Auntie. —NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.