But Filipino? Radio silence.
This isn't to say there isn't plenty of Filipino (or "Pinoy") food in and near the city. Little Manila (a small stretch of Roosevelt Avenue off the 7 in Woodside) and enclaves of New Jersey (and increasingly, Jersey City) have thriving Filipino communities and neighborhood spots flying under the radar.
But until the past few years, the cooks making Filipino food "weren't really professional chefs," Pig and Khao chef/owner and Top Chef vet Leah Cohen says. And that meant neighborhood spots remained just that. Thanks to more high-profile and centrally located spots opening in the past few years—Maharlika, Jeepney and Cohen's own Pig and Khao in particular—that's starting to change.
For the uninitiated, the options can be intimidating. Take dinuguan, for example: Traditionally, it's offal cooked in pig blood and vinegar. Nowadays, most chefs sub in pork shoulder or more traditional pork cuts, but the sauce—which tastes like a tangy version of brown gravy—remains the same.
And then there's the infamous balut, a fertilized duck egg Maharlika/Jeepney owner Nicole Ponseca jokingly describes as "a hard-boiled egg on steroids." It's become something of a badge of honor (thanks in part to "Bizarre Bites"), so much that both Maharlika and Jeepney see loads of daredevils popping in for the fear factor, and Jeepney has even instituted a balut-eating contest for the bravest. (Should you crack yours open and find it empty, know that it's a sign of good luck.)
But on most menus, you'll find familiar influences quickly, the combination of which make Filipino food the excitingly dynamic cuisine it is: Chinese in the freshly fried lumpia egg rolls and big bowls of pancit noodles, nearby Southeast Asian countries in the coconut milk base of laing (sautéed taro root) and Bicol Express (pork stew with chile peppers), Spanish—yep, Spanish—in chicharrones and flan, and even American (see: must-try Spam fries at Maharlika).
No matter where in this city your Filipino dining adventures take you, be sure to hit the two of the most popular dishes: chicken adobo and sizzling sisig. Chicken adobo is simple perfection: on-the-bone meat cooked in soy, vinegar and garlic—a flavor trifecta you'll see repeated often. Sizzling sisig is a bit more daring, consisting traditionally of pork cheek, jowls and liver served in a piping-hot skillet. Brain used to be a fundamental element, but lately, chefs have been replacing it with an over-easy egg. ("It actually does mimic the consistency," Cohen says. "And I like it even better.")
Now that you've got your bearings, here's where to dig in.
Maharlika, East Village
There's nothing not to love: delightful staff, tasty cocktails (each named for a Filipino celebrity), vibrant decor and, of course, the food. Go meat heavy with tocino (7-Up-marinated pork shoulder, $9) and longganisa (sweet sausage, $6); adding garlic rice and a fried egg makes a meal called a silog (pictured, top). Save room on the table for kare-kare ($22), oxtail stew made with peanut butter and finished with eggplant, long beans and bok choy. Round it all out with arroz caldo ($8), a nuanced rice porridge with garlic, ginger and chicken.
Pig and Khao, Lower East Side
Technically speaking, Cohen's restaurant isn't just Filipino. But her Filipino heritage (her mom was born and raised) shines through on the menu. Order that sizzling sisig we told you all about (it's our favorite iteration, $15), the crispy pata (a heaping pork shoulder that's been braised, air-dried and fried; $26) and chicken inasal (half chicken marinated in vinegar and a beloved street food, $22). TT tip: There's always unlimited Yuengling on tap for $15, so prepare for a party.
Grill 21, Gramercy
Disregard its self-identification as "Asian Fusion" (the whole menu is Filipino), and don't be put off by its humble interior (or exterior, for that matter): This is the real deal. You pretty much can't go wrong, but take a group and order a feast. Our favorites are the laing ($15), dinuguan ($16), Bicol Express ($16) and sinampalukang manok ($15), which is a tangy chicken soup.
Papa's Kitchen, Woodside
Don't expect anything fancy. The space is tiny—15 seats max—and you'll eat off banana leaf-topped paper plates using plastic flatware. But the chicken adobo ($11) is the best we've tasted, accented by caramelized onions we're still dreaming about. Word is that the weekend karaoke game is tight, so take a swig of San Miguel (and another bite of the spicy lumpia rolls) then belt your heart out.
RELATED How to Make Chicken Adobo »
Ugly Kitchen, East Village
Just four doors down from Maharlika stands Ugly Kitchen. While there's also a Korean thing going on with the menu, the Filipino options deliver. Kick things off with any of the cocktails with calamansi juice, a citrus akin to a kumquat. Then go for the fried isaw (chicharrones) and lechon kawali, perfectly fried pork belly served with liver sauce. Be sure not to miss the smoked boneless milkfish. (Fun fact: Milkfish is the national fish of the Philippines.)
Lumpia Shack, West Village
Pop into the brick-and-mortar of Smorgasburg/Brooklyn Flea for a quick fix of freshly made lumpia (including nontraditional mushroom ones with adobo-braised cremini, $7.50) or make a meal out of the fried milkfish rice bowl with calamansi. And while you can find halo-halo on most Filipino dessert menus, we're partial to the super-fresh version of the shaved ice topped with thick, starchy ube; squishy palm seeds; and homemade caramel-y leche flan. Look for its return to the menu this spring.
Jeepney, East Village
Take your closest friends (it's about to get personal) for the gastropub's large-format kamayan meals ($45+ a person) on Wednesday and Thursday nights. Everything, including longganisa, rice cakes and three entrées of your choice (make sure whole fish is one of them), are laid out on banana leaves—sans plates and cutlery. Kamayan basically translates from Tagalog to "eating with your hands," a tradition owner Ponseca remembers being embarrassed by in her younger days. Not so much anymore. Follow her lead and book one now (reservations go fast).
Purple Yam, Ditmas Park
Sadly, a lot of NYC's pancit noodle dishes lack in flavor, but that's not the case at Purple Yam. The more classic pancit bihon ($10) is loaded with chicken and pork, plus lots of bok choy, cabbage and scallions. But the pancit luglug ($11)—available only at brunch—is the real standout with thick rice noodles and an almost creamy pork and shrimp sauce. Whichever you choose, start with the fresh lumpia ($7), a lighter version of the roll that subs fried shells for a fluffy rice crepe.
There's better food in Woodside (see: Papa's Kitchen and Cohen's favorite, Tito Rad's), but pop in for the avocado shake ($5.25), a confusingly amazing combination of freshly smashed avocado, milk and crushed ice that you mix yourself and spoon instead of slurp. Order bitter melon with ground pork, shrimp and eggs, and you've got yourself a serious breakfast. Pick up a sweet loaf of ube bread from Fritzie's on your way back to the 7.
Honorary Mentions: The Chains
To the delight of the Pinoy community, many chains from the Philippines have landed in the city. Namely, Jollibee, the local equivalent of McDonald's, where you can dig into sweet ham spaghetti (it's a thing); Red Ribbon Bakeshop, a bakery slinging bright purple ube cakes; and Max's, the diner-type joint whose fried chicken actually inspired the one at Maharlika.