On First Avenue, One Filipino Pop-Up Pops Up Next to Another

maharlika1Daniel Maurer Sign boards at Bar Kada and Maharlika on Sunday afternoon.

Maharlika has received its share of attention since it went from being a roving pop-up to a proper brick-and-mortar restaurant on First Avenue back in August. “Could it be that Filipino food, the underdog of Asian cuisines, is having its moment at last?”, asked The Times in its $25 and Under review. It would seem so: Recently, yet another Filipino pop-up quietly opened up in the East Village – on the very same block as Maharlika.

Few seem to have noticed, but last month, Bar Kada took up a Sunday residence at Ugly Kitchen at 103 First Avenue, just a few doors down from Maharlika between Sixth and Seventh Streets. The pop-up is the brainchild of Aris Tuazon, 37, who was until recently the chef at another nearby Filipino restaurant, Krystal’s Cafe 81. Yesterday, Mr. Tuazon said he planned to serve a Filipino menu at Ugly Kitchen every Sunday from 11 a.m. till midnight while he looked for a permanent space in the neighborhood. 

Nicole Ponseca, a partner in Maharlika, said it wasn’t the first time she had crossed paths with Mr. Tuazon. She said that when the idea of Maharlika was born around 2007 or 2008, she unsuccessfully begged him to join her as chef. Describing her feelings about his new pop-up, she said, “It’s mixed because as a Filipino you just want to see the food out there, because it was ignored for so long. I don’t even know how to respond to it, really, only because of the history between us. If it was another [chef], I’d be more elated about it, but when I was trying five years ago, no one would help me or think that Filipino food could work.”

Now Mr. Tuazon is welcoming customers who might otherwise have dined at Maharlika. Yesterday, he pointed to just such a couple. “They came from there and said they wanted to try [Bar Kada] because they said it’s not really authentic food [at Maharlika] – it’s more like fusion. They wanted the real stuff.”

An example of the “real stuff”: Pork intestines marinated with Asian spices, then deep fried and served in a vinegar sauce. (The rest of Bar Kada’s menu is below.)

Ms. Ponseca said that she wouldn’t describe Maharlika’s offerings as fusion. “We aren’t crossing the food with another culture,” she said. “All we have done is decided not to use pre-packaged meats, to slow braise the meats, create sauces from scratch and cook vegetables a la minute.  We decided to use classical cooking techniques.”

She added, “The true irony is that Filipino food – by definition – is fusion in and of itself.  It’s fusion food arranged by history with our political backgrounds and with Malay, Chinese, Spanish and American.”

Mr. Tuazon shrugged off the thought that he was infringing on Maharlika’s turf. “It’s good to have a little competition,” he said. “We don’t mind – we’re friends with them, too.”

Ms. Ponseca agreed that competition was for the best, citing Momofuku as an inspiration for Maharlika. “Before, there was only Rai Rai Ken to get good and late ramen in the East Village. Momofuku changed the game.  Now we are lucky to have Ippudo, Minca, etc.”

In fact, she said, she has long believed that a section of First Avenue should be renamed Pinoy Way. “Sixth Street used to be a little Manila,” she said. “There was a social hall, restaurants, billiards. It was only because of a proliferation of British in the 60s and 70s who had a hankering for Indian that it turned into Indian Way.”

On this much Mr. Tuazon and Ms. Ponseca could agree: The East Village’s Filipino population, they both said, is still going strong. “Oh my God, there are so many,” said Ms. Ponseca. “There are so many in Stuyvesant Town, too – it’s crazy.” She added, “Every time we meet someone new and they find out about Maharlika, they say, ‘I live down the block,’ or ‘I live right here.’”