Where Are All the Filipino Restaurants?

Rice and Egg Noodles with Chicken and Pork (Flavours of Manila, East Brunswick NJ)

Crispy, crunchy, salty, sweet, savory, deep-fried. Those are just a few words I would use to describe Filipino food, and they are all sensations that Americans love in what they eat. If you live in New Jersey, chances are you have at least two or three Chinese places within ten minutes of your house and one Japanese. Even Indian restaurants are starting to pop up in greater numbers. So where are all the Filipino restaurants? Why is there such a hesitancy to try this cuisine? Is it fear and discomfort or simply lacking the knowledge of what is out there? We could certainly argue for both cases.

Americans, in general, are small-minded when it comes to food. I mean, when you look at what we are known for (burgers and hot dogs?) it’s not like we rank anywhere near the top of the world’s cuisine. Americans can be an ignorant bunch and fearful of anything new. Hell, we were once terrified at the thought of eating raw fish, and now look at the explosion Japanese food and sushi have become. Indian food has scared people for a long time, but now we are seeing small chains offering curries and rice that anyone would love. Simple dishes like those can be the gateway drug into a world of flavor. I often tell people that when it comes to Indian food to start out with chicken tikka (essentially barbecued chicken) and rice. You can then figure out if you want to be more adventurous.

Long-si-log (Flavours of Manila, East Brunswick NJ)

But there just does not seem to be that drive when it comes to Filipino food. They are usually condensed to areas of high Filipino population (unlike Indian restaurants which seem to thrive in overly white areas). You will find one in Colonia and two in East Brunswick, both highly ethnic areas for all races. Then there is Little Philippines (which borders Little India) in Jersey City. Except for a few others scattered around, that’s about it. If you do find one, chances are, the only people eating there are Filipino themselves. Perhaps that can be slightly intimidating. For me, as a food nut, when I walk in to an ethnic restaurant and see only that ethnicity there, I think the opposite: this place must be good. I’ve had that experience at four separate Filipino restaurants, and none of them have disappointed.

Sizzling milkfish sisig. (Max’s Jersey City)

Why this food is so delicious is because it contains a lot of the textures and flavors that we are used to. Are there certain dishes which are not everyone’s cup of tea? Certainly. I do not know many who would venture into a bowl of Dinuguan, but aside from that, there is so much we love. Take chicharron, fried pork or chicken skins. They are essentially pork rinds, only fresher. There’s sisig, which is usually pork but can also extend to chicken and fish. It comes sizzling in a skillet. There are crunchy pieces of char. It’s crispy and tender at the same time. The aroma from the smoke is amazing. A drizzle of lemon or lime juice elevates the dish to even higher levels. What’s not to like? This does not even include the myriad of rice and noodle dishes that are even more familiar. Similar to what you might find in a Thai restaurant sometimes.

Filipinos cook with ketchup. They love spam (we can thank American occupation of the Philippines in WWII for that). There’s meat everywhere. The amount of salt in their food is a running joke as Will notes, “Everyone in the Philippines is walking around with hypertension”. It’s mostly far from healthy, and since when has this country cared about that? So, come on America, wake up! This food is here just waiting for you to enjoy. It’s not exotic, it’s more like grandma’s home cooking just with a different twist. Grilled meats, deep-fried skins, luscious sauces, thick noodles, pan-fried rice. Haven’t tried it yet? What are you waiting for?

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