To me, the visit to Maharlika was an eye-opening lesson. For the past twelve years, I have witnessed that a majority of American people conceptualize American Asian food as Chinese and Japanese cuisine, trailing many years ahead of Korean, Thai, and Vietnamese cooking. Even when I knew that Chinese and Japanese food had been reduced to sweet & sour pork and prepackaged sushi rolls because of the American customs, I still wanted Korean food to receive its warranted respect in the mainstream world. When Korean food did get its recognition, it was frustrating to see it simply get classified as barbecue.
Just when I thought my culture had it tough, I realized that Filipino cuisine was nonexistent when I was growing up in the States. How could I get mad at my American friends for classifying Korean as barbecue and bibimbap when the only Filipino item I knew was pancit? It was a humbling moment.
This summer, I discovered Modern Filipino restaurant Maharlika. After started out as a traveling brunch pop-up, Maharlika (which means “royalty” in Tagalog) permanently set up shop in East Village last year. Owner Nicole Ponseca is Filipino (and speaks Tagalog), but executive chef, Miguel Trinidad is Dominican. The chef’s use of French techniques and travels to the Philippines help him put Filipino cuisine on New York City’s fine dining map. It reminds me of Chef Hooni Kim’s work at Danji.
My friends and I started our meal with the infamous spam fries. Spam is like an Asian mother’s foie gras. Although I’ve frequently enjoyed spam in Mama Cho’s budae jjigae (a spicy Korean bouillabaisse) and morning home fries, I never thought I’d enjoy strips of spam in deep-fried form. Dunking fries into the banana ketchup for a crunchy and sweet surprise. The other house favorite, Smelt Frito with sili remoulade, resembles beer battered fish sticks and tartar sauce.
A plate of chicharrones arrives at every table. Although chicharrones are commonly made with pork, Maharlika uses chicken skins. It’s a crunchy bar snack that should only to be consumed in moderation.
The sisig is one of the main highlights of the meal. Pig ears, snouts, and bellies are cooked three times. Braising the pig parts render the fat and tenderize the meat. After getting grilled or deep fried (the pork belly), the parts are sautéed with onions, garlic, chili peppers, chicken liver, homemade vinegar, and calamansi juice on the cast iron skillet. After a sunny side egg is mixed into the sisig, I added the large bowl of garlic rice into the hot pan. The best part is that every bite has bits of charred pork and crunchy rice. It’s a killer combination.
Every bite of oxtail is pleasurable. The meat instantly falls off the bone and melts right in your tongue. After the first bite, you immediately notice the impact flavor of peanut butter, a delightful, creamy surprise. Ms. Ponseca reminds me to stop taking pictures and start eating the kare kare before it started to get cold. I immediately followed her instruction. Then my friends and I mopped up all the sauce with a bowl of white rice.
The Pata Confit is pictured at the top. It’s a crispy pork leg which is brined, cured, confited, and the flash fried for pickup. The entire pig leg is bigger than my face and could easily feed two. The pork leg is topped a heaping of lardo, giving it a crunchy skin and flavorful bits of tenderness. It does resemble the pork delight at Momofuku Ssäm Bar.
To cut the richness of the pork fat, we were advised to dip it in the suka (the home-made coconut-sugarcane vinegar) like we did with the chicharrones at the beginning of the meal. Ms. Ponseca reminded us that the restaurant’s homemade suka is like a fine wine.
Puqui puqui is street slang that shouldn’t be used in some parts of the Philippines. At Maharlika, puqui puqui it’s the name of the roasted, puréed eggplant, tomato, and sibuyas (onions). The eggplant is smoky and creamy, resembling a similar texture to mashed potatoes (or cauliflower). When the kare kare and pata get a little too meaty, turn to the puqui puqui for a refreshing change of pace. I also turn to my helping of white rice (and add a little bit of the delicious shrimp paste) for relief from the beef and pork.
The coconut pudding has wonderful kernels of yellow corn and is topped with bits of shredded coconut. The generous portion of creamy maja blanca is a cool way to end a delicious evening. It’s so deceptively simple and rewarding. The Macapuno Leche Flan is very similar to flan at other restaurants, but still finds comfort in my insatiable belly.
On the surface, Maharlika seems to appear as a budget gourmet restaurant. It’s Cash only, phone reservations only, and cramped. But the food and family hospitality is more than enough to bring me back again and again. Compared to the front of house of a Thai restaurant I visited recently in Brooklyn, the servers at Maharlika seem to have a strong knowledgeable about the flavor combinations, ingredients, and portions of each item on the menu. They may not be Filipino (or even speak Tagalog), but they embrace the dishes as their own. The Malaysian, Chinese, American, Spanish, and other indigenous influences resonate through the sweet, spicy, sour, and salty flavor profiles. It truly feels like a multi-cultural family business in a modern, fine dining setting without the crazy aunts and uncles. It’s a hungry Asian boy’s dream.