I am used to going to the East Village, the Lower East Side, Woodside in Queens and any number of other neighborhoods to eat Filipino food, but I was not quite prepared for the location of the new Filipino restaurant Bilao.
It’s on a stretch of First Avenue on the Upper East Side where almost every other storefront is devoted to some mundane service like hair cutting, nail polishing, key cutting or shirt pressing. It may be the only block in New York City about which you could say it’s actually more interesting because it has a 7-Eleven and a Domino’s.
I had started to think that I must have come to the wrong place when I noticed the commotion near 75th Street. Bilao is a narrow restaurant with minimal street frontage, but when business is going full tilt it can pack in more people into its outdoor seating areas than will ever be able to squeeze into its dining room once the pandemic ends.
This was a full-tilt night. Couples were sitting at tables on the sidewalk in front of the restaurant, groups were gathered at tables under a tent on the pavement, and several delivery men, seemingly on their own, were milling around the door. Running in and out were two servers, trying to keep everybody in line and dodging the e-bikes that cruise noiselessly up the bike lane between the sidewalk and the tent every 12 seconds or so.
If I’d had any lingering doubt that I’d found the right address, it was obliterated when the one of those servers came to my sidewalk table and set down a deep-fried knuckle of pork on a cutting board. This was crispy pata the way I always hope it will look. Next to two neatly trimmed stubs of bone, a fork and a steak knife were sunk deep in an open seam running through the crunchy, honey-colored skin. The knife is there, of course, to crack open and hack off and portion out the skin, although it also comes in handy with the warm meat underneath, sweet with melted fat and salty with a short brine cure and ready for a bath in the customary vinegar-soy dip.
Under normal conditions, crispy pata would be the centerpiece of a dinner for a family. But there’s a pandemic going on, so a friend and I had to eat the whole thing ourselves.
For Filipino food that has been tailored for modern New York tastes, I might send you to a table in the backyard of Purple Yam in Brooklyn. For a look under the hood at more intricate or unusual Filipino dishes without leaving your own kitchen, I’d suggest ordering up one of the meal kits being sold by Jeepney, a normally gregarious restaurant in the East Village. There are other kitchens whose detail work is finer than Bilao’s, whose array of condiments is more diverse.
But if you want an abundance of Filipino food that you can get down with, if an entire deep-fried pork knuckle sounds like a good start, if you are happiest when you have just stabbed a fork into some murky stew or soup and haven’t yet figured out just what it is you’ve speared on the end, then Bilao may be just the place for you.
The restaurant was opened in August by three Filipino New Yorkers: Jude Canela, Maricris Dinopol and Joan Calanog. All three are nurses at Mount Sinai Hospital, working the night shift. After they got off at 7 a.m. they used to go out for breakfast, but it was never quite what they wanted. What they wanted was tapa, strips of marinated and fried beef; or links of longaniza; or sticky red bits of tocino, the cured but unsmoked bacon that sometimes looks as if it had found its way into a jar of maraschino cherries — any of those on a plate, with a mound of garlic-fried rice and an egg, sunny side up.
They knew they weren’t the only people in the area who wanted those things for breakfast. The Upper East Side is full of hospitals, and the hospitals are full of Filipino workers. In fact, an analysis by ProPublica in May found that one in every four adults with Filipino ancestry in the New York-New Jersey region worked in a hospital or other medical facility. Many of them, including Mr. Canela, Ms. Dinopol and Ms. Calanog, attended one of the hundreds of nursing schools in the Philippines.
When the three of them began talking about opening a Filipino restaurant with all-day breakfast near the East Side’s cluster of hospitals, it was a joke. Then they got serious. That they found their space on First Avenue during the pandemic, when hospital workers were pushed to their limits and beyond, is just one of those twists of fate that 2020 always seems to have up its sleeve.
The three hired Boji Asunción as their chef, and worked with him until they were happy that his renditions of Filipino staples tasted and looked like “a home-cooked meal,” as Mr. Canela put it. To underscore the domestic inspiration, they named the restaurant after the bamboo baskets with which cooks rinse starch from rice. The tool is called a bilao (bee-LAH-oh) and examples of it hang on the walls inside.
Laing is left as a stew of taro leaves and fresh shrimp in a coconut broth with the powerful tidal scent of shrimp paste, not whipped into the glossy green purée that some restaurants favor. Ridged curls of bitter melon lurk in the vegetable stew known as pinakbet among the eggplants, long beans, tomatoes and kabocha. Grilled chicken inasal, dyed to a saffron yellow by ground annatto, has been deeply slashed to let in the marinade of coconut vinegar and calamansi juice.
Bilao’s kare-kare, oxtails and tripe cooked in peanut-butter sauce, does not have the swoony intensity you come across in other kitchens. The pork-coconut stew bicol express is seasoned with fresh red and green chiles, but still seemed a bit shy when I had it. But there was nothing retiring about the hash of pigs’ ears, cheeks and livers under a raw egg — hissing on a hot iron plate, as any self-respecting sizzling sisig does.
The menu is surprisingly extensive for a place that, once we are out of the jaws of the pandemic, will hold about 20 customers. Everything on it, including breakfast, is available from morning until evening. Each time I have gone to Bilao, there have been people in scrubs eating outside, suggesting that the owners knew their audience. How did they work up the nerve to open their first restaurant while experienced operators all over town were going out of business?
“The thing is,” Mr. Canela said, “we were so hungry.”