NEW YORK—On Fifth Avenue across the neck-straining Empire State Building are two KFC spots. Here, KFC is not Kentucky Fried Chicken but BonChon and KyoChon, the Korean Fried Chickens to savor in one of the busiest streets in this city.
More than six miles away, oblivious to the Manhattanites waiting for their lunch meal at the Korean hotspots, are Jollibee (on Roosevelt Avenue in Queens) and Max’s Restaurant (on Newark Avenue in Jersey City).
It’s quiet in both Filipino restaurants, as they wait patiently for the weekend, when the crush of Filipino customers come bustling in for a taste of nostalgia.
What is wrong with this picture? One thinks his slice of the world is fine; the other chooses to go beyond and cater to the world.
Three years ago, when Max’s was scouting for locations in the tri-state area, a marketing representative asked for my so-called expert opinion, as I work with Fortune 500 companies in terms of targeting the Filipino community in the US.
I suggested Manhattan, because it’s too obvious a choice for anyone who knows New Yorkers are game for any type of food. More important, perhaps, New York is home to the American media and, if you believe it, the world.
Instead, Max’s opened in Jersey City, another Filipino enclave that you can count on to do brisk business on weekends; too good a business, one has to deal with the limited space and seats.
Filipino restaurants in the US are undersized, even if they’re outside of the pricey rental space like Manhattan. Being Filipino, I thought it was the effect of my spatial limitations to my obvious paucity of means. Because the Philippines is small in land size, people’s creativity come into play.
Commuters can fit in four-to -eight-seat tricycles, for instance. We obviously take pride in making limited space work, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Others may simply view our solutions, however innovative, as lack of foresight and planning.
But that is beside the point. Our chains, even small eateries, may be earning enough money just targeting Filipinos as customers. It is all up to the different ethnicities in New York then, as I wrote back in 2010, to go beyond their communities and cater to mainstream America—the Middle Eastern food trucks in various city corners, the Chinese restaurants in intersections, the Mexican delis in strategic locations, the Italian pizzas everywhere and, yes, the Korean fried-chicken gastropubs in the busiest streets.
If an American wants Filipino food, he has to go outside of his comfort zone, outside of his neighborhood. Oftentimes they don’t realize there’s a Filipino restaurant in Manhattan, because it has preferred to stay nondescript, almost incognito.
Meanwhile, BonChon now has 16 branches, two in Manhattan within a few blocks—
not bad for a chain that started in Korea only in 2002 and opened its first US outlet four years later. KyoChon, for its part, has 10 chains, the one on Fifth Avenue being its flagship store.
These Korean spots can’t beat Jollibee, though, in terms of number outlets, which is about 27 or so as listed in its website (Max’s listings can’t be found online), since it opened its first store in Daly City in San Francisco back in 1998.
But what they lack in number (for now, at least), they make up for in diverse customers and great reviews. They actually exist in Zagat, both rating Very Good to Excellent in the popular restaurant guide rated now owned by Google.
Last time I checked this month, Jollibee and Max’s are not listed in Zagat in New York and Los Angeles, two very populous Filipino areas.
It may be a simple case of “out of sight, out of mind,” which is unfortunate, because people generally like Jollibee, especially young Filipino-Americans who grew up disliking the cafeteria-style Filipino food here. But all hope is not lost.
We have our young Filipino-American owners of Maharlika. The year-old Maharlika may have found the formula of catering not just to Filipinos but also to Filipino-Americans and non-Filipinos. It is in trendy East Village. It is modernizing home-style Filipino food.
And yes, it brandishes that Filipino concept proudly, unlike others who hide under Asian-American fusion or some gibberish. The other ingredient to success probably rests on one fact that others ignore or feel ashamed of doing: proudly say their restaurant serves Filipino food.
It remains to be seen if Maharlika will have the longevity by carrying the Filipino restaurant label, but if the same owners’ new restaurant called Jeepney 5 blocks away is any indication of its confidence, Filipino food could be finally taking residence in this city.
Jeepney is like BonChon and KyoChon. It’s taking in the gastropub concept of food with beer and wine in a group-friendly bar-like atmosphere while borrowing from the amazing artistry of Filipino food in the Philippines. For Filipinos here, it’s a tribute to what they miss most back home aside from family and friends: the food.
Because our top Philippine-based food cognoscenti can’t join us here, it’s now up to Filipino-Americans to take Filipino food to mainstream America.
Recently, Sheldon Simeon, a Filipino-American chef, led his team to victory on Bravo’s TV show “Top Chef.” He cooked an all-Filipino meal to the delight of the judges. Simeon and other Filipino-American chefs and restaurant owners should be able to broaden the appeal of Filipino food.
Having the vantage point of seeing from both worlds (being Filipino and American), Filipino-Americans may just help inspire our Philippine-born fast-food joints like Jollibee and Max’s to expand their wings. And it should not be hard to market to non-Filipinos, as savvy as Filipinos are in marketing and advertising.
Filipinos represent the third largest Asian population in the US with only a 300,000 split difference between the Chinese (excluding Taiwanese) and a few thousands with the Indians.
Filipino food as we know it need not be invisible or “blank,” as food adventurer Anthony Bourdain once posed as a question to a Filipino restaurateur in his defunct travel show.
In the New York Times piece about Maharlika called “Authentic Filipino Moderno” (Nov. 15, 2011), it’s quite refreshing to hear food writer-critic Ligaya Mishan ask the question, “Could it be that Filipino food, the underdog of Asian cuisines, is having a moment at last?”
One really hopes so—whether it’s our authentic cuisine or fast-food chains.
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