SO Jannelle!: ‘Sinangag’ a popular staple at Manhattan’s oldest Pinoy restaurantBy Jannelle So
You can take the Filipino out of the Philippines; but never the Philippines out of the Filipino. I believe this aphorism applies to me and good old-fashioned Filipino food.
And I guess that’s why even in the freezing weather, Pinoys in the Big Apple still love their dinuguan, sisig, kare-kare, and adobo. After all, food is one of the 3 Fs of Philippine culture along with faith and family.
“Masarap naman kasi talaga ang pagkain natin, lalo na kung lutong bahay,” said Melchor Evangelista, the cook at Grill 21, which is Manhattan’s oldest Filipino restaurant. The 8-year-old eatery in Gramercy, owned by former registered nurse Marissa Beck, is frequented by Filipinos craving the dishes of home.
According to the kitchen staff, garlic rice – ‘sinangag’ in Tagalog — is a famous staple. I tried it with the restaurant’s bestseller, their ‘sisig,’ a dish made of pig snout, pig ears, liver and other innards, best served hot on a sizzling plate and topped with fried egg. The Grill 21 version has “chicharon!” Never had that before.
“We don’t take short-cuts,” said Melchor. “Sisig is the most difficult to cook. You have to boil the meats; then grill at hiwain nang pinung-pino. There’s a lot of steps and each step is all about timing. For instance, the meats can’t be over-boiled.”
The result was a circus in my mouth. The meats were crunchy enough to release a pleasant mix of savory, salty and sweet flavors with each bite. I’m getting hungry, just recalling how good it felt in my mouth. Chased down by another Filipino favorite – San Miguel Beer. I ordered San Mig Light. Grill 21 offers an assortment of San Miguel Beer products, including Red Horse Beer.
Grill 21 has quite a following among non-Filipinos. Apparently their American customers enjoy the coconut-infused dishes, while Koreans typically order the ‘dinuguan,’ a dish made out of ox blood.
“My ‘dinuguan’ recipe is from my mother-in-law. I asked her to teach me over the phone, all the way from the Philippines. Now I use it here,” Melchor said, adding that the recipe involves sautéing the ox meat and innards in garlic and onion. “But the secret is in the sautéing technique, to make the flavors come out.”
I got a taste of the Grill 21 ‘kare-kare,’ a traditional Filipino ox tail stew in peanut sauce. I grew up in the Philippines loving my mom’s version of this classic dish. I remember her laboring in the kitchen on special occasions, grinding peanuts to make the sauce from scratch. And the aroma was enough to make me crave. I was interested to see how Melchor’s dish compared.
I didn’t have to wait long. After a taste of the ‘sisig,’ the server arrived with a tray featuring a bowl of the dark yellow dish, a small cup of white rice, and a tiny container of shrimp paste or ‘bagoong.’ I called this the winning triumvirate. I’ve heard of Filipinos cutting rice from their diet. One of my first questions is: “Do you still eat kare-kare?” Because the dish is oozing with deep and rich flavors, the bland taste of freshly-cooked hot white rice is the perfect equalizer. And because the peanut sauce tended to be on the sweet side, the salty shrimp enhanced the flavor.
After two dishes, I was full. The staff had lots of stories to share about their eight-year history. The service was reminiscent of the enthusiastic hospitality Filipinos are famous for. The food was on point. Melchor said it best: “Traditional lutong bahay ‘yung style namin at may halong pagmamahal.”
Jannelle So is taking a break from 20 years of print and broadcast journalism career that began in the Philippines and continued in the United States. She is credited for creating, hosting and producing America’s first and only locally-produced daily talk show for Filipinos, that ran for 8 ½ years under her leadership, making it the longest-running Filipino talk show outside of the Philippines. Connect to her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram; or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.