Maharlika’s popping up all over

Serving up Filipino food — and lexicon — in the East Village

A podcast interview with Nicole Ponseca is available courtesy of Feet in Two Worlds.

By Cristina DC Pastor

Pop-up restaurants are a relatively new dining concept, and Filipinos are curious about them. So when Maharlika Filipino Moderno opened its first pop-up on First Avenue and 12th Street early this year, the question after ‘what’s on the menu’ is ‘what’s a pop-up’?

That first experiment has led to two similar guerrilla operations in Brooklyn, one on Dekalb to open this weekend, and another in Williamsburg slated to launch in three weeks. What’s more, the first one has moved to Seventh Street. Still a pop-up, said owner Nicole Ponseca, but with a longer lease.

“I feel like I just gave birth to triplets,” Nicole said with a laugh when interviewed by The FilAm. Even she couldn’t believe she could open three restaurants in one year.

When Maharlika (Tagalog for royalty) opened early this year, the only way to go was temporary and transitional. Pop-ups, which were sprouting all over the major cities, including foodie haven New York, became very attractive to Nicole.

“We didn’t have enough money and I was getting impatient,” said Nicole. “We rode on the wave.”

Pop-ups are short-lived, shared arrangements with existing restaurants. The pop-ups need not invest in kitchen appliances, furniture and utensils, and their use is covered by the lease agreement, providing for a lower overhead. Sometimes, the pop-up has no need for an entire restaurant, just a small counter space where the takeout orders are collected, and the kitchen where the food is prepared. As noted by The New York Times, pop-ups allowed new restaurants to “experiment without the risk of bankruptcy.”

Maharlika’s original site on First and 12th belonged to Nicole’s former boss whose restaurant closed on weekends because it wasn’t doing so well. She offered to rent the place for brunch on those days.

On its first two days, Maharlika had four guests. She started praying and wondering if leaving her ad agency job was a wise decision.

Word of mouth and social media must have worked in tandem to announce Maharlika’s presence because on the third day, the place was packed. There was at least an hour’s wait for a table, Nicole said. “Within three days, it took off.”

Food blogs dished out good review after another. Serious Eats calls Maharlika “an exciting dining experience.”

“I wasn’t happy with the Filipino restaurants around New York. I didn’t think there was anything targeted toward my age group, 20-something Filipino New Yorker,” recalled Nicole when the idea to open a restaurant that would connect her with her Filipino roots came to her in 2002.

Maharlika by her definition, is a modern version of Filipino food, style and service. It is not fusion, she stressed. It is 100 percent Filipino ingredient.

“The irony of making it modern is to hark back to our rustic roots,” she said. “Nothing about the way we prepare our food would require opening a pack of Mama Sita if you want to cook kare-kare or pre-packaged tocino if you want to make tocilog. We embrace everything about being Filipino. Everything from scratch.”

No “one-pot dish” technique either where all the vegetables are cooked at the same time for convenience, and end up soggy and sapped of all nutrients. The meat is braised individually and separately from the vegetables. Every component of the dish is “done to the minutes,” preserving its integrity, she said. “The dish is still flavorful and vibrant with nutrients, and the presentation is a feast.”

Dominating the menu are dishes, such as Adidas or chicken feet boiled then grilled like barbecue; sizzling Sisig, which Nicole likened to the Korean Bibimbap; and the Arroz Caldo porridge with tripe bits and ginger.

“On hindsight, it was really the Filipino community that came out in droves, in support,” said Nicole. “It was a sight to see the families, the young, hip men and women bringing their non-Pinoy friends, sharing longsilog and laing. It was heartfelt.”

Longga sliders with 'bagoong' mayonnaise

Siopao tasting night

Kings and queen of Maharlika (from left) Enzo, Nicole and Miguel

Nicole, who collaborates with business partner Enzo Lim and executive chef Miguel Trinidad, is dismayed that Filipino food was never a crossover success the way Thai and Vietnamese cuisine have been since the late ‘90s. “We’re not competitive enough.”

But with new restaurants emerging, Filipino chefs making their way in the culinary world, and foodies always on the lookout for the next unique, great taste, she said Philippine food will soon “get its spotlight.”

“It’s the perfect time,” she said.

Cristina DC Pastor is the founding editor of The FilAm.


  1. […] Eileen is attempting is no different from what Nicole Ponseca of Maharlika and Jeepney restaurants had set out to do three years ago, when she reintroduced […]

  2. […] Eileen is attempting is no different from what Nicole Ponseca of Maharlika and Jeepney restaurants had set out to do three years ago, when she reintroduced […]

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