Nicole Ponseca on the end of Maharlika: ‘I’m not sentimental about it’

By Cristina DC Pastor

Maharlika, the restaurant that blew into the New York dining scene and planted the Filipino flag, has closed down after eight years. Jeepney, will remain open, said CEO Nicole Ponseca who owns and co-founded both restaurants.

“It was time to move on,” she said in emailed comments to The FilAm. “I’m not sentimental about it.”

Ponseca said, “I’m very proud of what I accomplished as a woman and person of color in this very brutal and unrelenting city and industry. I’m even more proud of the team of people who made my dream possible and to help Filipino food break through.”

She said she would keep Jeepney open and focus on making it the best restaurant it can be. “I’m merging menus and streamlining operations. So the favorite Maharlika dishes, like Kare Kare, Sisig, and Chicken and Ube Waffles, will be at Jeepney.”

Maharlika staples Chori Burger and Chicken with Ube Waffles.  Chori Burger: Pinterest photo 

She said she is looking to “explore and experience” other opportunities creatively and entrepreneurially. “It was time to move on. I’m very excited about the next chapter in my life.”
In 2011 when this reporter first interviewed Ponseca, Maharlika was a ‘pop-up’ taking over a traditional Filipino restaurant whose owners were contemplating exiting the business. “We didn’t have enough money,” she said. “We rode on the wave.”

At the time, pop-up stores were turning up all over the city, allowing entrepreneurs with limited resources to explore and experiment with new ideas without fear of large losses in case the business fails. In Ponseca’s case, the budding idea was modern Filipino food targeting the millennial market. “Not fusion,” she stressed. “It is 100 percent Filipino ingredients.”

“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,” she said then.

Thus, was born Maharlika Filipino Moderno on First Avenue across from where the old Elvie’s Turo-Turo once held sway.

The restaurant quickly moved from being a mere pop-up to a popular destination for Filipino food in Manhattan.  Within days, she said, Maharlika took off, that is, if half an hour’s wait for a table was a gauge.

One of the first things she introduced had nothing to do with the menu. It was a blackboard that featured a Tagalog Word for the Day. The next came Balut and Kamayan dining. Balut was served with the waitstaff whistling ‘Baluuuut’ to announce the arrival of the embryo egg at the customer’s table. Kamayan, or eating without utensils, was an array of grilled meats, seafood, vegetables,  and salted eggs all spread out on banana leaves for families or groups of friends to savor. Kamayan was such a hit that reservations had to be made months in advance for those who wanted to experience this homegrown Filipino tradition.

Ponseca started Maharlika with business partners Enzo Lim (left) and Miguel Trinidad.

Jeepney, conceptualized as a gastropub, would be born the following year. While Maharlika was where sit-down dining happened, Jeepney, also located on the same street, is hip and trendier. It’s where people go to to unwind over drinks and small plates of Pulutan, like Sisig Tacos and Lumpiang Shanghai.

Many restaurants run by younger Filipinos would open, promoting their own creative spin on traditional Filipino dishes. Some would credit this trend to Ponseca’s success with Maharlika and Jeepney that made her an authority and innovator on Filipino cuisine.  The Filipino Food Movement was a concept some associated with her. Ponseca and Executive Chef Miguel Trinidad would appear on television shows to demonstrate what Filipino food is about. Together they published “I am a Filipino: And This Is How We Cook” which, some say, reads more like a history book than a cook book.

Jim Diego, who works for a nonprofit organization on urban development, remembers his first time at Maharlika.

“I remember fondly in September 2011 when my cousin texted me about doing brunch with him and our cousins at a new Filipino restaurant in the East Village that his friend Nicole had just opened called Maharlika,  Filipino for ‘royalty.’ It had started as a pop-up earlier that year, when pop-ups were just beginning to be a thing,” he said.

In June the following year, Diego would host at Maharlika a release party for his a cappella album, The Whitney Project, “introducing many more friends to the amazing wonders of Filipino food.”

It came as a shock to Diego, and to many other regulars, when it was announced that Maharlika was coming to an end on December 8.

“They did some amazing things over the last eight years, changing the conversation on Filipino food and basically jumpstarting the renaissance of Filipino restaurants opening, not only in New York, but all around the country,” he said.

He will miss the place but is glad to have come to taste its delicious food. “Nagpapasalamat ako sa napakasarap na pagkain mo…I am grateful for your bomb-ass food!”

© The FilAm 2019

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