3 nurses open the 1st Filipino restaurant on the Upper East Side

COVID frontliners Jude Canela, RN; Maricris Dinopol, RN; and Joan Calanog, RN: Full-time nurses, full-time entrepreneurs

By Loida Nicolas Lewis

Three night-shift nurses (from 7 p.m. to 7:30 a.m.) working at Mount Sinai Hospital often wished how they would love to eat home-cooked meals after a hard day’s night. What started as “joke only” started to become a “why not”?

And thus, was born Bilao, the first Filipino restaurant on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. It was founded by three friends, Jude Canela, Maricris Dinopol, and Joan Calanog who put their minds and hard-earned funds together to fulfill what they and other nurses would want for breakfast — Tapsilog, Tocilog, Longsilog, Dasilog, Tinapalog or Cornsilog. These are traditional breakfast staples of garlic fried rice and egg with Tapa, Tocino, Longanisa, Daing, Tinapa or Corn Beef.

As Jude said, “Going to Queens for Filipino restaurants is out of the question, too far. Cooking in our apartment is too hard, since we are all tired. So, we planned a restaurant that is open to accommodate the night shifts, at 8 a.m.”

Jude took care of marketing. Joan was responsible for Finance, and Maricris for Operations since she is also an entrepreneur. She owns a dry-cleaning business on the Upper East Side. When she learned that the French bakery beside her corner dry cleaner was closing shop, she thought it was perfect for their eatery. The location on First Avenue between 74th and 75th streets is walking distance from several hospitals, such as Lenox Hill, Sloan Kettering, Cornell Metropolitan, Hospital for Special Surgery, and of course, Mount Sinai.

The key to a successful restaurant is the chef. Maricris recruited the Filipino chef Bojie Asuncion whom she knew from previous work. The three partners decided theirs would be a full-service restaurant rather than one that simply offers ‘silog’ breakfast morning, noon and night.

Longsilog, a Filipino favorite for breakfast. Photo:  Krys Gatmaitan

They asked Chef Bojie to cook the normal dishes that Filipinos eat back in the Philippines. They tasted every dish he cooked before deciding which would go on the menu.

The name

Having the set menu, they initially chose Kusina as the name but so many other restaurants have the same sounding name. Their second choice was Bilao, hard to pronounce for Americans but nobody else had that name. Filipino clients know it means the handcrafted basket where rice is winnowed.

Their initial plan to open in March 2020 was thwarted by the pandemic. No matter. Financing came from their own pocket, so no interest payments to the bank and no big payroll.

When Governor Andrew Cuomo declared that restaurants could partially open in August last year, Bilao quietly opened, setting up tables by the curbside.

Initially, there were complaints about service taking too long.

“We are not a fast-food eatery. We want each dish cooked to order, not heated by microwave,” Jude insisted.

Slowly, their clientele grew. Not only Filipinos but surprisingly non-Filipinos began to patronize as well. For most nights, majority of the diners are non-Filipinos! Some of them have Filipino friends or have visited the Philippines. They order Dinuguan (Pork cubes cooked in pork blood and vinegar) or Sisig (Pork ears, jowls, liver topped with chitcharon), special dishes served only in Filipino households.

Within three months, Bilao was breaking even. News articles have appeared in Gothamist, Eater, Seamless, and other popular foodie sites. Then, someone came several times to eat and later asked to interview Jude, who met with him without knowing who he was. A big surprise came on November 25, 2020 when the Food Section of The New York Times featured a glowing review by Pete Wells. The paper devoted a whole page to Bilao, noting that, “Each time I have gone to Bilao, there have been people in scrubs…”

This would be followed by an appearance in the TODAY Show of NBC by Jude, Maricris, and Joan.

The three nurses’ dream of opening an authentic Filipino restaurant has made it in New York City.

Bilao is located at 1437 First Avenue Between 74/75 streets. 212-650-0010.

© The FilAm 2021

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