Eating + Drinking

The Philippines Left Its Heart in Queens

Food editor Jess Bender discovers the tastes (and karaoke) sounds of Little Manila.

Photo by Jess Bender

As we all know by now, Queens is a culinary mecca. I’ve taken quick trips on the International Express (or, as New Yorkers lovingly call it, the 7 train) to everywhere from regional Mexico to the Himalayas in a few minutes’ time. But I never knew that there, tucked in the heart of Woodside, was the NYC capital of the Philippines. Shame on me.

The borough’s Little Manila may be small in scope—spanning an eight-block stretch from 63rd to 71st Streets—but the big personalities more than make up for it. Strolling on Roosevelt Avenue is a prime opportunity for people-watching, and I encountered no fewer than a dozen memorable characters (including a woman with a basketful of steamed buns on her head; we’re not in Manhattan anymore, Toto).

The one I wanted to befriend the most, though, was the elusive Balut Guy. The older figure only appears a few times a week on the corner of Roosevelt and 69th Street, so you have to cross all your limbs that he’s going to be hawking his shopping cart full of fertilized duck embryos when you’re in the neighborhood…and, just my luck, he was! I bought three 16-day-old eggs for the price of a Lincoln and, there in the middle of the sidewalk, cracked the top of one open. Despite my adventurous eating habits, I hoped for the best as I dug my plastic spoon into the balut for the very first time. The juices inside—with a bit of rice vinegar mixed in—tasted reminiscent of a refreshing chicken soup, while the bones of the balut practically melted upon contact with my tongue. Aside from what old episodes of Bizarre Foods and slightly tone-deaf Buzzfeed tutorials might indicate, the idea of the delicacy is a lot more terrifying than the actual experience of eating it. 

Right behind the Balut Guy is one of Little Manila’s most beloved bakeries, Krystal’s Cafe + Pastry Shop (69-02 Roosevelt Avenue). The double-decker establishment has everything you could want in an authentically Filipino dining experience; counters filled with vivid pies and cakes on the first floor and a bountiful buffet with savory fare like chicken adobo and kare-kare (oxtail peanut stew) that’s the embodiment of gut-busting right above it (plus a karaoke machine that’s put to good use practically every night). I sampled everything from a slice of buko (young coconut custard) pie to an ube (purple yam) cake roll to pastillas de leche, a traditional Filipino candy made out of condensed milk. To go, I grabbed a cup of halo-halo topped off with a miniature slice of leche flan.

Photo by Jess Bender

One cannot solely survive on sweets—trust me, I’ve tried—so something slightly more savory was in order. Cut to House of Inasal (65-14 Roosevelt Avenue). Chef-owner Ricardo Aguirre already had a prominent career under his belt when he decided to open Inasal in 2014; he attended the Culinary Institute of America and had stints working the line at Craftbar and Nobu before age 30 (speaking of, I’ve got about a year and a half left to get to his level of professional epicness). Now he’s modernizing the concept of Filipino comfort food for the hungry masses—seriously, I’ve never seen a dining room that packed at the early-bird hour of 5 p.m. during my time in Queens. Recommended are the kwek-kwek—a dozen deep-fried quail eggs that has replaced the humble Scotch egg as my favorite bar food with a yolk—and the grilled chicken leg inasal generously marinated with soy sauce, vinegar, ginger, and lemongrass. Pro tip: Doggie-bag a few eggs and the garlic rice and zesty cilantro sauce accompanying your chicken for an international breakfast of champions the next day.

Photo by Jess Bender

For something a little bit off the beaten path, Papa’s Kitchen (65-40 Woodside Avenue) truly delivers the homemade goods. I was practically the only one there, minus the man in a Knicks cap who was running the entire show both on the floor and behind the scenes, so the quiet afternoon ambience was the perfect setting for catching up on reading while slurping tangy sinigang na baboy—braised pork bathing in sour tamarind broth with stewed eggplant, okra, and tomatoes. The low-key vibe dramatically changes come evening, when mics and tunes are brought out for dinnertime sing-alongs (if you’ve noticed a trend, that’s because karaoke is a pastime in the Philippines). The capped chef personally invited me to bring a few of my Queens friends to the eatery’s family-style salu-salo se baluo dinner, described by The New York Times’s Ligaya Mishan as a “feast of stupefying proportions, presented in two winnowing baskets lined with banana leaves.” The idea of XXL portions of crispy pata (deep-fried pork trotter) is absolutely irresistible, so count me in.

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Photo courtesy of Papa’s Kitchen

I wanted to stock my pantry with a few Filipino delicacies, since it was going to be a while until I made a return trip to Little Manila, so one final pit stop at Phil-Am Foods (40-03 70th Street) before ascending to the 7 platform was vital. This place looks like your typical Queens corner mart upon first glance—fully stocked shelves of spices, canned sardines, and Spam are prominently displayed throughout—but closer investigation determined that it was anything but. A few of the rare Filipino goods I discovered included jars of jackfruit and coconut gelatin, bags of sweet spaghetti sauce, salty shrimp flakes, five types of chicharrones, a wall of sweet bread buns, frozen cassava and banana leaves, buko pandan salad, and gallons of ube ice cream. I’m not exaggerating when I say I brought three bottles of banana sauce and a 50-pack of frozen chicken lumpia back to Manhattan with me.

Photo by Jess Bender