a street food vendor from so sarap grilling filipino barbecue on the sidewalk outside kabisera coffee shop in new york city
So Sarap Filipino street food pop-up | Photo courtesy So Sarap

New York City Is in the Middle of a Filipino Pop-Up Renaissance

Filipino cuisine is no longer "up-and-coming" in NYC. During the pandemic, Filipino pop-ups aren't just surviving—they're thriving.
Bettina Makalintal
Brooklyn, United States
October 22, 2020, 3:00pm

In a scene playing out across sidewalks all over New York City these days, the makeshift patio in front of Kabisera, a small coffee shop in Manhattan's Lower East Side, is now so bustling on the weekends that one might wonder what alternate universe the critics claiming "New York is dead" inhabit.

Over the course of the pandemic, Kabisera has become a Filipino food hub, not just for their own menu but also for a rotating cast of pop-ups that share their space. The line of people outside might be waiting for drinks from Kabisera and food from the stand on the sidewalk, as a vendor grills skewered meat over coals. To Augelyn Francisco, who owns the shop with her boyfriend Joey Payumo, Kabisera's adoption of the pop-up scene is a way to pay back the community.

Francisco started Kabisera's coffee run in April, bringing baked goods and drinks to frontline workers at dozens of hospitals using donations of food and money from the community and other businesses. Through this effort, she connected with new people and organizations, and when Kabisera began to re-open, she reached out to those new friends to offer a platform to sell their products. "It started [as] a small payback for all of our friends who have been helping us through the pandemic," she said. Through the pop-ups the shop hosts on the weekends, Francisco finds it "very beautiful" to see "how everyone here thrives from what's happening."

The specter of being "the next big thing" has hung over Filipino food in the United States since at least 2012, when chef Andrew Zimmern shared this forecast, and it shaped how American publications have covered the cuisine ever since. It is always "up-and-coming" and just on the verge of breaking through to a white American audience, though it's never clear what's needed to tip the balance before it's no longer "the next" big thing, but simply a popular part of American dining. In New York City, it's time to stop framing Filipino food as something “on the rise,' and to firmly declare it as not only here to stay, but an integral part of the community.

With options from traditional to re-invented, affordable to high-end, meaty to plant-based, pop-up to brick-and-mortar, the Filipino food scene is growing, diversifying, and even thriving—even amid a pandemic that has hammered the restaurant industry. When it comes to pop-ups in particular, the city is in the midst of a Filipino food renaissance, with so many event options some weekends that it can be hard to figure out which one to visit.

The old school Filipino joints in Queens' Little Manila and mainstays like Jeepney and Purple Yam set a baseline for Filipino food in New York, but with that basic familiarity established, new food entrepreneurs are taking more liberties with their approach, especially through pop-ups. As newcomers have entered the Filipino pop-up scene over the past seven months, joining existing projects like Flip Eats and Woldy Kusina, they've also helped diversify the city's Filipino food.

As one of 2,000 people laid off from Union Square Hospitality Group in March, Kimberly Camara started Kora, a doughnut pop-up that had a waiting list of 800 people as of last month. Lamon Lagok wants to expand the idea of Filipino food beyond lumpia and pancit through modern dishes paired with tiki drinks, drawing on the long history of Filipinos in the tiki scene. With dishes like chopped cheese silog, Big Papas Tapas makes "Filo-New Yerrr"-style breakfast bowls that riff on the formula of garlic rice, fried egg, and meat. The Dusky Kitchen describes its desserts as Milk Bar meets Red Ribbon, with nostalgic options like ube cheesecake with SkyFlakes saltine crumbles; The Boiis Co. makes cookies and balls of mochi. Mama Guava cooks Hawaiian Filipino food, while Sweet Angel Baby's brings Filipino cuisine to Ridgewood. You're not lacking for options if you're looking for Filipino food in New York.

It might seem like a bad time to start a food business, with the continued restrictions on indoor dining and predictions that as many as half of the city's restaurants could close permanently within the next year. But the rise of pandemic pop-ups makes sense, as Taste and Resy have explained: Without ties to establishments, cooks—especially those out of work—can be more flexible and creative, and the pop-up format makes their food easily accessible, at the same moment as diners look for new experiences.

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So Sarap NYC Filipino street food pop-up outside Kabisera | Photo courtesy So Sarap

Though the pandemic initially seemed to dampen launch plans for So Sarap, a new street food pop-up, it actually forced the hand of co-founders VJ Navarro and Sebastien Shan after both were furloughed from their jobs. "We were thinking like, what better time than now?" Shan said. "We're at home doing nothing. Let's just do something." Serving barbecue skewers and fried fish balls from a curbside cart just as Navarro's father did as a street food vendor in the Philippines, So Sarap is now booked for the entire month of October, with events in Manhattan and Queens.

That's, in part, a result of So Sarap having established popularity at Kabisera. To Shan's recollection, all of So Sarap's September appearances took place at the coffee shop, as a way of giving back after Francisco and Payumo welcomed them with open arms. "I think doing pop-ups is great because it's a good way for us to help small businesses, or big businesses, that have been suffering and have been hit hard," Shan said. Though pop-ups have historically been seen as a path toward traditional establishments, pandemic pop-ups can be a survival strategy.

The Lamon Lagok pop-up, for example, operates out of restaurants during their downtime. Though co-owners Gelo Honrade, CJ Lapid, and AJ Palomo were ready to go all in on a restaurant of their own, they chose to pursue pop-ups thanks to encouragement from the East Village Filipino restaurant Ugly Kitchen. (In a testament to the small world of New York's Filipino food community, I learned during reporting that my father knows Lamon Lagok's co-owners.) This model has worked well, and Lamon Lagok is now aiming to hold events every two weeks. "It's just the spirit of COVID and hospitality where people try to help each other out," said Lapid, a co-owner and a bartender who was briefly put out of work by the pandemic. "It's always a win-win thing for both parties: for us, for the establishment."

The logic of the "next big thing" tends to position food cultures, especially those outside immediate white American familiarity, as fleeting trends that have the spotlight only until something bigger and newer comes along. It implies that there isn't room for everything to succeed all at once, and that idea of scarcity can breed competition as people vie for the same rare, few spots. But New York's new Filipino pop-up scene is proof of a model that sees success as a shared effort, rooted in collaboration instead of competition.

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The patio outside Kabisera during a pop-up event | Image courtesy Craig Nisperos

At Kabisera, Francisco helps new pop-ups by tasting the food to make sure it's good; notifying sellers of interest online so they can prepare accordingly, without food waste or hungry guests; and if there's more than one vendor at once, making sure their menus don't overlap so the pop-ups aren't at odds with each other. The idea isn't for one to be the most popular pop-up, but for all of them to drive business to each other through complementary menus. Instead of a model that puts a few projects on a pedestal at the top of the scene, this network of Filipino pop-ups is making space for more people to succeed.

"That's actually what we're [trying] to create: that it's becoming stronger and louder if we go all together as one pop-up," said Francisco. "It's hard to promote if you're a single business and you're doing a pop-up, but if you are collaborating [with] four or five pop-ups, you help each other, promote each other. It will become louder."

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