“It’s like eating at your Mom’s,” my husband said as he munched the crunchy crispy pata (deep fried pork knuckles). We were not at our home. It was lunch at a Filipino bakeshop, the Pan de Sal NYC Patisserie and Resto Bar.
Located in the bustling Gramercy area, on 21st St., Pan de Sal NYC opened as a bakery three years ago. To respond to customers’ clamor for good Filipino food, owners Marissa and Henry Beck added a lunch and dinner buffet.
We walked into what looked like a Filipino bakeshop. There were mounds of pan de sal, the Filipino bun on the counter. Next to it: two kinds of suman, sticky rice logs in banana leaves, with sweet coconut sauce in small containers. Alongside were jumbo meat empanadas, with the heftiest beef-and-potato filling in a sweet, flaky and buttery pastry.
Across the cashier was a large display case filled with a dessert lovers’ dream: tiers of favorite Filipino pastries like ube (purple yam) roll, brazo de mercedes, sans rival (meringue and custard logs), chocolate cake and cupcakes of different hues, flavors, swirls of icing and sprinkles of confetti colors.
The sign above the long table read, “Lunch buffet $12 a person.” I opened the large, gleaming covers of the trays; the hot steam from the food was inviting: spicy Bicol Express tofu (all tofu in thick coconut cream with bird’s eye chilies or sili), sitaw and kalabasa in gata (long beans and squash in coconut milk), thick slices of paksiw na bangus (milkfish in vinegar stew). The second time we came the buffet had pancit bihon guisado (rice noodles with vegetables) and chicken pastel (chicken stew with a creamy sauce, sausages, potatoes). I confess, I ordered take-out after seeing the latter.
A la carte dishes included dinuguan (cubed pork pieces in vinegar and blood stew) with its tart, thick sauce a great base for dipping the soft, cloud-like putong puti (steamed rice cakes). “It’s like Auntie’s puto,” I exclaimed referring to a Kapampangan aunt’s specialty back home, as I looked around to enjoy the scenic walls painted by muralist Russ Elliott.
While dining, Marissa chatted with us as she greeted other customers. Neighborhood residents walked in for tea, takeout or gave cake orders. For all these, Marissa, a longtime nurse by profession, attended to everyone with care, charm and hospitality.
Dessert was cuchinta (sweet brown rice cakes) and brazo de Mercedes, served with good coffee. The brazo was heavenly–a divine roll of white meringue encased the gooey caramel filling. I lingered slowly on the last morsel of the sticky center within the slice, and for a moment I forgot I wasn’t home.
Pan de Sal Patisserie & Resto Bar
245 E 21 Street, New York, NY 10010
Phone: (212) 228-8273
Mon-Sun. 7:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. Breakfast, lunch, dinner.
Prices: buffet $12 (lunch); $15 (dinner); a la carte $8, $12, $15; baked goods by the slice or $30 (whole cakes)
Major credit cards, Walk-ins, reservations, catering and private parties
If you’re in midtown Manhattan, you don’t have to go far for a Filipino fix. This is the sister restaurant of Pan de Sal Patisserie. It’s on 21st Street, thus the name. It’s a small restaurant with limited seating, but packed with full flavors. If you’re looking for the all-time favorite Filipino dishes, you’ll find them here.
The only drawback: the small tables clustered tightly next to each other. There’s a chance you’ll ogle at the next customers’ entrees as theirs is served. You’ll be tempted to order the same. It happens a lot, according to Marissa Beck, owner.
Grill 21’s spicy sisig sizzles and is a bestseller. It is piping hot, wrapped in heavy foil while you hear popping sounds of what seem to be little rockets jumping through the cover. This dish consists of pork pig’s jowls and ears roasted, chopped and deep-fried. It is so fiery; you’ll need a chilled bottle of San Miguel beer to douse the flames in your belly.
The centerpiece: crispy pata. The crisp outer skin gives way to tender, juicy, fall-off-the-bone meat inside. I dipped the crunchy pork pieces in a side sauce of suka-toyo-sili-garlic (vinegar-soy-sauce-chili-garlic) and had a head rush from the pork-vinegar nirvana.
We also had fresh vegetable lumpia for starters. This is a homemade egg crepe filled with vegetables. Two different gravy sauces are offered–a peanut and a garlic sauce. I liked the garlic sauce and couldn’t stop pouring it over the burly lumpia shared by our table of three.
Portions are big and can be shared family-style, as are all Filipino dishes. Just like the large whole tilapia of fish sarciado. The three-pound fish was browned whole with head, bones and tail, served Asian-style. A salsa of tomatoes, onions and scrambled egg topped the fish. It was perfect with garlic fried rice, ordered separately.
Dessert was towering gigantic goblets of halo-halo, a mélange of sweet native fruits mixed with the shaved ice, topped with scoops of ube ice cream and crisp pinipig (native rice crispies) sprinkles.
If you long for Pinoy home cooking but can’t go further than midtown Manhattan, there’s a “home away from home” at Grill 21. But the place is tiny and has limited seating, even with the outdoor tables set up al fresco on good days. So call for reservations. Lines are long on weekends. But if you didn’t get to reserve and the place is packed, Marissa allows customers at Pan de Sal (half a mile away) to order from the Grill 21 menu. The owners are only too happy to please. They’ll make you feel right at home.
Filipino and Asian American Fusion
346 East 21st Street, New York, NY 10010 (1st and 2nd Avenues)
Phone: (212) 473-5950
Monday to Sunday 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Prices: $2, $5, $9 appetizers; $10, $13, $16 main dishes; imported brands and San Miguel Beer available.
Reservations accepted. Private parties and catering.
A Grill 21 recipe: Sarsiadong Tilapia
1 tilapia fish, 2 to 2.5 pounds whole with head, bones, tail, scaled and cleaned
1/2 tsp. salt
5 Tbs. cooking oil, divided, use 3 Tbs. for cooking fish
5 cloves garlic, minced
1 big red onion, chopped
4 medium-size tomatoes, cubed
3 Tbs. water
3 eggs, slightly beaten
1 tsp. black pepper powder
White rice, for serving
Pat fish dry with paper towels and rub with salt. Heat 3 tablespoons cooking oil and brown fish for 10 minutes on each side. Transfer fish to a serving platter and keep warm.
In skillet, add 2 Tbs. oil and sauté garlic and onion, until soft. Add tomatoes, cook for 2-3 minutes.
Add water, eggs to above and sprinkle with black pepper. Stir for another 2-3 minutes until done.
Pour over fish and serve with white rice.
Elizabeth Ann Quirino, based in New Jersey, is a journalist, food writer and member of the International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP). She blogs about Filipino home cooking and culinary travels to the Philippines on her site AsianInAmericamag.com.