Filipino cuisine has been a major aspect of East Village dining lately, as it was in the ’80s and ’90s. In the past decades, the northern reaches of the neighborhood were filled with Filipino restaurants, partly as a result of the influx of immigrant doctors and nurses recruited by Beth Israel, the Eye and Ear Infirmary, and other area hospitals. The last of those spots was Elvie’s Turo Turo, which closed in 2009. Today, many Manhattan Filipino restaurants — like the acclaimed Jeepney — are different, more in a bar and bistro vein, with invented cocktails and tweaked recipes and platings.
Don’t get me wrong, places like Jeepney, Marharlika, and Ugly Kitchen are great, but it was a delight to see the recent opening of Mama Fina’s at 167 Avenue A, south of East 11th Street — where Filipino fare is served in a more casual counter-service setting and with fewer twists, in some ways resembling the older but now-shuttered Filipino restaurants that once populated East Village.
Calling itself the “House of Filipino Sisig,” Mama Fina’s constitutes a branch of an Elmwood Park, New Jersey institution, open since 2005. Though the East Village menu isn’t exactly like the original, the restaurants share a chef and co-founder, Aming Sta Maria, who also goes by Carmen. She runs it with her husband Samuel Sta Maria; their last name is pronounced “Santamaria.”
Just inside the front door, find a bar with a point of purchase device mounted at its center, though there’s no liquor license yet. Beside it, a series of chalkboards lists the regular menu and a daily special or two. The method of ordering is unusual: You walk up to the bar, pick your food without giving a name or receiving a number or table marker, then go down a hallway cobbled with paving stones. With wrought-iron light fixtures and giant wood beams, the dining room feels like the hold of a sailing ship.
The dishes arrive piecemeal, delivered either by the staffer who took the order or someone from the kitchen, or even the chef herself. Sometimes the runner is confused as to where a dish should go. First to arrive at our two-top was one of the all-day breakfasts ($15), one called longsilog featuring a sweet and spicy sausage called longanisa, along with two fried eggs, wonderful garlic fried rice, and a tomato-and-onion salad.
Other breakfast choices include smoked fish, marinated beef, and pork chunks in sauce. Next to arrive were lumpia Shanghai, just-fried spring rolls with crisp wrappers, a coarse pork filling, and a thick orange dipping sauce, a shareable bargain at $8. We’d skipped over the noodle and over-rice sections of the menu, so next to hit the table was one of the highlights of Filipino cuisine, kare kare ($22). This stew of oxtails in peanut gravy, almost African in flavor, comes topped with green beans and okra. It was exquisite, sided with a chunky and fishy condiment.
Then the namesake sisig arrived, one of a series of iron skillet presentations ($17) that arrive sizzling, creating a commotion in the dining room. The most famous is made with pork, but chicken, squid, tuna, milkfish, and tofu are other possibilities. The one we ordered is composed of pig parts chopped fine, certainly including some pig ear, which gives the richly flavored heap an audible crunch.
Indeed, richness is a feature of most of the menu at Mama Fina’s, which also offers barbecued pork and chicken, enormous roast pig feet, fried squid, snow peas sautéed with garlic and onions, and lechon kawali, a pork belly boiled and then fried.
The four desserts on the chalkboard were not yet available on our early evening visit, but the chef whipped up a bowl of shaved ice dotted with corn kernels and saturated with coconut milk, a version of the street food snack mais con hielo. It provided a fine conclusion to the meal, mainly because it wasn’t too sweet, though it did induce brain freeze.
Though service is still a work in progress at Mama Fina’s, the selection of stand-out traditional dishes at affordable prices make it a place worth keeping around in the growing Filipino landscape of NYC.