When it appeared on the Upper East Side nearly two months ago, Bilao was one of those plucky restaurants that dared to open in the midst of the pandemic. But maybe its timing wasn’t so bad after all. As a waitress told me on my first visit, “We are near several hospitals fighting the virus, and lots of the people working there are Filipinos.”
Bilao, meaning basket in Tagalog, is located near the corner of First Avenue and 75th Street, comprising a compact premises with a front that swings open to the street, and a very plain brick interior decorated with grain-winnowing basketry. The chef, Boji Asuncion, comes from Batangas on the island of Luzon, 100 kilometers due south of Manila. The coastal city is known for its coffee, peanut brittle, and little smoked fish called tinapa.
While not particularly focused on regional specialties, Bilao’s menu provides one of the best overviews of the collective national cuisine that NYC has yet seen, and proves the durability and appeal of the Philippine dining scene here, even as East Village bistros like Maharlika have been closing. Happily, since Philippine breakfasts are delicious, Bilao serves all three meals all day, opening most days at 8 a.m.
The classic breakfast combinations with the suffix “silog” are a particular delight. Tosilog ($13.50) features a sprawling plate of garlic rice, fried eggs, sliced tomatoes, and a dense hillock of tocino — cubed, cured, and sweetened pork belly. A small bowl of pink vinegar is provided for dipping and dumping. In other versions of this culinary tour de force on Bilao’s breakfast menu, soy-marinated beef, Philippine sausage, and smoked or marinated milkfish replace pork belly.
Really, this breakfast is so good and perfectly prepared, with its runny egg yolks serving as sauce, that you wouldn’t need any other reason to eat at Bilao in the morning. But there are plenty of attractions on the breakfast bill of fare. Philippine food owes much to Chinese, aboriginal Malay, American, and Spanish cuisine, the latter two the result of colonialism. Congee is one Chinese contribution that’s been memorably adapted in the Philippines.
Known as goto ($11), it’s a rice gruel in which individual grains are still visible, with flavors of garlic and ginger predominating. Dredging around in the depths, you’ll find swatches of the softest and palest beef stomach tripe imaginable, lending more texture than flavor. As if the dish weren’t tasty enough, safflowers (“like a cheap type of saffron,” the waitress observed, eyes twinkling) were scattered across the top, radiating little yellow pools of mellowness.
Altogether, there are over 60 substantial dishes comprising all three daily meals at Bilao, perhaps too many for all the choices to be exceptional, but those that a companion and I tried on two visits achieved a high standard. Most dishes come with a choice of plain rice, coconut rice, or garlic rice. Do I have to tell you to pick garlic, dotted with grains that have been fried to brown in oil infused with garlic? I’m a sucker for any sauce made of peanuts, as in the kare kare, a stew with the counterintuitive pairing of oxtails and whole green beans, which made my heart leap. If nothing else, it demonstrates a commonality of Philippine and West African cuisines.
One of the showiest dishes on the main-course menu goes by the alliterative name of sizzling sisig ($17), a dish so popular that it has spawned its own restaurant in the East Village, Mama Fina’s. Proving that Bilao has no intention of pulling its punches where offal is concerned, the dish consists of pig parts finely minced into a fragrant hash that arrives sputtering at the table, including ears, jowls, and liver, with a heap of ground-up skin on the side. The agreeable flavor may be described as loamy and slightly funky, and who knows what other organ meats find their way into the glistening, semi-crunchy, gelatinous heap?
If you’re a fan of chicken in its myriad permutations, inasal may be a new one on you. Associated with the city of Bacolod, the bird is first soaked in a marinade of coconut vinegar, chiles, the miniature green citrus fruit called calamansi, and the yellowing agent annatto, before being grilled. The marinade renders the flesh pleasantly bouncy with a subtle flavor that makes the dish taste more assertively of chicken and the barnyard.
A short list of desserts is fielded, among them the cakey, the custardy, and the jelly-like. Buko pandan, the most compelling, is tinted a shade of green that will make you sad that summer is gone, even though you still may have enjoyable meals in the sheltered curbside dining area, cars and trucks groaning by on First Avenue. For the more fainthearted, there are tables on the sidewalk, too.
This jelly dessert features pandan, a leafy herb known in English by the unlovely name of screwpine. Awash in coconut milk, the bowl squirms with a julienne of firm jellies something like baby eels, with a delicate flavor that conjures a forest when the floor is covered with pine needles. It’s like a short vacation to the Catskills.