Following in the footsteps of many restaurants in NYC this year, eight-year-old East Village Filipino mainstay Ugly Kitchen announced a permanent closure in mid-November due to economic hardship amid the pandemic. But chef and partner Aris Tuazon claims that the restaurant would still be open if the property’s landlord hadn’t forcibly shut him out of the space for the past three months, apparently in violation of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s ongoing emergency order staying commercial evictions during the pandemic.
According to Tuazon, the building’s landlord, Emily Chen, had the front gate of the restaurant padlocked on September 3, barring everything including Ugly Kitchen’s equipment and staffers’ personal items inside. Ugly Kitchen has not paid its $11,000-per-month rent since March, Tuazon says, but he nor his two business partners were aware that Chen was planning to padlock the shop due to nonpayment.
“We came back to the restaurant the following day [in September] and the gate was closed down and the landlord had padlocked us out,” Tuazon says. “There was no warning whatsoever.”
In the past week, the white “Ugly Kitchen” sign that is displayed on the restaurant’s black awning out front was painted over. One of the restaurant’s regular customers spotted Ugly Kitchen’s belongings, including dining room tables and kitchen equipment, piled outside on the sidewalk. Tuazon was able to recover “just a few things” from the curb, he says. A “for rent” notice has been painted on the restaurant’s front gate.
Tuazon says that he and his partners attempted repeatedly to communicate with Chen and try to reach a rent agreement that was workable for both parties, but calls have been left unanswered since September.
Chen has been Tuazon’s landlord for the entire time that Ugly Kitchen has operated at 103 First Avenue, near East 6th Street, in the East Village. “We had a great relationship before this,” Tuazon says.
When reached by phone, Chen confirmed that Ugly Kitchen has not paid its full rent since the beginning of the pandemic. “They don’t make an effort to do good business,” Chen says, noting that she saw “terrible conditions” at the restaurant. “They did not clean up,” Chen says. “They couldn’t pay the rent. It’s a nightmare.” Tuazon says that there were some issues with cleanliness in the basement over the years, “but we never argued with them about it and I don’t think that’s a valid reason to lock us out.”
Chen acknowledged padlocking the restaurant in September, but said that she thought that Cuomo’s eviction moratorium had expired before then. Cuomo has extended the moratorium several times since it was initially instated in March; as of now, commercial tenants cannot be evicted before January 1. Chen did not respond to further requests for comment.
After Chen stopped communicating with Tuazon and his partners, he says that they called 311, the city services hotline which Mayor Bill de Blasio has touted as a resource for tenants to resolve rent issues amid the pandemic. Their options, according to the hotline, were to either call 911 and get the police involved or go downtown to City Hall and file a formal complaint against Chen. They didn’t pursue either option, Tuazon says, because they were concerned that Chen may retaliate and force them to pay the months of back rent that had piled up.
“We are already broke,” he says. “We are just trying to survive. We cannot get proper legal help or anything.”
Tuazon started a GoFundMe page on November 14 after announcing on Instagram that the restaurant was struggling enormously with unpaid bills. He has raised over $9,000 on the platform, which he says will go toward paying back vendors who have outstanding invoices with the restaurant. He’s also planning to start doing catering and takeout and delivery orders from a nearby Lower East Side restaurant, Tsismis, where he’s friendly with the owners.
But as for Ugly Kitchen, it’s a demoralizing ending for Tuazon, who shepherded the restaurant for nearly a decade. He helped lay the structure for a new wave of Filipino-American restaurants in the city at Ugly Kitchen, serving top-notch versions of traditional Filipino food like sisig out of the laid-back East Village space, and creating a welcoming hangout for many in the neighborhood.
“We are proud to be among the pioneers that have broken the glass ceiling for Filipino cuisine in NYC’s dining scene and hold our head high as we end our journey knowing that there are countless new upstarts to pass the torch upon,” Tuazon wrote in a goodbye note to customers.
Looking forward, Tuazon sees a long road to recovery for restaurants in NYC as the pandemic wears on — and he’s unsure what, if any, next steps can be taken to resolve Ugly Kitchen’s apparent eviction. “I don’t know what to do anymore to be honest,” Tuazon says. “We are all beat up.”