Thirty years ago, Hell’s Kitchen was a hotbed of Filipino institutions, with a Catholic church, bodegas, and a restaurant tucked behind the Port Authority called Philippine Fast Food, among other businesses and wholesalers. It was a turo-turo joint, meaning you ogled the food on a steam table and made your selection by pointing — which is what “turo-turo” means in Tagalog, one of the languages spoken in the Philippines.
Most of these are now closed, but another Filipino cafe, Tradisyon, recently appeared in the same neighborhood, seeking to occupy similar culinary ground. This time, the idiom is fast casual, with classic dishes rendered as bowls ($10.50 to $14). These dishes are poured over a choice of white rice, garlic rice, brown rice, or quinoa, the first two traditional, the second two innovative.
The owner is Joey Chanco, and Anton Dayrit and Bianca Vicente are the chefs. The premises are small and boxy, and the staff are cheerful and efficient as they deliver orders to three small tables put out on the sidewalk. With the bike lane on one side and the bustling footpath on the other, the arrangement provides ample exposure to the sights and sounds of Hell’s Kitchen along thronged Ninth Avenue.
The menu lists seven dishes, along with four sides and three ice pops for dessert. The best thing two friends and I tried one warm evening as we sat drinking canned calamansi juice — made from a miniature lime native to the Philippines — was pork adobo. Its sibling, chicken adobo, is considered the national dish of the Philippines. Surprisingly, the recipe originated in Mexico, in the days when Spain ruled its sole Asian colony via Mexico. Needless to say, Philippine cooks have extensively modified it.
The pork adobo ($12) at Tradisyon is a pork lover’s fantasy. Thick chunks of belly, not stinting on the fat, have been long-braised in vinegar, bay leaves, and chiles, among other marinade ingredients that also partly reflect Spanish and Chinese influences, in addition to Mexican ones. This marinade-turned-braising solution renders the wobbly chunks richly textured and slightly salty and sweet. The garlic rice is really the only appropriate bowl base for them.
Our second-favorite dish was sisig ($11), a recipe invented in more modern times in Angeles City, Pampanga, near an American air base. It is considered a great drinking snack. In fact, such is its importance that a restaurant in the East Village, Mama Fina’s, specializes in sisig, offering it in multiple variations. Made with pig-head parts and other offal (termed “pork hash” on the menu), the version at Tradisyon is the standard one. Among its scallions, onions, and pickles, find crunchy pig ear and bouncy pig skin, chopped fine enough that the ingredients resolve themselves into a wonderful brown slurry. I like it with white rice.
Even though the cuisine is offered in individual bowls rather than served family style, one is better off going with two or three friends and finding a safe way to share, like bringing your own paper plates. Dishes like sisig are so rich it would be difficult to finish an entire bowl by yourself, especially in warm weather. Another dense dish is listed as a side: laing ($4.95). This cooked-down puree of taro leaves comes laced with coconut milk and flavored with ginger and garlic, and constitutes a very agreeable way to eat your greens.
There are a few light dishes on Tradisyon’s menu, including chicken inasal. The quarter bird is first marinated in tamarind and then grilled, leaving the flesh moist and flavorful. A smaller light dish is lumpia ($5.95), a pair of tubular pastry rolls inspired by Chinese egg rolls, crisp and vegetable-stuffed, furnished with a vinegary dipping sauce. White vinegar, rarely seen in other Southeast Asian cuisines, is a prominent ingredient in most Filipino cooking.
One dish remains to be tried, and I can’t wait to return for it. Squid adobo ($11.50) features the decapod cooked in its own ink, and if it’s as rich as I think it might be, I’m bringing a friend to enjoy it.