Choly is a month-old Filipino restaurant that occupies a walk-down space on the hopping north side of Houston Street due south of NYU. A basement may sound like unpromising real estate, but this little corner of the Village is thronged with thriving bars, restaurants, and boutiques, above and below street level.
Located at 90 W. Houston Street, near LaGuardia Place, the space was recently Railway NYC, and the front bar and back dining room remain outfitted like a railroad dining car, with a curving paneled ceiling, tongue-and-groove wainscoting, ornate copper ceiling tiles, and basket lamps like you might see on a railway platform. The only design concession to the Philippines is a pair of antique war axes — doubtlessly reproductions, but persuasive nonetheless. Don’t try running out on your check!
The owner is Soledad (“Choly”) Robillo, who hails from Davao City in the Philippines, a commercial port on the mountainous southern island of Mindanao. The city faces south toward the Indonesian island of North Sulawesi and Brunei to the west. Muslim traders crossed the area centuries ago, as did Spanish explorers: The cuisines of both groups constitute a major influence on Mindanao’s food, and the 19-item menu has things you won’t find in many of the city’s Philippine restaurants, which typically showcase the food of Manila and the island of Luzon. The chicken adobo ($22), for example, often considered the signature dish of the Philippines, is here a lively stew with poultry falling off the bone and little sauce. Most versions I’ve tried have been more tart and soupy, swimming in vinegar and soy, with poultry more firm.
This memorably delicious version has more in common with chicken curry found in Malaysia or Indonesia than the northern version. Pork is a stand-in option as well — and I’d recommend a serving of garlic rice ($4) dotted with shards of toasted garlic to go with it.
Another menu surprise is mongo: a thick stew of mung beans (a spoon stands up in it) seasoned with lots of garlic, onions, tomatoes, the ubiquitous patis (fish sauce), as well as the vegetable called moringa. One bite of this potent and nutritious porridge ($12) dotted with tidbits of pork and seafood and you may never go back to oatmeal again.
The most spectacular thing I’ve tried so far at Choly is lengua estofado ($28), a dish that evokes Spanish cooking in its ingredients and flavors. A giant strip of poached ox tongue ($28) is so tender a spoon cuts through it. It arrives in its wonderfully thin tomato poaching liquid dotted with mushrooms and black olives. Every bite is a delight, and it, too, belongs with an order of garlic rice.
Don’t miss some of the more recognizable Philippine dishes including a pork sisig that features cheeks and liver, parts of the pig supposedly discarded by American soldiers at an air force base in Angeles City according to one origin story. The version at Choly ($17) is damn near perfect, sizzling in lard in a skillet with an egg cracked atop (mix it in immediately). The odor of frying onions rises, while squiggles of mayo decorate the top like crooked roads across a lush landscape. Though listed as an appetizer, the dish could be a full meal for two, with rice or the Chinese-leaning stir-fried noodles called pancit.
Three desserts are available: a classic flan served in burnt-sugar syrup, banana-stuffed egg rolls sided with ice cream, and, best of all, the anarchic shaved-ice dessert halo-halo, filled with candied and jellied ingredients, drenched in coconut milk, and served in a parfait glass. Mixed drinks are also an option, including a ginger-pineapple margarita mocktail ($13), to which a friend added rum. For me, San Miguel Pilsen Beer ($8), brewed in Manila since 1890, is just the thing.