New York City’s first restaurant dedicated to Filipino barbecue may have been Ihawan (40-06 70th Street, near Roosevelt Avenue), founded in Woodside’s Little Manila in 1997, currently co-owned and managed by Jacqueline Bacani.
Filipino barbecue evolved into its present form in the 1950s: Pieces of pork, chicken, or beef (or sometimes, their offal) were marinated in a solution of soy sauce, banana ketchup, and calamansi (a tiny lime) or 7Up, grilled over charcoal for a smoky flavor, and then served with sharp vinegar, creating a collision of sweet and sour flavors.
Known in Tagalog as ihaw-ihaw (grilled), it may have originated in the 16th century when the Spanish brought the concept from the Caribbean. On the other hand, it could have come when satays — themselves carried by Muslim traders from the Middle East — were introduced from adjacent Indonesia. Yanks perhaps had something to do with it during the era of American colonization (1898-1946), and subsequently when troops were stationed there until 1992, during which time ketchup, barbecue sauce, Spam, some snack foods, and American sodas became popular.
When I first went to Ihawan years ago, the dining room was located on the second floor and one had to pass an open kitchen selling carryout, up a twisting stairway, then through a beauty parlor before reaching the dining room. When I arrived with a couple of friends recently for a revisit, the beauty parlor had been moved and the dining room renovated and refurbished with brick-like wall panels and green tablecloths. Posters admonish diners to eat with their fingers.
Naturally, we first concentrated on the barbecue. Chicken and pork were available as individual skewers ($4.50 each), their lacquer shining and fragrant. The chicken was the most impressive, tender and full of poultry taste, with the vinegar dip providing a welcome slap across the face. No sleepy food here; everything proved to be full of sharp flavors
Other forms of pork barbecue were available as plates served with either white rice or garlic rice. Pork belly came cut like a comb, so single bites could be pulled off with the fingers, each incorporating crunchy skin and chewy rind. The pork chop meal ($11) didn’t come on a skewer, two chops that, with the rice, provided a very satisfying repast. Wiping our lips and fingers daintily with napkins, we reflected that ihaw-ihaw is a barbecue tradition unlike any other, the meats sweet, fatty, and assertively smoky.
We didn’t stop there, since Ihawan mounts a full Filipino menu of nearly 70 dishes. We ordered pinakbet ($11), a cornucopia of eggplant, orange squash, bitter melon, and green beans that could be plucked right off the top of the heap. The vegetables, along with a couple of shrimp and some shreds of pork, were bathed in a bright pink sauce of fermented shrimp — a striking dish not quite like any other. Next, we ordered a whole fried pompano (referred to as a cage fish on the menu), one eye peeping up at us through a chunky sauce of pineapple, red and yellow bell peppers, and shredded scallions, which seemed like a sweet-and-sour dish from China.
All during our meal, we’d been nibbling at a plate of apps that included wonderful spring rolls called lumpia Shanghai, crisp pork belly something like chicharrónes, and fried calamari that sported a disappointingly fleecy coating, making it squishy instead of crunchy.
Last we tried an entire pork shank ($20) the size of a delivery van that must have weighed three pounds. It was flattened and roasted so that layers of crisp brown skin alternated with wobbly white fat. The occasional short bone lurked in the shreddable and delicious flesh underneath. This must be one of the world’s richest dishes, and we could have ganged up on it as our entire meal, dipping pieces daintily in the soy, onion, and white vinegar sauce on the side.
Ihawan offers lots of fresh-fruit drinks to wash your meal down; my favorite was a cantaloupe beverage with strings of orange fruit that made their way up the straw. When it comes to the end of your meal, though, there are several choices for dessert that include a Spanish pastry called yemas, as well as several beverages mixing things like bananas with crushed ice in a spoonable milkshake: The clear choice is the famous halo-halo ($8.50).
Ensconced in a tall glass, it features fruits, beans, colorful jellies, crushed ice, and even bobbing cubes of flan immersed in crushed ice and coconut milk, with a scoop of purple yam (ube) whip on top, it will dazzle your eyes and delight your stomach, so that you won’t know which bite to spoon up next — but beware of brain freeze!