The word “bilao” connotes abundance. Often associated with hefty meals good enough for a family, this native oversized platter holds food that’s substantial and abundant enough for sharing. In New York City, a new Filipino restaurant with the same name does just that.
While many entrepreneurs have been cautious about opening new businesses during the pandemic, some soldier on, seeing opportunity in the crisis. Three of them (yes, three) are Filipino nurses who, noticing a lack of Filipino restaurants that cater to thousands of frontliners like them, decided to open Bilao, a restaurant in the Upper East Side that serves Pinoy comfort food.
Opened in August by Jude Canela, Maricris Dinopol and Joan Calanog, with chef Boji Asuncion holding fort in the kitchen, Bilao has so far been successful in its mission to feed the Filipino medical community in the area. With over 60 dishes on its menu, including classics like crispy pata, sisig and kare-kare, the restaurant has been described by restaurant critics including the New York Times’ Pete Wells as unassuming and unthreatening to established Filipino restaurants in NYC. And yet, Bilao’s charm, Wells points out, is in the abundance of its servings.
“There are other kitchens whose detail work is finer than Bilao’s, whose array of condiments is more diverse,” he said in a recent review.
“But if you want an abundance of Filipino food that you can get down with, if an entire deep-fried pork knuckle sounds like a good start, if you are happiest when you have just stabbed a fork into some murky stew or soup and haven’t yet figured out just what it is you’ve speared on the end, then Bilao may be just the place for you.”
He is, of course, referring to crispy pata, as any self-respecting Filipino diner would have deduced by now.
Eater’s senior critic Robert Sietsema, just like many Filipino nurses who go to Bilao after their shifts, is enraptured by its silog—that’s served all day, of course.
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“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,” he said of the all-day staple of fried rice served with eggs and a protein of choice, usually beef tapa, native sausages or dried fish.
Bilao’s chef Asuncion who hails from Batangas—a culinary destination in itself known for bulalo, tapa, tulingan and coffee—chose not to focus on any regional cooking but to highlight “specialties” a Filipino family might serve should a foreign visitor set foot in their household.
There’s goto and arroz caldo from the merienda side of the menu (although we all know this would suffice as breakfast or any other meal, for that matter); pinakbet and laing for vegetable entrees; and chicken inasal, adobo, Bicol express and an elusive beef pares (you’ll have to call in advance to ask if it’s available) for mains.
Bilao is open from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day. Its founders, who work the night shift at Mount Sinai Hospital get off at 7 a.m. and go directly to the restaurant, welcomed by one of their own—people in scrubs—awaiting a filling first or last meal of the day.
In case, you’ve no idea what that’s like: ProPublica estimates that one in every four New York-New Jersey residents with Filipino ancestry is a medical professional.
So yes, the three nurses may have struck a gold mine after all—and amid a pandemic at that.
Photos courtesy of Bilao NYC
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