The East Asian honky-tonk is fast becoming a food-world cliché, with hot spots in Brooklyn; Portland, Oregon; and San Francisco inspiring offshoots and imitations across the country. For every pioneering addition to the zeitgeist, a dozen knockoffs seem to be on their way.
Zak Pelaccio’s old Fatty Crew collective helped launch the trend in New York—turning diners on to funky Southeast Asian flavors with Fatty Crab back in 2005—but has since joined the process of watering it down. Pig and Khao, their latest project sans Pelaccio (who’s working on a solo venture upstate), might have seemed audacious once, but it comes across as mostly derivative today.
Run by former Top Chef contender Leah Cohen, the joint has a familiar setup, with plenty of canned beer, hot chilies and hip-hop. It’s equal parts Fatty Crab, Talde and Pok Pok, courtesy of a pigcentric menu and a jungle-shack vibe featuring bamboo inside and a concrete garden out back. Pig and Khao’s food, though, plays it right down the middle, neither particularly inventive nor anthropological as at those wildly popular restaurants. Cohen’s last job was cooking Italian at Centro Vinoteca in the West Village. But a couple of years ago she embarked on a Southeast Asian walkabout—a chef rite of passage these days—and shifted her focus to Thai and Filipino fare.
The chef, whose mother is from the Philippines, grew up with some of these flavors, but struggles to make them her own. Her spin on adobo, that country’s national stew, features an overly thin soy-vinegar sauce poured on fried quail, instead of slow-simmered with chicken and pork as it is traditionally. She’s more successful at playing it straight, as she does with the classic “sizzling sisig,” a chopped-pig’s-head-and-fried-egg breakfast, featuring fatty bits fragrant with kafir lime, ginger and chilies, beautifully caramelized, as they should be, in a cast-iron pan.
But the Thai food (a good half of the menu) could pass as standard takeout, not the work of a headlining toque. Green mango salad, with grilled chicken, dried shrimp and cashews, is nicely balanced but run-of-the-mill. And an underseasoned whole fried fish seems disconnected from the hot-sour soup it’s served in. Only the khao soi—a Chiang Mai–style curry noodle soup with chicken-thigh meat and pickled mustard greens—has much depth.
The best thing on the menu, sweet-spicy curried lamb ribs that are falling-off-the-bone tender and balanced with a garlic-spiked yogurt and savory flatbread, is neither Thai nor Filipino. It’s an original pancultural mash-up: the sort of thing we expect more from a talented chef.
Cohen, who also sees to the desserts, puts a personal stamp on Philippine halo-halo, adding rich, creamy cubes of caramelized flan to the traditional kitchen-sink mix of shaved ice, sweet plantains, evaporated milk and dried cereal. It’s that sort of touch that separates a buzzworthy newcomer from a copycat clone. Pig & Khao could use many more of them.
Eat this: Sizzling sisig, khao soi, lamb ribs, halo-halo
Drink this: The restaurant, which doesn’t have a full liquor license, serves too-sweet cocktails made with beer and fortified wine. Stick with the canned and bottled brews instead, such as a large-format Hitachino white ale served “Hong Kong style” in little rice bowls ($20).
Sit here: The best seats for watching the kitchen work are at the tall stools facing it. Big groups will want to take over the backyard—weather permitting—where there’s all-you- can-drink cheap beer from a keg for $15 per person.
Conversation piece: The backyard features work by Brooklyn artist Shaun Acton, including a light installation flashing the bright colors of the Philippine flag.
By Jay Cheshes