Pinoy pals Nicole Ponseca, Enzo Lim, Tomas Delos Reyes and Noel Cruz have been on a mission for a while to bring the Philippine cooking they knew as kids out of New York’s ethnic-food ghetto. With fresh-faced restaurants, they’ve been spreading the word to novice diners without watering anything down. Maharlika, their first venture together, combined traditional, sometimes challenging tastes with a cool downtown vibe. Jeepney, its honky-tonk sequel, offers a more immersive ethnographic journey, a roughing-it trip with rich rewards.
The restaurant is named for a ramshackle form of public transport: surplus U.S. Army jeeps bedazzled with racing stripes, flashing lights and the occasional cheesecake photo hung like a centerfold in a truck driver’s cab. The back room of the spot pays tribute, with aluminum walls covered in glamour shots of Filipino babes. And the food and drink served inside are as much exaltations of lowbrow nostalgia—of the street eats and dive bars of urban life in the East Asian archipelago.
Everything comes with a story behind it, which all of the owners—Lim works the bar; Ponseca, Delos Reyes and Cruz take turns in the dining room—are eager to share. They might regale you with memories of the Manila saloons that inspired the beer snacks, or pulutans, that go down so well here with a chilled San Miguel—the tender braised tripe served in golden strips like fried calamari, the chewy nuggets of sweet, sticky tocino (a meaty pork jerky soaked in 7UP).
Some things on chef Miguel Trinidad’s menu of family-style eats might be an acquired taste, depending on your threshold for pungent, fermented flavors. Pancit Malabok, seafood-packed noodles soaked in squid ink and shrimp paste, delivers a pretty intense one-two punch to the palate. Most dishes, though, are more likely to make converts of adventurous diners discovering them here for the first time.
Filipino parents convince their kids to eat dinguan—pork shoulder slow-simmered in pig’s blood—by telling them that chocolate is the secret ingredient. You won’t need subterfuge to fall for Jeepney’s rich version, tangy with vinegar and a splash of beer. The bulalo, a sort Philippine pot-au-feu, is just as restorative, its beautifully viscous bone broth poured over roasted marrow and falling-apart short ribs.
The best way to get an overview of the restaurant’s full range of funky flavors is to sign up for the Thursday-night-only Kamayan Feast, a utensil-free extravaganza (literal translation: eat with your hands). Before you sit down at your banana-leaf-covered table—you’ll need four diners at least—the staff builds a foodscape of preordered dishes, a gorgeous display on and around a literal mountain of extra-fragrant garlic rice. The dampa fry—terrifically crispy whole fried snapper steeped in ginger, garlic and soy—makes an excellent centerpiece. There might be tender stewed pork in coconut curry (Bicol Express) tucked beneath that fish tail and fat links of extra succulent sweet-savory pork sausage (longganisa). Whatever you choose, portions are huge, the price tag a bargain (at $40 a head), and the dirty-hands dining plenty of fun.
It’s these kinds of warming offerings that make this young restaurant team’s efforts so appealing. For all their work spreading the word about the country’s food culture, the Philippine government ought to be paying them a stipend—you won’t find better goodwill ambassadors.
Eat this: Fried tripe, dinguan, bulalo, dampa fry, Bicol Express
Drink this: The restaurant, which doesn’t have a full liquor license, serves saccharine beer and wine cocktails that are best avoided unless you’re a serious sweet tooth. Stick to the canned San Miguel—a refreshing lager, and the most popular beer in the Philippines—or the citrusy Hitachino white ale on tap.
Conversation piece: The restaurant’s decor is by Philippines-born, Brooklyn-based artist Anthony Castro, who covered the back room with half-naked pinups and a depiction of cockfighting roosters.