By Neil Khilwani
When my friend Richard invited me to grab Filipino food with him and a few other friends, I had no choice but to accept his kind offer. Mainly because my original plans for the day had fallen through, leaving me disappointed and without purpose. But I was also enticed that this excursion involved two of my favorite things at college: exploring NYC with friends and trying new, delicious foods.
We were taking the D train, but half of us live off-campus, and the other half live in two different dorms, so we thought it would be best if our rendezvous point would be the metro north gate Fordham Road. In no time, we were on the D train en route to our selected destination.
We soon arrived at Tompkins Square Station. While the end goal was to eat at this restaurant called Mama Finas near Tompkins Square Park, we had an hour to kill before our reservation. So, we thought it would be best to walk around the neighborhood and maybe capture a few pictures to serenade the moment. We found this street reasonably close to Tompkins Square Park that was blocked off to traffic due to outdoor dining. Aside from the assortment of fancy restaurants in the background, the street had a picturesque view of the skyline. Our friend, Matt, became the designated photographer. He patiently snapped individual photos of each of us. Then we had this very well dressed waiter wearing a white dress shirt and vest at an Italian restaurant get a group shot of all of us. Now that we had our photos for the night, it was time to do some more exploring.
We found ourselves in the East Village on the street with some fascinating shops. There was a Ukrainian restaurant to which one of my friends commented, “I think we’re in Little Ukraine.” No disrespect to Ukraine, but my first thought was, “There’s a Little Ukraine in NYC?” Walking down the street, we found an Italian bakery called Veniero’s and another Italian shop. It looked like something straight out of Arthur Avenue. Veniero’s is very famous and has been open since 1894. From the outside, the deserts looked incredible. It is just one of those places that you can tell has some of the city’s best food. I say this not having tried any of the food there, but if they have been open since 1894, clearly they are doing something right.
Walking further down the street, we came across a Masjid, which was very busy. This makes sense since it was Friday. Across the Masjid were a series of halal shops that are very reminiscent of something you would see on Hillside Avenue in Queens.
It felt like we had been transported to three different distinct areas of the world and even two other boroughs in ten minutes. The East Village is truly a gem.
Finally, it was time for our dinner reservations. It was enjoyable walking around the area, but my stomach was yelling at me to feed it.
Mama Fina’s is an absolute marvel within Manhattan. How many places in Manhattan can claim they are serving authentic Filipino food? Probably not many. When you enter, you are greeted by wooden dining tables and wooden floors, but in a way that is comfy and alluring rather than tacky. The decorations are simple, spiritual, and Filipino all at once.
The menu was boldly written on a wall that towers over you as soon as you arrive inside. Reading the menu, I was met with many unfamiliar terms such as Sisig and halo-halo. I am sorry for the Filipinos reading this for my previous ignorance. Thankfully, we were meeting up with one of Rich’s friends, who is actually from Manilla. He knew exactly what to order, and we followed his guidance. As someone who has taken non-South Asian people to Indian restaurants before, I understand the burden that we placed on him. Not only are you expected to order all of the food, but people assume that you know every little detail about the food you order in terms of how they cook it and every single ingredient in it. When our sherpa Mark was asked what was precisely in the Sisig we ordered or how they made the patis, and he said he was not certain since he did not graduate from Filipino culinary school, I felt his pain.
Everything we ate was delicious. The Sisig was crunchy and flavorful. We tried this soup that had green beans and one stray okra that was sour, but captivating. We had Filipina egg rolls with pork that taste exactly like any other egg roll dish you would find at an Asian restaurant. It does not mean it was not delicious because it certainly was. My favorite dish of the night, by far, were these pork bbq skewers. If you ever go to Mama Fina’s, make sure you get the pork sisig and the skewers. You can thank me later and our comrade, who enlightened us by ordering it for us. Thank you, Mark.
For dessert, we had flan and halo-halo. The flan was excellent, much like your typical flan at any other restaurant. The halo-halo is shaved ice topped with ice cream and some other surprises that I will elaborate on after talking about the ice cream. There was a giant scoop of this purple ice cream on top of the shaved ice. When I see purple ice cream, which is not often, I do not even know what kind of flavor it could be. Perhaps blueberry? And that is a stretch. It turns out it was purple yam ice cream, and before you say anything, know it was some of the best ice cream I have had in a long time. As I dug further into this deep pool of shaved ice, I found bits of corn and red bean. Yes, corn and red beans in an iced dessert. I was not too fond of these inclusions, but I understand why it is there.
In the end, we were all left full, happy, and glad that we spent our time here. We made great jokes, had interesting conversations, saw the beauty of the East Village, and tried some excellent food that reminded us why New York City is the most special place in the world. Where else can you experience all of this in one night?