Our latest installment of Quick Bites brings us to the Upper East Side for Filipino food brought to you by frontline workers.
This is the craziest pandemic origin story I've heard so far. As COVID-19 was tearing through town early this year, a trio of Filipino nurses at Mt. Sinai Hospital felt frustrated by the lack of good food options after their shifts were done. But rather than settling for a mediocre panini or whatever, they set about remedying the situation by opening their own restaurant, called Bilao.
Mind you, Maricris Dinopol, Jude Canela, and Joan Calanog didn't quit their day jobs at the hospital; they just added the role of "pandemic restaurateur" to their already packed twelve-hour work day. And this isn't some half-ass undertaking. Bilao first started serving in August and takes full advantage of its outdoor seating possibilities with tables set up along the sidewalk and in a tented curbside pen across the First Avenue bike lane.
There's room for about 25 guests at a time outside—at least double what they might have fit inside during pre-COVID times—and every table was full last Thursday night. In fact, Dinopol told me that they're full almost every night, as the place has proven to be quite popular with "hospital alley" employees and local families.
The chef at Bilao is Boji Asuncion, a friend of Dinopol's brother from Luzon, and he does an excellent job with a lengthy menu. There are five different Silogs, for example, the classic Filipino breakfast that's lively and filling enough to work just fine no matter what time of day you eat it. Each version comes with fried eggs, garlic rice, and your choice of meat. I went with the Tinapasilog, which features a whole "fried smoked" milkfish, and it was excellent, especially when dipped or doused with the vinegary sauce.
Tripe fans, of which I am most definitely one, will not want to miss the Goto, a thick rice porridge well-seasoned with garlic, ginger, pepper, and what appears to be strands of saffron, all hiding an abundance of tender offal in its depths. You'll find this large and hearty bowl in the Merienda, or "snacks," section of menu, as well as another seemingly full-meal dish, Pansit Palabok, which starts with a plate of spaghetti-sized rice noodles covered in a bright orange shrimp sauce and adds whole shrimps, a thick stripe of smoked fish flakes called tinapa, and another of ground chicharron. It's a striking, and delicious, plate of food.
On Thursday the kitchen had run through its prepped supply of chopped-up pig ears, jowls, and liver, so no Sizzling Sisig for me. Not wanting to miss out a second time on one of my favorite dishes I arrived earlier in the evening on Saturday and was rewarded with a fully-loaded platter of the stuff, which acquired a beautiful crackle on the bottom after loudly sizzling for just a moment or so at the table. Equally enormous and satisfying was the Kare-Kare, a deep bowl of thick peanut sauce laden with fatty oxtail, slabs of beef, and pieces of tripe.
With loads of really first-rate Filipino food—there are about twenty other dishes on the menu that looked good too—in an unexpected place, Bilao is a huge win for the Upper East Side. Go now before it gets too cold to sit outside.
Bilao is located at 1437 First Avenue, between 74th and 75th Streets, and is currently open on Sunday through Thursday from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m., and on Friday and Saturday from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. (212-650-0010; bilaonyc.com)