Knuckle Heads


“That looks like a truck ran over it,” the cooking instructor from Mexico City observed. The pork knuckle had just arrived, a giant flattened blob of flesh, bones sticking out every which way, shrouded in golden skin. Loud crunching was all that could be heard around the table as we excitedly tore the dermis away—gobbling as we went—to reveal tender veins of meat in shades ranging from light to dark gray, interspersed with globs of snowy fat. “Crispy pata” ($7.95) is king of the menu, a dish that could be served at hundred-dollar joints in Manhattan and still be praised with the same enthusiasm. Alongside came a saucer topped off with a sweet-sour dip of white vinegar, bay leaf, and whole black peppercorns, betraying the entrée’s Spanish origins.

Made from pig’s knee and the surrounding flesh, crispy pata is so good that I was soon on the phone recruiting other friends to try it. Over the course of two weeks, we demolished it three times with a dozen different diners, and not one of them has ceased raving about it since. And the pata is just one of the bravado performances of a little Philippine spot in Jackson Heights called Karihan ni Tata Bino, a name that might be rendered in English, “The Roadside Snack Shack of Uncle Bino.” An agreeable mural of a thatched hut surrounded by bent palms puts you in a bucolic mood and leads you across a short catwalk to the restaurant’s front door. Inside, the decor is Chinese, featuring splayed paper fans, delicate wooden lighting fixtures, and walls painted a strange shade of green, with images of Catholic saints spread throughout.

Flaunting its Chinese, Malay, Spanish, American, and even Mexican underpinnings (Spain administered its Philippine colony via Mexico), the menu has something for everyone—except maybe vegetarians. Even the most vegetable-inspired selections incorporate salty fish sauce or bits of meat. A case in point is laing ($6), a sweet swamp of taro leaves sauced with coconut milk and little nuggets of beef, tasting distinctly African. While you won’t find any salads at Tata Bino’s, lumpiang sariwa ($4.50) provides a fine substitute—shredded carrots, napa cabbage, and long beans wrapped in rice-flour crepes, drenched in a light peanut sauce.

Another peanut-driven fave is kare-kare ($8.25), a stew featuring big rounds of oxtail, hunks of slender Asian eggplant, snips of long bean, and strips of honeycomb beef tripe. On paper, it’s an ungainly combo; in real life, a dish of power and harmony. Instead of being gluey, the peanut sauce is light and fluid, thanks to the admixture of rice starch. Pancit ($6.50) is a Chinese import, masses of thin egg noodles rife with tidbits of pork, vegetable, and sweet red Chinese sausage.

Philippine menus are often a minefield of organ meats, with kidney, liver, and heart sometimes dumped helter-skelter into a single dish. While the variety meat component is not as obvious at Tata Bino as it is at, say, nearby Ihawan, you’ll still find a magnificent rendition of the wildly alliterative sizzling sisig ($7.50), a cast-iron platter that hisses, “You don’t dare eat me” as it arrives. But the combo of pig ears and liver is so adeptly seasoned, and the melding of chewy and skanky so engaging, I bet you’ll find yourself licking the plate clean.