What do you call a pop-up that gets a permanent home? A plop-down, perhaps? It’s a timely question, since Maharlika has gone brick-and-mortar on First Avenue in the East Village after spending much of 2011 as a temporary, roving Filipino restaurant.
The eatery is just a few blocks south of Sa Aming Nayon, another Filipino newcomer that was featured in these pages in July. While its northern neighbor specializes in casual home-style cuisine, this spot bills itself as “Filipino moderno.” Now, “moderno” is often a code word for “high prices for small portions of gentrified food,” but that’s not to say everything here has been altered for American appetites: You’ll still find balut (“third-trimester aborted duck,” as a dining companion called it) and cheese-flavored ice cream.
And though it caters to the hipicure (that’s hipster-epicure, not a geriatric medical sub-specialization), good-hearted Fil-Am charm fills this boldly decorated space. Family pictures line the bookshelves, along with cookbooks from the Pacific Rim. A chalkboard displays the Tagalog word of the day (“maharlika” means “nobility,” by the way). Service is cheery and youthful, with waiters explaining how to further accent your entrées with banana ketchup, Maggi sauce, and sugarcane vinegar.
Maharlika began as a brunch pop-up, so it’s unsurprising that the midday meals shine compared with the evening offerings (which aren’t bad, but occasionally display a certain amateurishness). Eggs Imelda ($16) has become a signature dish, reinterpreting a classic Benedict with chewy pandesal bread and calamansi hollandaise. Warm up with porridgey arroz caldo, topped with shredded chicken and saffron oil ($7). Or get a full-on feast with the tocilog ilog breakfast ($11), which contains tender strips of 7Up–cured pork tenderloin, garlic rice, and a fried egg. It’s heavy, but isn’t that why afternoon naps were invented?
After the sun goes down, the menu veers a little more experimental, tottering into fusion terrain. For some funky fun, try the longga dog ($10), which stuffs a garlicky longganisa sausage in a bun and tops it with a fat squirt of fermented shrimp-paste mayo. Follow it up with the humba ($17), a hunkering slab of fork-tender pork belly cooked in a savory black bean sauce. That, or the fancified rendition of kare-kare ($19), braised oxtail in a light peanut sauce, served with long beans.
Execution isn’t perfect throughout: Adobo might be the Philippines’ national dish, but Maharlika’s chicken concoction ($16) swims in a gloopy brown sauce, lacking the savory, vinegary bite that makes the dish a palate pleaser. Fried chicken ($16), while decent, isn’t anything beyond that. Ditto a crispy smelt appetizer ($8) and the puqui puqui ($5), a mashed eggplant-and-egg salad that, in fact, looks puke-y. Also, many entrées come without sides, so prices catapult if you yearn for some greenery on the plate.
And do save a few dollars for dessert. Lap up the silky coconut flan ($6), which jiggles like a toddler maneuvering across a bouncy castle. Better yet, double-down on that tropical fruit with a scoop of ice cream, pocked with bits of jellylike coconut ($2). Or live a little and go for the electric-orange cheese ice cream, reminiscent of both cheddar and sweetened condensed milk. Just like the $4 balut (think mushy hard-boiled egg), it sounds scarier than it tastes. Although it won’t usurp cookies and cream as my fave flavor, I appreciate encountering something I’ve never seen before. Chances are, if you visit Maharlika, you will too.