Unhatched ducklings make for pretty good eating. Don’t take my word for it—try one, boiled in its shell, at Jeepney, the newest Filipino restaurant to join the Maharlika family in the East Village.
Break the top open and sip from your egg ($4). Think of the impossibly pure broth you get when you poach a whole, unroasted bird—don’t think amniotic fluid and don’t look down, because if you examine the tiny, scaly thing inside, folded up like a sleeping dragon, you might lose your nerve when it comes time to spoon up the duckling and put it in your mouth. Fine, discard it in the provided ramekin if it’s freaking you out with its partially developed tail feathers; the best part of the young balut is what’s left over, a soft yolk and veined egg white, hot and rich right out of the shell.
Jeepney bills itself as a modern Filipino gastropub, but with massive portions of regional dishes, it’s a bit more traditional than it lets on. You’ll find Miguel Trinidad’s sturdy rendition of pinakbet ($16), the Ilocano stew of pork and vegetables from the northern tip of Luzon, studded with green half-moons of bitter melon—an extraordinarily grim and medicinal-tasting vegetable, far more challenging to enjoy than some sweet embryonic bird. A slow-roasted pork shoulder ($15) with roots in Bicol is made with Jeepney’s own longaniza sausage and pickled chiles.
Patis, the Pinoy fish sauce, is available throughout your meal so you can season your food as you go along, though as a rule these heavy, fatty dishes will prefer a dab of vinegar to any additional salt. The oddly named “defeated” chicken ($18) is a little dry in an anise and black bean sauce, served with an almost-candied pig’s foot and slow-poached egg. It tempers out nicely with the vinegar dip, bright with sliced red and green chiles. Jeepney’s arroz caldo ($6) is lovely, tasting of golden-fried garlic, but with the texture of silky grits. It comes with lemons to squeeze over—though the fried tripe on top is tricky to cut when the sharpest thing you’ve got is the edge of a spoon.
So use your fingers to pick things up. Jeepney isn’t trying to be elegant—you don’t have to, either. Servers routinely straighten out wobbly tables with wads of paper napkins shoved under their feet. When littered with pork belly and dried-up fish, tabletops are wiped down with wet, smelly rags from the kitchen. Cocktails are weak and sweet, served in little plastic tumblers, but this food calls for beer, and in vast quantities.
The space on First Avenue is colorful and loud, decorated with vintage pinups. On a recent evening, a beautiful blond East Village drag queen and her date sat under huge images of topless women in the back room, taking phone photos of their pork ribs in super-sour tamarind broth—the night’s special—and of each other. A young couple moaned about work as they shared a fine dessert of hot tofu and chewy tapioca pearls in pink ginger syrup ($6). By 9 p.m., the restaurant was buzzing, comfortably full, and the waitress was greeting many of her tables in Tagalog.
Service is caring, and the staff is keen to explain unfamiliar ingredients and rituals. Sometimes, though, even they aren’t sure. A waitress insisted that the house-made kropek, Filipino-style puffed shrimp chips, were not made with shrimp. With what, then? She couldn’t say.
Portions at Jeepney are monstrous, even the ones with lower prices, but you can still defeat the defeated chicken: Take what’s left home to eat the next day, Pinoy-style. Pull the remaining meat from the bones and stir it over the heat with leftover rice and a little water to make your own bastardized arroz caldo. Simmer the chicken carcass and demolished pig’s foot for a half hour, then strain the gently spiced broth to sip alongside your breakfast, traditionally, like a fortified, meaty tea. You’ll find that even Jeepney’s leftovers will make enough to serve two.
For more restaurant coverage, check out our food blog, Fork in the Road, at voicefoodblog.com. Follow us on Twitter @ForkintheRoadVV.