Filipino food, with its mélange of influences, from Chinese to Malay to Spanish, is often called the original fusion cuisine. And in both upscale trendy and down-home casual forms, it has long been available in New York City. But in May, the West Village got what claimed to be the “original Filipino taqueria”: a compact, fast-casual spot called 2nd City. A month later, almost as if to call that very tagline into question, a second, unrelated Filipino taqueria opened: Swell Dive, in Bed-Stuy. Other than Filipino roots and food delivered in paper boats, they have little in common.
Swell Dive, located just outside the entrance to the Bedford-Nostrand G train, has the laid-back feel of a surf bar. The lighting is dim, wooden booths line one wall, and potted plants dot a courtyard dining area out back. The bar serves beachy, fruity cocktails that, if not particularly interesting, are certainly crowd-pleasing. The menu reflects the backgrounds of owners Dennis Mendoza and Autumn Stanford, who also run nearby bakery Brooklyn Kolache Co.; dishes are Filipino meets Tex-Mex.
At the moment, only two non-taco items appear on its menu: chips and queso, and nachos. The tacos themselves are hefty and served on flour tortillas made in-house; the latter are chewy and delightful, every bit as good as their corn counterparts. Nearly every dish gets a sprinkle of French’s fried onions, a minor stroke of brilliance that adds crunch and flavor. (It’s inspired, says Mendoza, by Tex-Mex casseroles topped with the same.)
One of the best tacos, though, is served without the onions: the charred beef, whose juicy chunks of meat, marinated for at least 24 hours, one-up the tough strips so often stuffed inside steak tacos. Mendoza says he borrowed the idea from charcoal-grilled beef skewers often sold as street food in the Philippines. The chicken-fried Spam taco, for its part, unfortunately gets lost in breading, but a smoked pork sisig version — based on a dish of fatty pig parts marinated in citrus and cooked until crispy — makes for some rich, satisfying bites.
Meanwhile, 2nd City pulls from a more scattered set of influences. It’s helmed by Jordan Andino, a Filipino chef with stages at The French Laundry and Jean Georges (and appearances on TV cooking shows) under his belt. Andino tells the Voice that the place was conceived as an “upscale Chipotle” of sorts — a slick operation with efficient service, a take-out counter, and a no-cash policy. It’s also Instagram-driven, with a bright mural and suggested hashtags dotting the walls.
Despite being dubbed a taqueria, 2nd City only has one taco dish on the menu: the “Bi-Curious tacos,” two corn tortillas, one filled with butter-poached barracuda, the other with braised short rib. Both are dressed with sauteed bok choy, chunks of chicharrones, tamarind dressing, and a vinegary hot sauce. They’re juicy and tasty; at $8.95 for the palm-sized pair, they’re definitely more “upscale” than “Chipotle.” There are also two burritos, the better of which, “Plan B-Rito,” is only available on weekends. An unabashedly greasy brunch special, it’s filled with fried egg, cheddar cheese, hash browns, ham, bacon, diced avocado, and sweet longanisa sausage.
Andino says he and his partners hope to open “twenty of these [restaurants] in under a decade,” which may explain why he’s playing to popular tastes, with on-trend dishes like fried-chicken sliders, tuna poke, and pork belly bao (topped, Momofuku-style, with hoisin, pickles, and scallions). The only wholly Filipino dish is pancit, a satisfying bowl of rice noodles stir-fried with shrimp, sausage, cabbage, and salty, tangy braising liquid. Apparently chasing In-N-Out’s cult status, Andino has also created an additional “secret” menu, which includes an ube ice-cream sandwich, with slices of green pandan cake in lieu of the usual wafers; regulars earn the secret passwords for these items, which servers rigidly insist upon if you want to order them. With such tactics, Andino’s dream of building a fast-casual Filipino empire — in which social media is as important a piece of the puzzle as tacos — seems definitively under way.
1013 Bedford Avenue, Brooklyn
525 Hudson Street