Fishball, isaw, balut, and taho are taking over the Big Apple.
If there is one thing foreign tourists shouldn’t miss out on when visiting the Philippines, it’s the street food. Sure, local restaurants offer ease and atmosphere to match their food, but it is on the sidewalks where a unique Filipino dining experience can be found. There’s this camaraderie that goes with eating street food as the young and old get together in groups for a quick and tasty bite. Students on their way home treat themselves to the turo-turo stand outside the school. Exhausted workers eat barbecue pork innards or a bowl of pares before going home. Street food is so loved by many people, it even has its own lane in Manila City.
Bringing the spirit of the humble Filipino street food to another bustling city across the world is So Sarap NYC.
Co-founded by high school buddies Virgilio Jr. (VJ) Navarro, a Filipino, and Chinese Sebastien Shan, the pop-up food stand aims to bring Filipino street food vendors to New York City and to introduce the flavors of the Philippine iconic treats. With a brand name derived from the Filipino term meaning “delicious,” New Yorkers are in for a one delectable eating experience.
“VJ used to work for restaurants like Lure Fishbar, Sessanta, Burger & Barrel, and Nobu,” VJ’s sister Whitnee Arenas tells Manila Bulletin Lifestyle. “He worked crazy hours and he just kept telling himself that he wanted to open up his own thing and introduce Filipino street food to NYC. Sebastien co-founded it and pushed the idea.”
Just imagine having a fish ball stand in Brooklyn, a balut vendor in the subway, a manong magtataho in Manhattan, and cool ice candies in the Bronx. So Sarap NYC wants to put Filipino street food in a global spotlight while giving old and new customers a great gimik vibe.
“For the majority of our customers, it brought back memories, especially for those who haven’t been back in the Philippines for years. For some, it was a new experience,” she says.
Looking for the unique ingredients is a vital step in the process of creating the classic meriendas. According to Whitnee, they source most of their ingredients in Restaurant Depot. For their specialties, they had to research and reach out to Asian vendors for the intestines, chicken feet, pork blood, quail eggs, and fertilized duck eggs.
Much like many Filipino businesses, family is at the heart of So Sarap NYC. It is also the key to keeping the authenticity of the street food they serve. Together with VJ and Sebastein are VJ’s father, Virgilio Navarro, VJ’s cousin Dexter Elevazo, VJ’s nephew Judel Elevazo, and from time to time you will see an extended Team made of family and friends.
“We’re pretty much the first Filipino street food cart here in NYC with the concept,” Whitnee says. “The taste of the sauces are so authentic, thanks to our dad’s recipes. They’re definitely close to the homeland.”
The Filipino street food stand was set to open at the beginning of summer in the city. But due to the global pandemic, their plans were pushed back.
“Our first pop-up was on Aug. 9 at Kabisera Cafe, in Lower Manhattan. We were shooting contents for our launch in early summer, but due to the pandemic, we were hesitant to roll out,” she says. “It’s been difficult to serve food in these conditions. The restaurants struggle to bring that hospitality atmosphere. Back in the Philippines it was so easy to just tusok tusok the fishball and gather around the isawan and be able to just enjoy and dip your food in the sauces. But we have to stay compliant. We reinforce wearing face masks, social distancing, and make sure no one double dips or crowds the food cart.”
The best way to spot where the pop-up food stand is heading is through their social media accounts. So Sarap NYC encourages everyone to bring their barkada, and gimik and tsimis while enjoying their Filipino eats, while, of course, adhering to safety protocols.
“As for anyone who dares to try Filipino delicacies, like the balut and isaw, it’s all about the experience,” Whitnee ends.
Facebook and Instagram: @sosarapnyc