Wednesday, September 9, 2015
Two Pinoy restos operate side by side in NY
Tito Rad’s Grill has been lording it over that forked corner of Queens Boulevard and Roosevelt Avenue for nine years. And then about two months ago Kabayan restaurant opened next door, prompting some in the FilAm community to wonder how the two eateries are getting along. The situation has been described as “awkward!”
Kabayan owner Cherry Castellvi was quick to dispel any notion of a culinary competition.
“Oh no! Boyet and I are good friends,” she told The FilAm in an interview. “We’re very close; we’re OK.”
She said Kabayan was initially conceived as Eat’s Showtime by her former husband Nel Castellvi, who comes from a family of actors and showbiz personalities in the Philippines. But somewhere along way to setting up the karaoke bar, Nel fell ill.
“Eat’s Showtime never opened. I took over the lease. I decided to open a restaurant,” said Cherry, a physical therapist by profession.
She knew the restaurant business, she said. She and Nel, when they were still married, previously owned Perlas ng Silangan, which ran for 10 years in Woodside.
At Kabayan, now co-owned by Cherry and her brother Edwin Manuel, she decided to specialize in dishes from the province of Pampanga, where she comes from. She initially thought of naming her restaurant Kabalen, which means ‘friend’ in Kapampangan language. She said Kabayan boasts a variety of “Kapampangan-certified” dishes, but would consider ‘kare kare,’ ‘sisig,’ and ‘kilawin’ among the best in its menu.
“We have ‘kilawin kambing’ and ‘sisig na puso ng saging,’” she said.
“We are Kapampangan and they are Visayan, and Tito Rad’s is very well known,” continued Cherry, maintaining that all’s well in their current close-quarters setup.
She pleasantly recalled a recent incident where Kabayan was full house and ran out of ‘lumpiang shanghai.’ They ran next door to Tito Rad’s to order three servings.
“We help each other out,” said Cherry. “Boyet has a good heart.”
Boyet is Mario Albenio, who owns and operates Tito Rad’s with his wife Susan. He founded Tito Rad’s because “it’s his dream to own a restaurant,” his sister Nenette told The FilAm.
“He was a chef,” she said. “Our mother was also a good cook. We had a carinderia back home; it’s only her and one helper.”
The Albenios are from Davao and Sultan Kudarat in Cotabato. Boyet’s concept was a restaurant with one signature dish. At Tito Rad’s, that dish is none other than ‘inihaw na panga’ (grilled tuna belly or jaw), a Davao staple served burnt grilled with achara and paired with ice cold beer.
“We became famous because of this dish,” said Nenette.
When Tito Rad’s opened in 2006, she recalled how her brother had wanted to be as far away from other Filipino restaurants as possible. With its quick rise as a dining destination, Tito Rad’s — originally at a cramped 49-10 Queens Blvd. location — expanded. It moved next door to 49-12 where it seats more people and can now accommodate large gatherings.
Oddly, it was Kabayan that took over its old storefront.
“Gusto niya mapalayo sana,” said Nenette of her brother’s plans. He is averse, she said, to being in a place where Filipino eateries are “sunud-sunod or dikit-dikit.”
The Abenios were surprised when Kabayan decided to open within spitting distance.
“A lot of our customers were asking us, I said I have no idea,” said Nenette smiling. “I guess it’s OK if it’s another kind of restaurant, like a karaoke bar…pero it’s like parang tinatabihan ka.”
Nenette said Tito Rad’s has remained unshaken by the presence of Kabayan.
“We are lucky, blessed,” she said. “We have built a loyal following.”
Tito Rad’s has a reader rating of 10 out of 10 in New York magazine for ‘Highly Recommended’
By now, Filipinos have a choice without going too far: Kapampangan or Visayan cooking? ‘Inihaw na panga’ or ‘kilawin kambing’? 49-10 Queens Blvd. or 49-12? —The FilAm