Cruise Cuisine

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To understand the irregular business hours and general ad hoc nature of the Red Hook restaurant Philly Pinoy, as well as its reason for being, you first need to know that its home on Pioneer Street is a block from the pedestrian entrance to the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal, which serves as a local embarkation point for ocean liners. These are supersize ships—including the biggest ocean liner ever built, the Queen Mary 2—and when they are in port they loom over the gritty warehouses of nearby Imlay Street like reclining skyscrapers.

The ships are crewed largely by foreign nationals hired by staffing companies in their place of origin and literally shipped out to live full-time on board. The Filipinos of these crews—which make up a goodly portion—have looked forward to stops in Red Hook ever since Benjamin David opened Philly Pinoy earlier this year to cater to their hunger for the flavors of home. So on days of the week that seem picked from a hat—unless you know the cruise-liner schedule—you can find David a half-block from the terminal slinging Filipino food until it runs out.

Yet David is not Filipino, and he doesn’t even live in Brooklyn. A native of India, he now resides near Philadelphia. There David, his brother and his sister-in-law, Rowena, opened a Filipino grocery last year when Rowena, herself a Filipino, noted the lack of grocers/caterers serving the area’s immigrant population. They called their place Philly Pinoy—Pinoy being a slang term for people from the Philippines—and the shop, featuring Rowena’s cooking, was a success.

The Brooklyn outpost was born when David, who worked on cruise ships prior to emigrating, was struck with the idea of selling some of the store’s provisions—and some of his sister-in-law’s food—out of his car in Red Hook when massive ships were in port. Demand was high, and he soon upgraded to a van, and then to the modest storefront just steps from the terminal. The decor is minimal—a few knick-knacks, a boom box playing Z100—though to be honest there is not much room in there for more. The tiny shop is barely big enough for the line waiting for lunch, with walls full of chips, snacks and instant noodles imported from the Philippines, and the earnest, easy presence of David serving up Rowena’s specialties and squeezing behind the register to ring you up.

The menu—limited but ever changing—is cooked at the Pennsylvania store and then driven up by David that morning. Expect hearty vegetable dishes, like bitter melon with eggs, green beans with yam and coconut milk, and perhaps a hash-like mix of chopped hearts and livers called bopis. One often-on-offer order that comes highly recommended is dinuguan, a pig-blood-based Filipino stew made with pork offal, maybe an ear or two. “Blood stew” might sound off-putting but it is delicious—earthy with just a hint of tang. Whole fish is usually available, often mackerel, fried with a little dusting of flour. You should pick off pieces with your hands—at least according to some friendly stewards from the QM2 recently scarfing down a quick lunch. David has also been adding some Indian items from his own culinary heritage: biryani, or a tandoori chicken made on the porch grill. There are a few concessions to the meat ’n’ potatoes american palate—David will grill you a burger if you ask (though why would you?) or get you a scoop of Philadelphia water ice, which is what they call Italian ices in the City of Brotherly Love.

It’s a bootstrap operation, befitting a bootstrap story. My only complaint is that David should rechristen the operation Brooklyn Pinoy.

Photo credit:  Donny Tsang.

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