Inside N.J.’s Filipino foodie paradise, where a city sizzles with authentic eats – NJ.com

Chop Suey at Little Quiapo Restaurant in Jersey City on Saturday, July 9, 2022John Jones | For NJ Advance Media
When Imelda Ruga left her native Philippines in 2004 to visit family in New Jersey, she only expected to stay for a few months. She’s been here ever since.
Like thousands of Filipino immigrants, Ruga found a home away from home in Jersey City, specifically its Little Manila neighborhood — a vibrant enclave of Southeast Asian culture comprising more than 16,000 Filipinos, New Jersey’s second-highest such population (after Bergenfield).
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“When I first came to Jersey City, it felt like a little Filipino town,” said Ruga, a professional nanny in New York City. “At the time, my English wasn’t the best, but almost everywhere I turned or every Filipino place I visited, there was someone who spoke my native tongue or understood what I was saying.”
For more than half a century, Filipinos have flocked to the city’s West Side neighborhood and gathered around bustling Newark Avenue, largely spurred by the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which ended the cap on how many immigrants were allowed to enter the U.S. Meanwhile, New York and New Jersey were short on nurses — one of Filipinos’ leading professions — and Jersey City served as a prime relocation spot, due to its proximity to several hospitals, including those across the river, but with cheaper rent and inexpensive train rides.
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As Filipino families settled in, their culture began to inject new flavor into the already diverse city, mixing with established Hispanic and South Asian communities. In downtown Jersey City, there’s Manila Avenue, a section of Grove Street renamed in 1980 for the country’s capital, along which resides Philippine Plaza, a park that houses a statue of national hero Jose P. Rizal and a memorial honoring Filipinos soldiers who fought in the Vietnam War.
And of course, the city overflows with authentic Filipino cuisine to sample, notching Jersey City as a dining destination for immigrant families around New Jersey — including my own — to savor a sense of belonging that is sometimes fleeting in other towns.
Growing up as a first-generation Filipino-American (my parents are from Manila and Pampanga) in a much more homogenous Central Jersey town, much of my childhood was spent noting differences. Virtually no one on TV looked like me, very few kids in school looked like me, and definitely no one was eating sinigang (a sour tamarind-based soup with beef and other vegetables) in the cafeteria. I remember being scared to even open the container lest a classmate comment on the funky smell.
So when my parents — my mom a nurse, my dad an engineer, neither speaking very much English — and I would drive to Jersey City to visit friends and relatives, it was an escape to our little piece of the Philippines tucked alongside the Hudson River.
But back to the food: Our go-to place was and is Little Quiapo on Newark Avenue. Owned by Filipino-American Elizabeth Atendido, the addictive and highly authentic eatery has served the Jersey City community since 1992.
Jeremy Atendido puts the finishing touches on an order of Tapsilog at Little Quiapo Restaurant in Jersey City on Saturday, July 9, 2022John Jones | For NJ Advance Media
If you can only order one dish at Little Quiapo (named for a district in Manila), make sure it’s the tapsilog, a traditional breakfast plate of thinly-sliced beef that has been cured or dried, a fried egg and garlic rice. Tapsilog is difficult to find in New Jersey, but Little Quiapo makes it just as it tastes when I’ve eaten it in The Philippines. I sometimes substitute the beef for lechon kawali (deep-fried pork belly) for that little extra crunch.
BBQ pork at Little Quiapo Restaurant in Jersey City on Saturday, July 9, 2022John Jones | For NJ Advance Media
This spot also slings some seriously habit-forming Filipino barbecue, marinated in a variety of spices, sauces and banana ketchup — it’s a Filipino thing, don’t question it! — before being grilled to a perfect char. My family also orders the pancit, a savory noodle dish we always serve at birthday parties because it symbolizes long life, and lumpiang shanghai (Filipino spring rolls) with a side of sweet chili sauce for dipping.
A dish of Shanghai at Little Quiapo Restaurant in Jersey City on Saturday, July 9, 2022John Jones | For NJ Advance Media
“Our kitchen is purely traditional homemade Filipino cooking, there’s no fusion or fancy stuff,” Atendido says. “What our customers remember from the Philippines is what they get.”
Pastries at The Philippine Bread House in Jersey City, NJ. (Lauren Musni | NJ Advance Media)
The Philippine Bread House is another local favorite, especially for their freshly baked fluffy pandesal (Filipino bread rolls). Even when my parents weren’t in Jersey City, they’d drive out of the way to grab at least five bags of pandesal, which makes for a perfect breakfast, warmed up with a little bit of butter in the center. We’d also load up on their ensaymada (a spiral-shaped sweet yeast dough sometimes stuffed with ube, topped with sugar and grated cheese). The enduring shop also bakes my favorite cake, a moist mocha cake with a layer of a dulce de leche in every slice.
The neighborhood’s commitment to fostering and celebrating Filipino culture has inspired a new generation of Filipino-Americans to open businesses here, too.
Lloyd Ortuoste, owner of Baonanas in Jersey City, NJ. (Photography by Lloyd Ortuoste)
Lloyd Ortuoste, owner of Baonanas — a dessert shop specializing in banana pudding – grew up in Jersey City as a first-generation Filipino-American.
“I found a local Filipino community here, especially attending two very diverse schools in an even more diverse community,” Ortuoste said. “A place where it’s fine to look a little different and to have food that might smell a little funny to other people.”
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His shop began as a fundraiser to fix his car, but after overwhelming support from the community, Ortuoste and his fiance, Trisha, were able to open a storefront right in their home city on Monticello Avenue. They eventually expanded to the Harborside Financial Center in Jersey City and East Village in New York.
“We wanted to make sure to not forget not only our Filipino roots but our Jersey City roots, too,” Ortuoste says. “It’s very hard for Filipino-Americans to be rooted in their identity so I think that any chance we get is a privilege and it’s something that I hope to not take for granted.”
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Baonanas offers several Filipino-inspired flavors such as their ubenanas (combining the flavor of ube with their banana pudding), and buko pandan (a mix of young coconut, pandan leaves, and sago pearls) flavored banana pudding.
Jollibee restaurant at Journal Square PATH station in Jersey City, Friday, Feb. 12, 2021. (Reena Rose Sibayan | The Jersey Journal)
Even Filipino restaurant chains found their way into Jersey City: Jollibee, the most popular fast-food chain in the Philippines, known for their famous “juicy-licious” fried chicken and Filipino spaghetti (traditional spaghetti with the addition of sliced hot dogs and cheese); Max’s Restaurant serves classic pork sisig (sizzling vinegar pork) and Max’s crispy pata (a pork hock simmered in a marinade before being deep fried); and Red Ribbon serves the best Filipino pastries — stock up on their butter mamón (a small, light chiffon cake) or my beloved halo-halo (a shaved ice dessert meaning “mix” in tagalog).
Halo-halo at Red Ribbon Bakery in Jersey City, NJ. (Lauren Musni | NJ Advance Media)
Beyond Jersey City, Filipino representation has become more prominent in pop culture — singer Olivia Rodrigo and actors Vanessa Hudgens and Dave Bautista are among the biggest stars — leading to more non-Filipinos being curious about our cuisine and culture. It’s been featured in huge media outlets and magazines such as Food and Wine and The New York Times. There has been a huge boom of Filipino chefs opening their own restaurants around the country. Coffee shops are incorporating Filipino flavors like ube and buko pandan in their drinks.
But if you want a serious dose of the Philippines within the Garden State, Jersey City is the spot. It’s been a vital piece of my upbringing and a beautiful example of New Jersey’s diverse landscape. Mabuhay!
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Lauren Musni may be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @Laurengmusni. Find NJ.com on Facebook.
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