Alphabet City might not be the first place you'd think to look for ingredients from the Philippines. Nevertheless, that's where you'll find the Filipino market Johnny Air Mart—on Avenue A, just south of 14th street. Ricky, the general manager, explained why: "In Stuyvesant Town, there are lot of Filipino. And nurses from NYU, Beth Israel, area hospitals, there a lot of Filipino nurses. This area is the main Filipino area [in Manhattan]."
Johnny Air Mart is an offshoot of Johnny Air, a cargo company that ships personal items and other cargo between the New York area and the Philippines. "The Cargo company has been here in the area for twenty years, this is the third location" noted Ricky. "But, the rent is getting high for a cargo store, so [the owners] decided to start a Filipino store, because there are no other Filipino stores in the area. So this is just a trial."
The trial is going well: Johnny Air Mart turns four in October, and the unassuming store has become a fixture in the community. Three of the local Filipino restaurants now procure many of their products from Ricky, and it's a hot spot for foreign students from all over Asia, not just the Philippines.
Ricky works with distributors in Queens and in New Jersey to stock his shelves (which he laid out and designed himself). Most of the ingredients come from the Philippines, though some come from Thailand, Portugal and New Zealand. The meat products—all Filipino Style—come from California. And, though the market's modest in scale, it carries all the Filipino favorites.
Ricky pointed out a few key items: pan de sal, salt bread from New Jersey, dried mangoes, both ripe and green, ("the good mangoes really come from the Philippines, which is why it's so popular"), Sky Flakes crackers, which come plain and sandwiched with condensed milk ("these are especially popular in hospitals and schools"), powdered milk candy, tins of corned beef and jars of fish (including sardines, milkfish in oil and squid in ever-popular adobo), pork rinds, noodles, shrimp paste, and—most importantly—the famous Filipino banana ketchup.
In the freezer, you'll find longanisa sausage and dumplings, smoked fish, and much-sought-after calamansi limes, which taste like a cross between tangerine and lime. There's a few favorite sweets, too: pre-steamed frozen bananas ("they're similar to plantains, you have to cook it to eat it) as well as ice creams in pandan, ube (purple yam) and a third, somewhat unusual, flavor, cheese, or "Queso Real." "Queso Real, it's popular!" Ricky laughed. He picked up a tub of ice cream. "Magnolia brand from California is sweeter; the Selecta [brand] from the Philippines is more creamy."
If you're looking for a quick bite, pick up some sticky rice and cassava in banana leaf, steamed Shu Mai dumplings, fried fish or pork buns (both Filipino and Chinese style.) Or bring home an entire prepared meal—the fridge is stocked with containers of pork adobo, bopis binagoongan (pork with shrimp paste), pancit bihon noodles, and several other traditional Filipino dishes.
On the weekends you'll find an expanded selections of sweets and snacks (such as pan de coco, yema macapuno, pastillas de leche and Hopia from the Filipino Bread House). And, every other Saturday, Ricky brings in a whole roast pig, or, lechon, which he breaks down right in the store. At $15/pound it sells quickly, so he recommends getting there early to claim your favorite bites. And if roast pig early on a Saturday is too much in the summer heat, stop in any day for a halo halo, a classic Filipino treat—a mix of fruit, ice cream, flan and crushed ice—made on the spot.