Dinner and a Song: Papa's Kitchen Serves up Fine Filipino
A flat screen television perches over the diminutive dining room at Papa's Kitchen, rolling a loop of generic stock footage under a title prompting you to "please select a song." Along with the menu, owner Beth Roa brings a microphone and a well worn song book to each table. While there is no wine list at Papa's, there are over a thousand songs to choose from—it's up to you to decide what pairs well with pork.
In the Philippines and at Papa's, karaoke is not a gimmicky sideshow for diners to gawk at, but a deeply ingrained part of a culture that values the ability to carry a tune. Even though recent press has brought a fair share of visiting Manhattanites looking to belt Bonnie Tyler, the majority of the native Woodside vocalists are queuing up to sing Sinatra. Beyond the entertainment though, the restaurant offers Filipino fare with a deep reverence for tradition, as Beth explains, "these are all Papa's recipes."
Start with an order of Dynamite ($7.95), tightly wound lumpia that are threaded with thin juliennes of jalapeno. The occasional roll will pack the pith or seed making for an extra incendiary punch—a sort of appetizer Russian roulette. The dynamite, along with a six pack from the corner bodega (Papa's is BYO), and the aforementioned song list should be enough to sustain your table while you wait for the rest of your meal. And patience is important at Papa's; the impossibly tiny kitchen is manned only by Beth's brother Miguel, who prepares the fairly extensive menu with little more than a four-burner electric stove.
A strong argument can be made that the most iconic Filipino dish is Chicken Adobo ($8.99), of which Papa's offers a platonic ideal. Thighs and drums braised with garlic and soy are balanced with a vinegar tang. The braising liquid that pools at the bottom of the banana leaf offers the most complete amalgam of the ingredients; a satisfying meal could be made of just the jus over rice. The tender cuts of chicken receive a similar treatment in the Apritada ($8.99), but with a sauce sweetened by red bell pepper.
Less common flavors are found in the Pancit Palabok ($8.95), a veritable mountain of glass vermicelli noodles slathered in a garlicky annatto shrimp paste, replete with fermented funk. Adventurous eaters might be disappointed by the absence of balut on the menu, but offal and variety meat enthusiasts will take pleasure in the Dinuguan (pig snout and pork blood stew, $8.99) or Crispy Pata (pork trotter, $14.99).
Proteins on the menu mostly arrive as stews and soups like the kare-kare ($12.99) of beef with eggplant and peanut butter, but even their vegetable focused dishes tend toward hearty and filling. The laing ($10.99) melds together taro leaves, coconut milk, ginger, crab stick, and chilies; a sort of Southeast asian creamed spinach that you'll be tempted to eat by the spoonful. Sitaw n Kalabasa ($8.99) features wonderfully tender chunks of butternut squash steeped in a rich and sweet coconut milk sauce.
As is expected, the slow cooked dishes produce intensely flavored sauces that you'll be ladling over piles of rice, so don't be surprised if you fill up quickly. You'll want to over order though; these are the types of leftovers that age well in the fridge.
There are few modern Filipino restaurants in Manhattan, but a satisfying traditional chicken adobo almost certainly requires a trip on the 7 train to Woodside or Flushing. There is good food at Krystal's Cafe and Ihawan, both a few blocks away, but my vote is for Papa's Kitchen, a worthy destination for so many reasons: the unavoidably intimate service, the endless parade of surprisingly sincere karaoke performances, and food that really sings.