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A Sampaguita Grows in Brooklyn

Seven years in, a Brooklyn restaurateur looks to reinvent and expand.

Illustration of F.O.B. Brooklyn's exterior by Tim Le

To add a fryer, or not to add a fryer, that is the question on Armando Litiatco’s mind. Litiatco is the co-founder and head chef of F.O.B. Brooklyn, a Filipino restaurant, which for the past seven years, has served inihaw on Smith and Degraw to Brooklynites and beyond.

F.O.B. has undergone something of a quiet reinvention these past few months. Recently, Litiatco and co-founder Ahmet Kiranbay reconsidered the restaurant’s interior. They replaced the dining room’s white wooden chairs and black metal ceiling lamps with sleek, rattan-backed seats and grander, tiered chandeliers. Former wood-and-metal wall displays have given way to mirrors that reflect the new lighting and tropical wallpaper, and the oversized wooden fork and spoon that once hung near the street entrance are no longer there.

First, the interior, then the menu: Litiatco is thinking about offering lumpia, which would require adding a fryer to the kitchen. He previously abstained from offering adobo when F.O.B. first opened, but later added it to the menu after fielding requests.

“In the beginning, I felt like everybody thought Filipino food was just pancit, lumpia and adobo,” Litiatco said. “Everybody knows lumpia. I didn’t want to get into that, so I purposely didn’t get a fryer.”

First the menu, then the name: Litiatco and Kiranbay are considering alternatives to F.O.B., though they’ve yet to decide on one – and whether to change it at all.

Recently, Armando Litiatco and Ahmet Kiranbay reconsidered F.O.B.'s interior, replacing the dining room’s white wooden chairs and black metal ceiling lamps with sleek, rattan-backed seats and grander, tiered chandeliers. Photos by Robespierre Dornagon

The tectonic plates that uphold New York City’s Filipino restaurant scene have shifted since pre-pandemic times. In those days, Google Maps could have put an oversized wooden fork and spoon over Manhattan’s East Village neighborhood, where Jeepney, Maharlika and Ugly Kitchen once were, and where Mama Fina’s still is. Now, fueled in part by rising rent citywide, new generations of Filipino restaurateurs are dispersing outside of the East Village and Queens’ Little Manila.

“Since the pandemic, generally, there has been a birth of small businesses,” said Kimberly Camara, co-founder of Kora, a Filipino dessert company known for its donuts. “Filipinos are very entrepreneurial. It could also be because we're a Filipino small business, but we've seen so many Filipino small businesses come up in the last few years. The pop-up scene is thriving for Filipinos and now, the people who stayed consistent are starting to open brick-and-mortar.”

Patok by Rach, a Filipino restaurant that previously operated out of the same Long Island City kitchen where Kora currently operates, held a grand opening in October for its brick-and-mortar shop in Inwood. In January, Kalye opened on the Lower East Side. Tradisyon opened the doors to its Hell’s Kitchen joint in July 2020, just one month before Bilao on the Upper East Side.

The past few years have ushered in a small, but growing class of New York City Filipino restaurateurs. Still, Pew Research Center data suggests that nationwide, Filipino restaurants are few and far between. The study, published this past May, found that while 12 percent of all restaurants in the U.S. serve Asian food, just one percent of those establishments are Filipino.

“We’re not where we think we are,” said Nicole Ponseca, the restaurateur behind Maharlika and Jeepney and author of “I Am a Filipino: And This Is How We Cook.”

A Pew Research Center analysis from 2021 found that there are 4.2 million Filipinos living in the U.S. as of 2019 – a figure that makes Filipinos and Filipino-Americans the third-largest, Asian-origin group in the country.

“The reality is, in direct relation to the numbers of Filipino-Americans and Filipinos in the U.S. that are counted in the Census, let alone the ones that are not, the numbers don’t add up,” Ponseca said.

Last year, Filipino fast-food chain Jollibee was recognized by Eater for having the best fried chicken in America. Jollibee is one of the fastest-growing fast-food chains in America, with plans to have 500 stores in North America by 2027. Great progress towards increasing Filipino representation in the food industry is underway, though much remains to be done.

Litiatco previously abstained from offering adobo when F.O.B. first opened, but later added it to the menu after fielding requests. Photos by Robespierre Dornagon

When F.O.B. first opened in November 2016, Litiatco and Kiranbay found themselves explaining Filipino cuisine to locals, Litiatco recalled.

“People have gotten really smart to cuisine and are open to trying different things,” Litiatco said. “Filipino food is almost mainstream. People come in and know exactly what to order.”

Litiatco and Kiranbay chose to open F.O.B. in Carroll Gardens because they liked the neighborhood and didn’t want a far commute from their Brooklyn apartment.

“A lot of times, we think if we had put this in Queens, we’d do great,” Litiatco said. “I love that we bring something different to the neighborhood.”

F.O.B.’s weekday clientele is mostly local, though weekend brunch can draw a wider crowd hailing from Queens to New Jersey. On a recent Friday evening at F.O.B., this writer overheard a non-Filipino man explaining kamayan, the Filipino concept of dining with bare hands, to his friends.

“The thing about Filipino food is - excluding dinuguan and balut, for example - the flavors are not unfamiliar to the American palate,” Litiatco said. “It can be a little tangy, a little sweet, just a little spicy, but we’re not as spicy as Thai or Malaysian food. People come back for Filipino barbecue because it’s not something that was so different for them.”

Given the turning of tides that recurs within New York City’s wider restaurant scene, and the seventh anniversary of F.O.B.’s opening, it’s no wonder Litiatco has reinvention on his mind. In October 2022, he and Kiranbay opened Rana Fifteen, a Park Slope restaurant serving dishes inspired by Kiranbay’s mother’s cooking and the cuisine of his hometown, Izmir, which is on Turkey’s western coast. The restaurant is named after Kiranbay’s mother, Rana.

These days, Litiatco is thinking of opening a third Brooklyn restaurant with Kiranbay – one that focuses on the Visayan cuisine Litiatco grew up eating in his hometown of Daly City, Calif.

“We do want to grow to another Filipino restaurant, and maybe expand the menu,” Litiatco said. “I might take it to the Visayas side. My mother’s from Cebu, and I might make the new restaurant more focused on that region. They’re really big on ihawan; they call it sinugba. Their adobo is different, the way they cook is a little different. They tend to dry things out, and it’s not so saucy. I might do some of that in the new restaurant – if we do the new restaurant.”

“We do want to grow to another Filipino restaurant, and maybe expand the menu,” Litiatco said. Photos by Robespierre Dornagon

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