Pinoy street food has become the go-to snack of many Filipinos when they crave for a pick-me-up. Their love for the classic sweet and savory fishballs, kikiam, and kwek-kwek keeps growing over time, so much so that it began transcending countries. In particular, the US.
Case in point: the So Sarap NYC food cart, where several New York-based foodies have been forming lengthy queues at.
Its Chinese co-owner, Sebastien Shan, reveals in this interview with PhilSTAR Life how they got their plans off the ground amid the pandemic.
“We first launched on August 9, 2020, in Soho, NYC. We originally wanted to start at the beginning of June, but due to the pandemic, our plans were postponed,” Sebatien says. “We planned to roll out around the five boroughs—Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens, and Staten Island. Like any mobile food cart vendor, we wanted to make our way around.”
As luck would have it, Sebastien and his Filipino co-owner Virgilio Jr. Navarro were invited by a friend to set up their kariton at Kabisera Café, a shop selling authentic Filipino delicacies in Allen Street, New York City.
Sebastien continues, “We were in the streets of Soho promoting our food cart when a friend referred us to park at Kabisera Café. And that’s when more requests for us to pop up at different locations came about.”
“It’s been working out for both parties. Our lines just keep increasing tremendously every week. We have a few non-Filipinos try here and there. It’s always nice to see their response to our delicacies. We’re very grateful for the support everyone has been showing us,” he states.
Spreading the Filipino culture
30-year-old Sebastien and 34-year-old Virgilio Jr., or “VJ” to his family friends, have been living in the United States since they were kids. It was VJ’s younger sister who introduced them to each other. Sebastian recalls, “VJ's sister is one of my best friends, and VJ is like an older brother to me. We went to the same high school.”
Putting up a small business came to mind after VJ had his share of backbreaking experiences being a restaurant employee. As for the quirky concept of a mobile isawan, Sebastian says that it was inspired by VJ’s father, who used to sell street food in the Philippines.
“Vj’s dad is the one with the experience. He used to sell street food with his parents,” Sebastian explains. “Chinese street food isn’t too far either. However, VJ’s dad is the one who introduced us to it and he’s the one with all the recipes to the marinades and sauces. He even showed us how to thoroughly clean and prep them.”
So Sarap NYC’s menu consists of uniquely Pinoy barbeques, such as the adidas or chicken feet, magwheels or pork intestines, isaw na manok or chicken intestines, helmet or chicken head, Betamax or pork or chicken blood formed into cubes, balunbalunan or chicken gizzard, and walkman or pork ears.
They also serve the classic fishballs, kwek-kwek (quail eggs wrapped in flour), and kikiam (squid nuggets). It all becomes a feast for the palette when dipped in their jars of Filipino sauces labeled as matamis (sweet), suka (vinegar), tamis-aghang (sweet and spicy), and maanghang (spicy).
Those who are lucky could also score the ice candy, taho, and balut that the Pinoy pop-up serves occasionally.
According to Sebastien, So Sarap NYC is driven by its desire to open the world to the richness and palatability of Filipino food.
He expounds, “VJ’s goal is to spread the culture. Most Asian cuisines such as Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Thai are known and accepted worldwide. He wants to put Filipino culture in the spotlight. I would encourage him every time, and still do.”
Like any business owner, Sebastian and VJ find it challenging to operate their startup during the pandemic. But the new entrepreneurs have come to a resolution to take things one day at a time.
“Definitely, we try to abide by the rules, trying to practice social distancing, making sure we’re all wearing face masks, and most importantly, having to do major crowd control,” Sebastian says. “We are constantly adjusting our service just to comply with the protocols. We even had to prevent customers from crowding the cart and dipping in the sauce jars, just like how you would see back in the Philippines. We’re improving on things as we go and learn every day.”
Sebastien concludes the interview with advice for people who wishes to launch a business during the pandemic: “Just go for it. Put your all in it and go for it. It’s either now or never.”