It’s Not Ugly If It’s Delicious
Why Aris Tuazon is probably the most important Filipino-American chef in New York City right now
When Ugly Kitchen opened the East Village a decade ago, it was immediately accepted as a solid dive bar that happened to serve Filipino dishes. Today, however, it is known as a bastion of traditional and delicious Filipino food that happen to serve alcohol. And this is mainly due to the unbreakable passion and talent of Chef Aris Tuazon.
In a time when young Filipino-American chefs are starting to make waves with their modern approach to the cuisine, Chef Aris has become the lone voice in the wilderness proclaiming the gospel of tradition.
“If we want to educate people about Filipino food,” Chef Aris said during a recent visit by the Filipino-American Press Club of New York at his restaurant, ”we should start with the original and traditional recipes.”
He has a point. A very valid one, as a matter of fact. Consider the recipe for one of the quintessential Filipino dishes, Kare-Kare – a meat stew made with peanut sauce and garnished by vegetables and paired with fermented shrimp paste also known as Bagoong.
Filipino grandmas would use any combination of meats from ox-tails to cow’s feet to pig knuckles, even organ meats and chicken. They would boil the meats until tender, make the peanut sauce using ground peanuts and thickened with freshly milled rice flour, combine and then simmer. When done, they add the steamed or boiled greens and eggplant. That’s it.
Now, there are Filipino restaurants that serve this in a myriad of ways to high acclaim from foodies and culinary scribes. Some serve this in noodle form like Pad Thai, while others have deconstructed the dish and turned it into spring roll filling.
These are truly novel and creative ideas but perhaps, not the proper way to introduce the cuisine to the world.
At Ugly Kitchen, Chef Aris stays true to the book. Kare-Kare is done and served the granny way. Adobo is not tucked in between soft pillowy buns or corn tortillas like tacos or burritos. Isaw, or grilled chicken intestines are served in their full spirally goodness, wrapped around bamboo skewers . They are never chopped nor hidden with herbs and sauce to make it appealing to sensitive eaters. You want Isaw? Then you need to have it in its authentic street food form. No questions. Crispy Pata or deep fried pig leg? You get exactly that. Deep fried pig leg with crunchy trotters sitting on top of pearly white China. No apologies. What about Balut or boiled duck eggs with embryo? Yup. Served verbatim.
It is understandable that this sort of OG Philosophy is probably too risky, especially for a location like the East Village, which is frequented by a younger crowd often associated to picky eaters, juicers, root eaters, vegans, and PETA fans. But keep in mind that Ugly Kitchen has been in existence for a decade so they are doing something right.
Anthony Bourdain once said something about the beauty of Korean cuisine. He said that the key to its success is that fact that Korean chefs do not care about being accepted by the world. They serve their food they way it’s served and enjoyed in the homeland. If the world loves it, then that is a bonus rather than the main prize. They cook for their own.
And this is why Chef Aris is the most important Filipino-American chef in New York today. Not because he doesn’t care about being embraced by the world. In fact, it’s the exact opposite. He care so much about the food and the culture that in the event the world turns it’s gaze on Filipino food, it gets the best version of it. But what if they don’t? To him, the answer is always: “They will.”
Ugly Kitchen is located at 103 1st Avenue, NYC.