Manila on the Hudson: Filipino Businesses, Culture and Foods Flourish in Jersey City

Photo Mark Dye, © Harmony Media, NJ

One of Erwin Santos’ fondest memories of growing up is the bags of jasmine rice in his family’s Filipino grocery store on Newark Avenue in the Five Corners neighborhood.

The stacks of rice bags were only four feet tall but Santos, as a small child, thought they looked like towering mountains. He and his younger sister and cousins would spend many hours climbing up the piles of rice bags and then sliding back down.

“You were the king of the mountain and then you tried to push people off,” Santos says, recalling the memory with a smile.

Phil-Am Food, the grocery store where Santos spent his childhood, has grown from a modest storefront more than 30 years ago to a sprawling market that he now runs. Phil-Am was one of the first Filipino-owned businesses in the Five Corners along with the Philippine Bread House, famous for its cakes in exotic flavors like ube, a type of purple yam, and its ensaymadas, a buttery, sweet brioche.

These pioneering stores spawned more Filipino-owned businesses and cafes along Newark Avenue and a side shoot around West Side Avenue, constituting what many people in Jersey City call a Little Manila.

The two corridors pale in comparison to the Filipino enclaves in New York City and California, but they serve a fairly large community of Filipinos who call Jersey City home. Nearly 20,000 of the city’s residents are Filipino, and there are more than 85,000 Filipinos in the state, according to Census data.

Filipinos are such an integral part of Jersey City that Manila Avenue was named after the Philippines’ capital city. A bust of a Filipino soldier is located at Manila Avenue and Second Street, which is called Philippine Plaza, and honors Filipino veterans of all American wars.

A statue of Jose Rizal, the Philippines’ foremost national hero, stands at a park bearing his name, located at Columbus Drive and Brunswick Avenue. Rizal is famous for publicizing the corruption and abuses during Philippines’ Spanish Colonial era in the late 19th century. Filipinos celebrated what would have been Rizal’s 150th birthday and Philippines’ 113 years of independence from Spain with city officials, including Mayor Jerramiah Healy, at the park last summer.

At the Jersey City Free Public Library, actors have also recreated the 1896 trial where Rizal was sentenced to death for fomenting revolution against the ruling Spaniards. Back at the Five Corners in the early 1970s, Santos says the area around his family’s store had many more Polish and Italian families and businesses and not as many Filipinos.

Angelina Ferrer, Santos’ aunt, says the neighborhood back then “didn’t seem safe” and that unruly teenagers would go into the grocery store and steal candy and bananas. But the neighborhood has since gotten better, she says, and over the years, Filipino businesses expanded on Newark Avenue and around the city – reflecting the growth of the community.

The clutch of Filipino businesses around Newark Avenue include restaurants, cafes and even a branch of the Philippine National Bank, where people can wire money to relatives back home. Besides Phil-Am Food, Santos’ relatives have gone into other businesses such as a wholesale company, Max’s of Manila – a famous Filipino fried chicken chain – and Casa Victoria, which Ferrer runs, a décor store that doubles as a bakery-cafe.

Photo Mark Dye, © Harmony Media, NJ

Santos says his business has boomed at Phil-Am, which draws people from up and down the East Coast, as far away as Maryland and Connecticut. They are drawn to the wide variety of hard-to-find Filipino staples on his shelves, such as the different varieties of soy sauce and vinegar.

“People would just take the road down,” says Santos, who believes Phil-Am Food to be the largest Filipino grocery store on the East Coast. “They would say, ‘Look at this. I can’t believe they have this!’” Santos says he has even shipped food to Indiana, where a customer once had a hankering for frozen durian, a spiky, green fruit famous for its aroma of rotten onions and gym socks. He also sends packages to homesick Filipino soldiers at overseas American military bases.

“I am giving them a taste of home,” Santos says of the soldiers, who order off the Phil-Am website.

Even chains in the neighborhood, like the Dunkin Donuts at Summit and Magnolia avenues, have become meeting places for older Filipino men, a spot where they can shoot the breeze and gossip, says Homer Delcastillo, 62, a retired warehouse worker. “Jersey City is friendly to Filipinos,” Delcastillo says, rattling off the city’s benefits: public transportation, proximity to New York City and airports and the thriving Filipino community. On Sundays, he prays at Saint John the Baptist Roman Catholic Church on John F. Kennedy Boulevard near the Five Corners, which boasts a large clock tower and has numerous Filipino parishioners.

And the city recently got another notable Filipino restaurant, a Jollibee on Danforth Avenue. Jollibee, a beloved Filipino fast food franchise, is the equivalent of America’s McDonald’s.

Freddy Panes, in the Five Corners on a recent afternoon, is meeting local business owners and spreading the word about his new publication, My Pinoy World, a free newspaper geared toward Filipinos in the United States and Canada.

“This is a field trip for us,” says Panes, a Cherry Hill resident in town with his wife, a friend and relatives. “This is like going back home, but in an American setting.”

To Panes, Cherry Hill seems like a sleepy provincial town in the Philippines, but Jersey City is Manila, in terms of the Filipino community and the businesses concentrated here.

“There are so many Filipinos! I wish I could move here,” he says with a laugh.

Panes, himself the father of three sons, forbade spoken English in his home in order to keep ties to their home country and traditions.

“I always told them you have to be proud to be Filipino,” Panes says.

Santos, the Phil-Am owner, worries that as the community and local businesses continue to thrive, Filipinos adapting so readily to the American way of life could eventually lose some of their cultural identity.

Photo Mark Dye, © Harmony Media, NJ

“A Filipino can go to any country and adapt. We adapt so well, but unfortunately we lose our identity a little bit,” Santos says.

Growing up, his father would always remind him to stay true to his roots. “You are an American,” his father would tell him, “but your heritage is Filipino and you can never lose that.

Filipino Cuisine For Dummies

Filipino food is a mix of Malaysian, Chinese and Spanish with some American influence – all reflecting the history of the archipelago, which has seen waves of Chinese immigrants and conquest by Spanish conquistadors an the American military over hundreds of years.

It has a lower profile than other Asian cuisines, Erwin Santos says, because there tends to be different variations for dishes such as adobo, a stew of chicken or pork in vinegar that is considered the national dish. One version can incorporate coconut milk or none at all. Another has soy sauce. Filipino food also tends to get a bad rap because the dishes served at restaurants are usually oily and include a lot of pork, Santos says.
Most of the food in Filipino restaurants and cafes in Jersey City are displayed in steam buffet tables or turo turo style, which means, “point-point” – people can “point” out what food they want on their plates to the server.

Santos recommends first-timers try adobo over rice, any pork dishes, such as roasted lechon, and any type of noodle entrees, or pancit. Egg rolls, pork or vegetarian, are often a big hit with newbies, along with turon, plaintains in rice wrappers. And, of course, Filipino pastries.

Phil-Am Food
683 Newark Avenue

This sprawling grocery store offers reasonably priced produce, snacks and a wide selection of Filipino pantry items such as the different types of vinegar that line the shelves, from sugar cane to coconut water spiced with hot peppers. A cafe in the back serves a generous plate lunch for $5.70, which includes two dishes, rice or noodles, dessert, and a free drink.

Photo Mark Dye, © Harmony Media, NJ

Max’s of Manila
687 Newark Avenue

This famous restaurant franchise from the Philippines serves up its signature fried chicken, noodle dishes, soups, salads and breakfast specials.

Casa Victoria
691 Newark Avenue

This storefront has a steam table offering traditional Filipino meals and a bakery counter filled with treats such as empanadas and sweets. The store even sells Filipino furniture, decor, and the Barong, a formal embroidered shirt made of translucent fibers that is typically worn by men at special occasions.

Red Ribbon BakeShop
591 Summit Avenue

This famous Filipino bakery chain serves cakes, pastries, bread rolls and light meals. Cakes come in flavors like Black Forest, coffee and more exotic offerings like ube macapuno – purple yam chiffon with young coconut pieces. Custom cakes can be ordered for special occasions.

Photo Mark Dye, © Harmony Media, NJ

Casa Manila
665 Newark Avenue

You can easily spot this restaurant by the colorful sign on the glass storefront. It serves traditional Filipino food such as chicken adobo and turon, which are fried plaintains in a rice wrapper. On a recent visit, it was serving skewers of pork barbecue lacquered in a sticky sweet and savory sauce.

Fiesta Grill
819 West Side Avenue

Fiesta Grill’s Newark Avenue location is a typical Filipino mom and pop restaurant that offers a wide selection of dishes from its steam table. You can get cripsy pata or deep fried pork knuckle and noodles dishes like pancit canton. A decent plate of food can be had for under $10. The West Side Avenue location has a larger, more formal dining room that can accommodate 200 people. Work on your cha cha, the official Filipino party dance, at its ballroom on the weekends.

Victory Chicken House and Buffet House
537a West Side Avenue

Victory’s first location, on West Side Avenue, is a small restaurant serving typical Filipino dishes, but its second outpost, Victory Buffet House, which opened in September on Newark Avenue, also offers Italian, Mexican, Korean and Japanese food. But Filipino cuisine still takes center stage with a short order menu of adobo, dried squid and fish. On a recent visit to the Newark location, the buffet table also featured salads and fresh fruit, a rare sight at Filipino cafes.

Photo Mark Dye, © Harmony Media, NJ

Philippine Bread House
530 Newark Avenue

This bakery offers delicious cakes and pastries incorporating exotic Filipino flavors such as green pandan leaves, purple ube yam and coconut. It also has Filipino treats such as polvorón – a crumbly, shortbread wrapped in colorful cellophane – and is well known for its pan de sal, a subtly sweet bread roll, and their ensaymadas, a buttery, addictive brioche dusted with sugar and cheese flakes. There is a small cafe in the back that serves hot drinks to go. Bonus: you can order a whole roast suckling pig here too.

American Pinoy Food Mart
530 Newark Avenue

Located next to the Philippine Bread House, this grocery store is small but still offers hard to find Filipino food delicacies. You can pick up balut, the boiled half-formed embryo of a duck or chicken still in its eggshell. Crack one open and sip the broth inside before shooting the innards in your mouth. The best ones are of younger chicks who haven’t formed their feathers yet.

Little Quiapo
530 Newark Avenue

This tiny restaurant, located on the same lot as the Philippine Bread House and American Pinoy Food Mart, serves food buffet-style but you can also order fresh plates of food like pancit palabok, noodles in an orange sauce topped with slices of boiled egg, fish flakes, and spring onions. You can also order their halo halo, a dessert with shaved ice, fruit, red beans, pieces of flan, and sweet condensed milk.

393 Danforth Avenue

Ever since Jollibee, Philippines’ answer to McDonald’s, opened this summer, long lines of people have snaked out the door during peak hours. Some waiting for more than an hour and parking becoming a nightmare. It’s popular because the global fast food chain has a special, nostalgic hold on the hearts of most Filipinos. It’s a little taste of Filipino pop culture, and this is the first and only New Jersey location for this global chain. It has another location in Queens, and another will open in Virginia this fall for a total of three outposts on the East Coast. Most of the chains’ American restaurants are on the West Coast.

Order crowd-pleasers such as their halo halo dessert, peach mango pie, and fried chicken. Breakfast platters include Spam, weird canned meat to most but a delicious treat to many Asians, not just Filipinos. The typical sweet Filipino spaghetti is an acquired taste.

This article appeared in NEW magazine (now JCI Magazine). © Harmony Media, NJ. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced without written permission.

Photos Mark Dye © Harmony Media, NJ

an artist, writer and power tool maven living in Newark. She used to cover crime for the Star-Ledger and now hustles as a freelance reporter, mostly for Patch, and does private art commissions.