An Exclusive Interview with Enzo Lim of NYC’s Maharlika and Jeepney: How to Convince an American to Eat BalutJanuary 21, 2019
I am a bit too early for happy hour. The sun is still way too high up in the sky, the heat and the weather perfect for anyone lucky enough to be lying on a beach right now. Too bad I’m not at the beach. Instead, I’m scurrying to ‘Cue Modern Barbecue for an appointment, and it’s so hot that the two minutes it takes me to make my way from the parking lot has already formed beads of sweat on the tip of my nose. I hurry, thinking I was late for my interview.
As I enter the restaurant, the air-conditioning greets me with a welcome gust of frosty relief. Fortunately, my subject has yet to arrive himself. He suddenly rushes in just as I was taking my seat. Looking a bit hurried, he quickly spots me and fervently apologizes for his tardiness. He introduces himself and we shake hands, his grip is firm and strong. Clearly, this was a man who was used to working with his hands.
“I’ve been experimenting with different cocktails for 11 years.”
I crack open my notes, ready to plunge headfirst into our interview, but he stops me. He tells me to wait a minute, before he disappears behind the bar. Amidst the array of spirits that surround him, all bright colors and oddly shaped bottles, he looks at ease. It’s the place where he obviously belongs, where he’s meant to be. “I’ve been experimenting with different cocktails for 11 years,” he tells me, hands busy mixing another new creation.
Bartender-turned-restaurateur Enzo Lim is behind New York’s Maharlika and Jeepney.
Enzo Lim is the restaurateur behind New York’s famed Filipino restaurants Maharlika and Jeepney. From his humble beginnings as a bartender, Enzo has unquestionably come a long way. He has succeeded in making his mark on New York City’s notoriously fickle and hard to please food scene. “I think it’s important to understand food on their (the New Yorkers’) level,” he tells me. “Most Filipino food can look unappetizing visually, so that’s something we had to address.We built an atmosphere where people could feel at home, like we do here with our families.”
He didn’t forget his years slinging drinks from behind a bar, though. “We also introduced a bar-like vibe to Maharlika and Jeepney so that aside from the laid-back ambiance, people can also enjoy drinks and have a good chitchat. There wasn’t a scene like that in New York at the time we decided to start, so we wanted to provide that to our diners.”
Maharlika is more refined and well-mannered. Jeepney is louder and more rock-and-roll.
I have yet to have had the pleasure of stepping foot inside Maharlika or Jeepney, so I ask Enzo to describe them to me. What made each establishment special? What set them apart? “Maharlika is like the older sister, the ate. It’s a little more refined, well-mannered, and the dishes are plated in smaller portions for a la carte orders. Jeepney, on the other hand, could be the younger brother or the kuya. Or maybe the Tito Boy of the family. You know, he loves his cars, likes to drink. Jeepney is louder, more rock-and-roll.”
Enzo shares that Jeepney has been positioned as a gastropub, with portions made for sharing. Food there focuses more on providing Western takes on classic Filipino dishes. One example of such is their Menudo Pot Pie, which is sort of like an English shepherd’s pie by way of your Lola‘s kitchen. They have their own version of Pancit as well, a mix of Pancit Malabon and Palabok combined with squid ink.
How do you convince an American to eat balut?
After a couple of drinks, I zone in on the topic that had piqued my curiosity ever since I read about Jeepney’s balut-eating contests. Apparently, Enzo Lim has been able to successfully convince squeamish Americans to actually eat (and enjoy!) our nation’s favorite aphrodisiac. It’s a feat that’s almost as impressive as the three (or is it four? I forget) delicious cocktails he’s already made for us so far today.“Personally, my approach is just to tell them that it simply is a very rich-tasting egg with a smoky flavor.”
He tells me that over-explaining the balut would never work. You shouldn’t dissect each part, from the amniotic fluid soup to the “alien unborn duck” fetus, if you want a guy who doesn’t even normally have rice for dinner to eat it. “I tell them to not look down, and to just eat it like a hard-boiled egg. There’s not much of a difference except the balut tastes fattier and there’s more texture to it.”
“…the whole restaurant shouts ‘Baluuuut, baluuuut…’”
Enzo explains that the West has always had a natural curiosity towards the balut, especially with all those bizarre food shows that feature it. When put on the spot, though, only some are brave enough to try it. Others, simply chicken (duck?) out of the challenge. “One of my tactics to get people to eat balut is that when someone orders it, the whole restaurant shouts ‘Baluuuut, baluuuut…’ just like they do it here.” Think of it as the balut version of Cyma’s trademark OPA! “This creates awareness, and of course, you want to have what everyone’s having. And so far, it’s been effective,” he continues.
Success began in the form of a humble pop-up restaurant.
New York, without a doubt, is one of the most challenging cities to put up a restaurant in. Enzo tells me that it’s all about finding the proper balance and being resourceful with your opportunities. “Where to start? Well, we started at the bottom!” he laughs. “We started out tasting food and trying different dishes in our apartment’s kitchen. We were getting all these ideas (like putting up a food truck), but we also wondered where (and when) we can finally put up the restaurant we’ve always wanted. And then, we saw an opportunity—in the form of a pop-up restaurant. It worked!”
“If you can’t go the way you planned, then you just have to find another way.”
Enzo confesses that the secret it as simple as going with what presents itself naturally to you and creating opportunities for yourself along the way. “We saw an opportunity to do something, and [then later,] to do more than that. Having a pop-up store wasn’t really how we envisioned the road to be like, but it was a great way to market ourselves, and do what we wanted to do without going the typical route. If you can’t go the way you planned, then you just have to find another way.”