Jul 17, 2024

Mama Fina’s specialty, pork sisig served hot with rice on sizzling cast-iron pans. Photo courtesy of Mama Fina’s House of Filipino Sisig Facebook page.

Sisig in cosmopolitan New York is as unheard of as halo-halo in Alaska. But elevate the Filipino dish and you’ll find it in good company with other hip eateries in eclectic East Village in New York City.

 Mama Fina’s House of Filipino Sisig earned positive reviews on New York Times this July, just months after it opened its New York City restaurant in January. Owners Samuel and Carmen Sta Maria opened the first Mama Fina’s in New Jersey 14 years ago.

Named after Carmen’s mother Delfina Dolor of Bicol, chef Carmen arrived in the United States in year 2000 missing her mother’s cooking. Carmen hardly cooked at all but missing Filipino food was enough to meticulously replicate her mother’s recipes.

Ligaya Mishan, food critic and Hungry City columnist for the New York Times, waxed poetic about the quintessential Filipino pulutan: “Eating sisig leaves you parched and depleted, and still you can’t stop.”

Instead of pig’s brain to provide the dish body, Mama Fina’s version uses cream. Mishan, herself raised in a household familiar with the sights and smells of a Filipino kitchen, thanks to her Filipino mother, describes the dish further, “There’s a trickle of vinegar and lemon in lieu of calamansi, but salt is in ascendance.”

Mama Fina’s sisig comes in pork, squid, tuna, bangus (milk fish), chicken and tofu varieties. Instead of using parts of the pig’s head, chef Carmen uses pork belly and chicharron for the pork sisig. But Mishan swears by the other varieties: “pusit (squid), so thoroughly broken down, it’s impossible to distinguish arm from mantle, but tender and distinctly marine; bangus (milkfish), light and ready to flake; and tuna, rich and verging on beefy.”

Other dishes on Mama Fina’s menu are the sour soup sinigang, beef a la pobre and palabok, whose recipe Mishan describes as “stocks of long-simmered pork and shrimp heads and shells make a thick gravy over rice noodles, with a staccato crush of chicharron and flakes of tinapa (smoked fish) above.”

Also on the menu are the often misunderstood Filipino spaghetti, whose sweetness is kept in check by chef Carmen and the “unsparing in funk” kare-kare accompanied by bagoong alamang (fermented shrimp paste).

Mishan declared undying love for the leche flan. She recounts, “But I loved best leche flan, a small plateau of custard that sways gently at the touch, under a veil of caramel. Ms. Sta Maria lets the caramel go further than usual, closer to the edge of burned. In a lesser hand, it could easily tip into bitterness. Instead, it’s better than sweet; it’s dark and deep, and I am still dreaming of it.”

Mama Fina’s House of Filipino Sisig is located on 167 Avenue A between 10th and 11th streets in New York City.

Managing Editor
Rachel Ramos-Reid started writing for magazines and newspapers when she was still a junior at the University of the Philippines’ Communication degree program majoring in Journalism. She continued to write in a public relations/corporate communications capacity in various private and government offices until moving out of the country in 1997 to work as Programme Officer for the arts and culture branch of the Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organization (SEAMEO-SPAFA) in Bangkok, Thailand. At the end of her term, Rachel found herself immigrating to Canada in the year 2000 and again searching for new beginnings. Currently she is the Executive Assistant to the North Island College’s Board of Governors in a part-time capacity.