ONE of the newcomers at the Filipino Restaurant Week this year is Asin, a restaurant in Caldwell, New Jersey, a borough in Essex County, located about 20 miles away from New York City. It is a relatively small town of 1.2-square-mile with 8,000 or so residents.
Asin is located along Bloomfield Avenue, the main shopping and dining street, which pretty much looks like Main Street USA, where locals go out for some fun and entertainment.
Queenie Banez, a dentist by profession, co owns the place with her husband, Dr. Vincent Banez. She is also the resident chef.
Passion overtook when she moved to the United States in 2012 to join her husband. Having won in national cooking competitions back home, Queenie had the opportunity to showcase Filipino cuisine in Malaysia, Bangkok and Singapore.
She started by doing some catering work until she and her husband found the right place, and eventually the right timing to open the place they have always dreamt about.
The restaurant’s bestsellers are ukoy, kare kare and crispy pata. For Filipino Restaurant Week, they introduced pinangat (crab meat wrapped in collard greens and cooked in coconut) to comply with this year’s theme highlighting coconut as an ingredient.
“We want to set our identity apart and we would like to be known as a place that serves really good, authentic, home cooked Filipino food. We just want to bring out the best in Filipino cuisine,” Banez said then.
The response to the dish has been so great that they decided to include it among their regulars and since then, it has joined their bestseller list.
But how exactly did they come up with their version of this Bicolano classic?
Vincent’s family comes from Bulacan and Bicol, and in one of their recent road trips in the homeland, they stumbled into this restaurant in Daraga, Albay that counts pinangat as their specialty. That was where the first shots of inspiration happened.
The couple realized that the dish could be a winning dish for them.
Traditionally, pinangat is a fish dish but they decided to ramp it up and added crab meat to the fish. In the Philippines, gabi leaves are used but since they are hard to find here locally, they used collard greens instead. It is then cooked and simmered in thick coconut sauce.
And the result is amazing.
“We came up with the name when we were conceptualizing the restaurant. My husband suggested Asin since it is a basic seasoning for cooking and baking, and our bodies need salt, without it we get weak,” Queenie shared.
They highlight the most popular dishes from the various regions in the Philippines like laing and the previously mentioned pinangat, which are among the dishes the Bicol region is proud of.
They have also ventured into offering healthy fare, including fish and tofu sisig and steamed vegetables.
“We have customers who are health conscious and we offer them our Go Filipino Light dishes,” she shared.
The secret to their dishes? No shortcuts, no instant mixes.
“I do everything from scratch and it does not matter if it takes hours to do so. My lolas from both sides taught me how to cook and they told me that good cooking has no short cuts. You have to do it the right way,” she explained.
In the end, Asin hopes to become that place that serves authentic Filipino cuisine, serving the taste people grew up with back home.
And indeed, among the best compliments that Queenie treasures are those diners who tell her that what they ate tasted like their grandmother’s cooking or that the adobo tasted like how their mom used to make it.
“No matter how tired I get, hearing those compliments make me happy,” she said.
The Banez couple waited for the right time to open Asin. Prior to opening, Queenie was already busy working on her catering and they realized that there was a growing interest in Filipino cuisine.
“It was really our goal to have our own restaurant and she initiated it by doing catering at first. Subsequently we have friends who were willing to venture into the business as well,” Vincent shared.
“It is my passion, I love to cook. And it makes me happy when people appreciate that. That’s why I do it with love,” she added.
People say that the first year of a restaurant is the most crucial of all and the Banez couple couldn’t help but agree, calling their first year as restaurant owners as a struggle. They are thankful to have found support along the way, from friends supporting them to diners who keep on returning and have become regulars.
They have clients who drive from Princeton and Toms River but the regulars come from Caldwell and the neighboring towns of Livingston, Montclair and Bloomfield.
“It has come to a point that when I see them here, I already know what they are going to order,” Queenie said, describing some of the clients who have become familiar to them already.