Restaurant Review: Lumpia Shack
Filipino restaurants have been popping up in trendy neighborhoods across the greater New York City area over the last 6 years, so there was no shortage of options when my childhood friend visited me for a long weekend. Since Sheena is a pescatarian, we narrowed in on one in particular. Lumpia Shack in West Village seemed to fit the bill, being that it’s a fast-casual, is reasonably priced, and has food that meets our dietary restrictions.
We headed there hungry for lunch on a Sunday, and surprisingly it was nearly empty. Most of the furnishings were made of unvarnished wood, and a chalkboard menu hung near the entrance listing an array of possibilities. The cheerful and knowledgeable hostess gave us time to collect our thoughts, though I’d already decided before leaving my apartment that I wanted milkfish. We settled in at the bar stools by the window, and the natural light poured onto the stacks of books about Filipino food and culture. It was very charming and we remained hopeful that the food had as much promise as the carefree ambience.
Given its name, it was necessary to order lumpia. We happily ordered the shiitake-, enoki-, and cremini-filled lumpia, garnished with truffle aioli and crushed peppers. They were small and extra crispy, and the drizzle of creamy umami and kick of spice helped to balance the flavors and textures; a delicious snack, though a pretty unconventional alternative to Lumpia Shanghai. We also ordered pancit bihon―thin glass noodles and julienne vegetables with a protein of choice. We opted for tofu, and it came topped with mixed greens and pickled radish. The very chatty hostess told us the owner’s life story, mentioning his experience in fine dining and you could see the influences in the menu. Lumpia Shack maintains classic Philippine flavor profiles, but also highlights a focus on seasonality and locally-sourced ingredients.
The main attraction was the milkfish I had been craving―bangus. In Filipino tradition, for breakfast we have a protein and normally eat it with garlic-fried rice, fried eggs, and atsara―a pickled papaya condiment. We ordered the the bangus bowl, which included brown rice and the same salad on the pancit. I failed to realize it didn’t automatically come with a fried egg so seeing my mistake, asked the hostess if I could add one. Neil, the owner had stepped into the shop, and overhearing my disappointment, ordered up my last-minute addition himself, on the house. The fried bangus was tasty, though not as meaty as I’d been dreaming of. The salad, though not typical, added a welcomed freshness and acidity in place of my beloved astara. We also tried house-made sauces, including a solid hot sauce and a peculiar and confusing kalamansi sauce that tasted overrun with sugar.
I was intrigued to find on their menu a favorite childhood snack―garlic chips! Since I grew up not eating pork, these were our answer to chicharron. We would fry them fresh and dip them in flavored vinegar. The garlic chips at Lumpia Shack are also fried fresh, then dusted with sinigang seasoning―a mix of tamarind powder and other spices. It’s far from a glamorous or even really popular food, but it gave me the most joy of all the dishes. Having it on the menu was an appreciated gesture. We ended the meal with dessert, not because we were still hungry but because we felt an obligation to try their halo-halo which we saw was topped with popcorn from a picture on social media. I could normally do without the overload of toppings like red beans and corn mostly, so we were grateful that we could customize ours with ube ice cream, condensed ube sauce, pinipig, and turon.
Lumpia Shack’s strength is its flexibility and loose interpretation of Filipino food since they don’t claim to be traditional. Growing up with different eating restrictions, I sometimes felt excluded from what many conceive as a ‘normal’ Filipino feast. I’m grateful that Lumpia Shack makes Filipino food accessible to people unfamiliar with the cuisine, but also took appreciation of the fact that people like us could feel included; that we weren’t missing out on the best items on the menu. My cousins in Metro Manila were born and raised vegetarians, and not growing up eating dinuguan or crispy pata doesn’t make them any less Filipino. Lumpia Shack highlights Filipino food in a respectable and responsible way, and I’m grateful for the representation among the growing number of Filipino establishments in New York City’s food scene. Their warm and inviting service, comfortable atmosphere, and variety of options make Lumpia Shack a place worth visiting.