Gastronomic gem: Kalye goes beyond Filipino street fare

Kalye’s storefront on the Lower East Side showcasing the word Kalayaan, done by Filipino-American author Kathryn Serrano who recently released her book Kalayaan (Filipino Heroines of World War II). AJPress Photos by Momar G. Visaya

IN the heart of New York City’s Lower East Side, lawyer-turned-restaurateur Rob Mallari D’Auria, and his husband, Henry, have embarked on an extraordinary journey. Their recently opened restaurant, Kalye, is not just about savoring the vibrant flavors of Filipino cuisine—it’s a bold statement of resilience and a tribute to the city they love.

Fueled by their passion for the city and inspired by the challenges of the pandemic, Rob and Henry saw an opportunity to contribute to its recovery by venturing into the world of gastronomy, offering a taste of Filipino delights while embracing the diverse palates of their customers.

“Our goal is to introduce Filipino food to a broader audience and make it more accessible,” Rob told the Asian Journal.

The idea took shape back in 2020 during the pandemic when Rob, who had just moved to the States, found himself in Times Square, captivated by the bright marquee lights. He shared, “We love the city so much that we wanted to help it get back on its feet. One way of doing that was to have our own storefront, either a food or non-food store.” Eventually, they settled on the concept of a restaurant, drawing from Rob’s Filipino background.

Rob’s journey to the United States began in 2017 when he was taking a course in Boston. He would travel regularly to New York to meet up with family and do some sightseeing. He met Henry during one of those visits.

What started as a chance encounter at the Museum of Modern Art’s bar, The Modern, blossomed into a long-distance relationship. Rob had to move back to the Philippines, where he had a law practice. They later decided to meet in Paris for the Christmas holidays in 2017, solidifying their commitment to start a long-distance relationship. In 2020, despite the challenges posed by the pandemic, Rob made a move to the States, and the couple tied the knot in an intimate ceremony.

Kalye’s Journey

The process of opening Kalye was not without its hurdles. From conceptualization to obtaining licenses and permits, and recipe development, it took them around a year and a half before they could finally open their doors in late 2022. Rob admits that finding quality and committed staff has been one of the most challenging aspects of running the restaurant, but he is grateful for the team they have now, many of whom have a background in Filipino culture.

Kalye sets itself apart by blending fast-casual and casual dining, offering a fusion of Filipino and familiar flavors. Rob explains, “The mission of the restaurant right now is to educate non-Filipinos about Filipino cuisine.”

He also showed us how to make their hero product, the ube sliders, using ube buns, longganisa patties, Swiss cheese, onion-bacon jam, and pinakurat aioli.

They started with an easily recognizable dish like their signature ube sliders, which are longganisa burgers with pinakurat aioli in ube-flavored buns.

While the idea from the get-go was to build something that was fast casual, they have pivoted into something more casual, introducing sisig, tapa, inasal, and lechon to the menu. Gradually, they are going to introduce more traditional Filipino dishes like adobo, kare-kare, and sinigang. The goal is to introduce customers to Filipino cuisine through familiar dishes and then expand their palates with more traditional options.

Top to bottom: Kalye’s prized specialties – ube sliders, chicken inasal, lechon and their two kinds of sisig – pork belly and mushroom.

Rob’s mother, who used to run a restaurant herself, has been instrumental in shaping the menu. He shares, “I asked her for recipes, and while she gave me a general idea of the ingredients, I put my own identity into the recipe.” The result is a blend of his mother’s traditional flavors and his creative touch.

Since his first idea was to sell handheld food items inspired by street food, Rob wanted to use kalye as the name of the restaurant.

“It’s just funny that the same year that we opened, another Kalye Bistro opened up in Queens, and I love them because, you know, we basically help each other,” he says. “Most of the Americans or non-Filipino speakers don’t know how to pronounce it correctly; most of them pronounce it like scale, now we’re educating them how to pronounce it, and that’s a start.”

Since its opening, Kalye has received mixed feedback from customers and made adjustments based on their suggestions. Rob acknowledges the importance of being open to observations and feedback, even if it can be initially challenging.

“We learned a lot from our customers, and I think the idea of having a startup business that is open to observations and feedback from customers worked to our benefit,” Rob says. “It’s painful. It’s the beginning, they said, ‘I think your business concept is a lot of baloney.’ It’s hurtful because it’s my baby. But I get home, and then I realize they’re saying something of value. They’re telling me that I could do better.”

Despite opening during a pandemic, Kalye has been well-received, attracting a diverse clientele. Rob has noticed an increase in Asian American customers, possibly due to Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month last May and a sense of solidarity within the Asian community. Moving forward, he envisions Kalye becoming an entry point for younger Asian Americans to explore and appreciate their culinary heritage.

It also took a while to find the right people to join their team, something that Rob found challenging.

“The most difficult part of running a restaurant – it’s really difficult to find a quality, committed staff,” he shared. “I’m happy that the composition of my staff now, I would say, is close to perfect. A lot of them are Filipinos, some are from the Philippines or at least some background of the Philippine culture, and that helps a lot.”

The restaurant’s revenue has been boosted by participating in street fairs, such as the ones run by the Philippines Fest group. These events have not only brought in revenue but also helped spread awareness about the restaurant among a wider audience.

In these street fairs and bazaars, Kalye offers handheld food items like burgers, lumpia, and empanadas, and it’s not lost on Rob that the restaurant’s initial concept was to offer mostly these items.

“Truth be told, I’d say half of the revenue of the restaurant now is coming from these street fairs, and I’d say a big portion of the people coming in to dine in are people who came to know us because of these street fairs,” Rob reveals.

In addition to the delectable food, Kalye showcases artworks by Filipino artists, which are for sale. Rob’s passion for supporting artists led him to open a nonprofit called Artist Assist Initiative. “Most of our artists are Filipino artists or artists from the Philippines, but eventually we’ll also invite non-Filipino artists who are in the Lower East Side area to have their artwork hang on our walls. All the proceeds of the sale will go to the artists.”

Rob D’Auria’s journey to introduce Filipino cuisine to New Yorkers through Kalye is a testament to his love for both his heritage and the vibrant city he now calls home. With each plate served at Kalye, Rob and his team aim to create an immersive experience that goes beyond just a meal. Through their fusion of Filipino and familiar flavors, they hope to educate and inspire diners to explore the depths of Filipino cuisine and appreciate its unique blend of tastes and traditions.

As Kalye continues to thrive and evolve, Rob remains dedicated to his mission of sharing Filipino culture and flavors with the diverse population of New York City. He hopes to expand the restaurant’s reach, perhaps even opening additional locations in the future.

Through Kalye, Rob and Henry are not only contributing to the city’s culinary landscape but also creating a space where people can gather, connect, and celebrate the richness of Filipino cuisine. With their passion, creativity, and unwavering determination, Rob D’Auria and Kalye are paving the way for a greater appreciation of Filipino food and culture in the heart of the Big Apple.

Momar G. Visaya

Momar G. Visaya is the Executive Editor of the Asian Journal. You can reach him at [email protected].

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