Some couples discuss their lives pre- and post kids, but Cheryl Baun and Paolo Garcia Mendoza, the owners of a small Filipino restaurant in New York, separate their lives into pre- and post Esquire.
On Nov. 30, the national magazine ranked Karenderya, their Nyack eatery located about 30 miles from New York City, among the 20 best new restaurants in America (they landed at number 19).
Esquire's Jeff Gordinier described Karenderya: "In the future, we pray, thousands of small towns in America will have Filipino restaurants as excellent as this one, with adobo pork belly braised to crispy meltiness atop garlic rice, and shrimp aswim in a coconut broth that tastes like French cream, and a cassava-jackfruit cake that comes across like a cobbler in which the topping and the filling have magically merged, and a smart beer list that highlights the best of Hudson Valley breweries."
The 35-seat village mainstay was quickly overwhelmed, bombarded with foodies willing to make the trip to sample the restaurant's authentic Filipino food. Business quadrupled, with Mendoza ordering two to three and sometimes four times the amount of pork belly and beef as before.
As lines formed outside, the formerly no-reservations eatery had to create waiting lists; at one point, they lost phone service leaving diners in the dark. Food shortages sometimes forced the couple to close early, or on some days, not open at all.
A blessing and a curse
The couple, who have two kids, had an inkling their restaurant would get some notice. Gordinier, Esquire's food and drinks editor, had been in a few times with his family and, on two occasions when it was quiet, Baun and he starting talking about food and the restaurant.
"It all seemed so conversational; we never imagined he'd ever write about us," Baun said. "We had been following him on Instagram, so we figured we'd be so happy if he even posted a picture of our food."
Added Mendoza: "We had no idea we were about to get national exposure."
That is, until a couple days before when Gordinier called to give them fair warning. They had already been contacted by Esquire earlier about submitting a photo, but it never registered to them that it was anything beyond local coverage.
The two were bowled over. After all, their restaurant, which opened in July 2017, is not fancy: Diners order at the counter, seat themselves and grab their own silverware, before being served what the couple refer to as traditional Filipino food with a twist.
Many of the dishes, such as fried crispy chicken and longganisa (Filipino sausage patties), are available in either rice bowls or as sandwiches, and liquor is a fairly recent addition – they added it six months after they opened.
"When I first heard the news, I was like 'Oh my God, this is great.' But then I panicked when I realized I had to hire more people and push them to get up to speed," Baun said.
"It's one thing when you're the local restaurant to your neighborhood," said Mendoza, who as chef felt the pressure. "But another when you're named among the best in the nation.
"The review was definitely a game-changer."
Karenderya was created as the kind of place where Mendoza and Baun wanted to eat: honest and comforting food at a good price that works with (or without) kids.
It's modeled after the carinderias, or roadside eateries of the Philippines and on the menu – albeit with modern touches – are many of the dishes Mendoza (who was born in Pasay City in the Philippines) grew up eating before moving to Brooklyn as a teen. So, too, are influences from Baun, whose Filipino parents moved to the Lower Hudson Valley from New York City when she was a baby.
The cassava-jackfruit cake Gordinier extolled in his story, in fact, is Baun's mother's recipe. She makes it at the restaurant herself along with the biko, sticky rice with coconut caramel topping.
On any given day, pre-Esquire, locals grabbed a quick lunch or dinner and parents lingered with their kids (the owner's children were there sometimes too).
The day the Esquire article published was normal, but then each day got crazier and crazier to a point where the restaurant owners, with a no-reservations policy for parties with fewer than six, had to start a wait list. And, a few times, the two are sorry to say, they had to stop lunch service because they ran out of food and needed to regroup.
At one point, they lost phone service, adding to the madness and wrote on social media "never a dull moment."
Mendoza had to cut down on his specials – it was just too much to produce at that volume. Lunch has since been discontinued midweek, and Mendoza, a graduate of the Institute of Culinary Education who has worked with some of the country’s most well-known restaurateurs including Floyd Cardoz and Geoffrey Zakarian, has hired extra staff. And he and his employees have gotten into a new rhythm regarding food prep, since Karenderya's kitchen is so small.
He's also – no surprise – working extra hours. In life before Esquire, he got to tuck his kids into bed at night. Now, not so much.
"We've just tried to be honest, and I think that's helped in keeping people's goodwill," he said. "But I'm sure along the way we've disappointed people."
Mendoza and Baun never lost their sense of humor or lost sight of how grateful they were for their new reality even with the added pressure of so many new customers, some of whom have been thrown off that their place is so casual.
"Some diners are surprised that they have to get their own utensils and order at the counter," Baun said. "We're not fine dining, and I think some people have come in with really big expectations, which puts a whole level of pressure on us that didn’t exist before."
They used social media to connect with their customers, listing new hours and writing messages like: "Well, this is getting embarrassing! We keep producing, and you keep exceeding our expectations! We are so grateful for everyone's support!"
Another December message read: "It's been a crazy ride so far, but we're loving every minute of it, growing pains and all."
"The whole thing really just happened overnight, and we've just had to adjust and fly by the seat of our pants," admitted Baun.
The restaurant remains consistently busy, and because Karenderya was designed to be a fast-casual restaurant, tables still turn over rather quickly, so there usually isn't much of a wait. Tables for two, said Baun, can still generally get seated easily, depending on the time of day.
Midweek dinner is less busy than weekends. "It ebbs and flows and is hard to predict," said Baun. Surprisingly, Saturdays at 4 p.m. tend to get busy as folks think coming before the dinner rush will be best.
The couple said they – and Karenderya – are in a better place. "We've become more of a destination rather than just a place people went to for lunch or dinner," said Baun. People stay longer at their table and many are now busy Instagramming their meal.
Their staff has risen to the occasion – there are two or three people taking orders at the front and Baun's retired parents, who many locals knew from their presence in the dining room, have taken a more active role and are now front and center helping in whatever way possible.
Asking for diners' patience remains part of the equation.
"Although we're a fast-casual restaurant, the kitchen is very small, and at the busiest times, the wait for food can be longer than usual," said Baun." Most people are pretty understanding and will order some drinks and small plates to tide them over."
Despite still trying to figure it all out and make sure everything is running smoothly, the two stressed how blessed and grateful they are for the exposure – and the crazy pre- and post-Esquire life change. Said Baun: "This is the industry, and this is being an entrepreneur. It comes with the territory."
This article originally appeared on Rockland/Westchester Journal News: Small Filipino restaurant in New York sees popularity skyrocket after Esquire names its among best