A taste of home
Nestled between a tiny Tibetan restaurant and an empty storefront, Tito Rad’s Grill is the lone Filipino restaurant on Queens Boulevard in Woodside—a heavily trafficked street that has dozens of restaurants competing for patrons, from Peruvian to Mexican to Italian to Chinese. Tito Rad’s has two dining areas, providing enough room to host a private party and serve other customers. On the left-hand side of the entrance, a black-and-white, wallpaper print of the storefront takes up most of the wall. In the back hangs the restaurant’s logo: an outline of a man’s face as he dons a fedora.
Although the tricky pronunciation of certain dishes may dissuade some from sampling Filipino food, Tito Rad’s uses familiar ingredients from Asian or even Caribbean recipes—bok choy, peanuts, plantains—to prepare dishes like a traditional kare kare, which is oxtail in a light peanut sauce with al dente bok choy, or minatamis na saging, plantains sweetened with brown sugar.
From the beefsteak to the jackfruit ice cream, the emphasis is on fresh ingredients. Though it is time-consuming and more expensive, Mario Albenio, 52, owner and executive chef, treks to the supermarket three times a week and hand picks the produce to ensure that his customers are served quality fruits and vegetables.
Woodside has nearly 4,000 Filipino residents, according to the census, but Tito Rad’s is one of the few Filipino restaurants that prepares made-to-order dishes, said Michael Fernandez, one of the chefs and Mario’s nephew. “Most of the restaurants are buffet style. You point and pick what you want. We do home-cooked style cooking, which takes longer,” he said.
Susan Albenio, 52, co-owner and Mario’s wife, said she believes that people come to Tito Rad’s for both the food and the hospitality. “If you show respect, you will get respect in return,” said Susan, and that ethos is palpable. The wait staff makes diners feel that they belong, regardless of whether they are Filipino, and first-timers get treated the same way that regulars do. It’s one of the reasons that Alfonso Nique, 20, dines at the restaurant. “It’s comfortable. It feels like home and the prices are affordable,” he said, as he took sips of his avocado milk shake. By serving traditional Filipino dishes and making everyone feel welcome, Mario hopes to turn first-time visitors into regulars, he said.
Before he moved from the Philippines to the United States in 1987, Mario had worked in the culinary industry for years. He started cooking when he was a young boy in his family’s restaurant in Iloilo, a major city on Panay Island. His parents still live in his hometown. As his passion deepened, Mario looked for opportunities to apply his skills elsewhere. For ten years he worked as a sous chef at the Manila Midtown Hotel and as a private cook for families. Once Mario settled in New York, he landed a position at LSG Sky Chefs for Lufthansa Airlines.
Owning his own place had always been a dream for Mario, but it would take a family effort to fulfill it. Both Mario’s and Susan’s relatives drilled the couple with questions to assess whether or not they were prepared to run a restaurant. “There were a lot of talks and arguments. They asked, ‘Do you really want to be a chef? Running a restaurant is hard work,’” she said. Once the Albenios decided to go ahead with Tito Rad’s, family members, including Mario’s and Susan’s parents, flew to New York to help. Most of their relatives have returned to the Philippines, but Mario’s sister Lynette and nephew Michael stayed behind and have become permanent staff. In the early years, the Albenios could not afford to pay relatives who waited tables, cooked and washed dishes, but now they can.
Time remains Mario’s biggest sacrifice to ensure that Tito Rad’s stays afloat. Sometimes he doesn’t leave the restaurant until 2 a.m., Susan said.
Like any new restaurant owners, the Albenios struggled to attract customers during their first year of operation, 2006. “I had to call my friends and ask ‘Could you bring 10 friends and ask them to bring some friends?’” said Susan. They did not rely on social media or newspapers for advertising; it was all done by word of mouth. Slowly customers, both Filipinos and non-Filipinos, trickled into the 50-seat restaurant. Nine years later, the owners moved next door into a space that accommodates 140 people, and even so, patrons may have to wait for a table, especially on a Saturday night. Still, they’re only breaking even, which Susan attributes to the cost of rent and an underpriced menu.
The Albenios would like Tito Rad’s to be more profitable, but to them, success means more than extra dollars in the bank. “I want people to come to Tito Rad’s not because they are hungry, but because it’s good food,” said Mario. For that, more people need to think of this as a mainstream ethnic cuisine, like Chinese, Japanese and Korean, foods that are familiar to Americans’ palates. “We haven’t made it on the map yet,” said Mario. “I want to reach a point where people don’t question Filipino food.” For him, that means introducing more people to Filipino cuisine, perhaps through a popular recipe like chicken adobong, which is chicken braised in soy sauce and vinegar, similar to the Mexican-style chicken mole.
Mario will have to reach beyond his immediate family to keep Tito Rad’s up and running once he reaches retirement age. His son, who is a junior at United Nations International School, is not interested in the business; he wants to study the biological sciences and become a dentist or sports therapist. For now, the Albenios don’t intend to stop working anytime soon. “We are more than 50,” said Susan. “This is our last dream.”Tags: Filipino cuisine, Tito Rad's