When chef Joy Ann Salanga steps into the kitchen of her restaurant, Kusinera, each day about 8:30 am, she has no plan for what to cook that day — but approximately three hours until the doors open for lunch.
Instead of pressure, though, Salanga feels elation as she plunges into batches of chicken adobo, sisig, lumpia, pancit and other Filipino dishes, which she rotates daily based on her whims. “This is my Zen,” said Salanga, 33, who opened Kusinera in East Meadow this winter. “It’s very therapeutic, and it’s all personal.”
The tiny cafe, with a crisp interior and daily rotation of aromatic stews, roasts and stir fries, is one of a handful of places to find Filipino food on Long Island. The cuisine blends a range of spices and flavors such as soy, garlic, tamarind, vinegar, chilies and calamansi. This eclectic prism of seasonings, usually applied to pork and other meats, arrived in the archipelago during successive waves of colonization.
“I would say it’s a fusion of honestly every country you could think of,” said Salanga, explaining Filipino food, which she learned to cook while growing up around her father’s café in her home province of Pampanga.
When Salanga moved to New York eight years ago, she worked in health care but also cooked prodigiously on the side. “I just started cooking for family and got referrals and offers, and the demand just kept going up and up and up,” she said.
It was when every available surface of Salanga’s apartment would fill with trays of food for customers that she knew a restaurant was the next step. She began looking for a spot before the pandemic, Salanga said, but it was only when she saw a space in an East Meadow shopping center — one which had spent time as a smoothie cafe and a halal eatery — that the restaurant clicked into place.
Her partner Dennis Flood, a contractor, modernized the space, adding clean lines and building a giant communal table and counter. (There are also a few tables outside). “We wanted fresh and inviting,” said Salanga, who chose the name Kusinera because it means female chef in Tagalog, a primary language of the Philippines.
The food at Kusinera plays with the entire arc of flavor and texture, from sour to sweet to creamy or crisp, but is rarely spicy. Daily specials rotate among such staples as lumpia, the Filipino take on spring rolls; vinegar-tinged chicken adobo, served with rice; pancit (stir-fried rice noodles) and lechon kawali, or pork deep-fried until crisp, then diced and also served with rice.
For Salanga’s version of sizzling sisig, a dish of richly seasoned, stir-fried pork that comes on a hot platter, the chef uses shoulder instead of the traditional jowls and ears. Salanga also cooks a lengthy roster of pork stews and curries, such as the pork-blood stew dinuguan and aromatic bicol express, with coconut milk as its base.
There are no knives inside Kusinera and none are needed, as the meat is generally fork-tender, but Salanga also takes pride in modifying traditionally meat-heavy Filipino dishes into vegetarian-friendly versions. She’ll use jackfruit in place of chicken, for instance, and makes a coconut-milk stew with squash and beans that has become Flood’s favorite. Plates and to-go trays of food start about $8, and scale up, depending on size.
Desserts such as taho cheesecake (made creamy with silken tofu) and leche flan are made by other Filipino bakers, as well as her own pastry chef, Asia Flood. A visual standout are ube cookies, stained purple with yams. Salanga says she’s using the restaurant to showcase other people’s talents, noting, “I want to see them grow while I grow.”
The exuberant Filipino dessert halo-halo, which combines condensed milk, fruit and a rainbow of flavors and hues, is absent from Kusinera’s menu, but Salanga plans to change that come summer. Getting all of the components in order, and to her liking, will take some tinkering. “I’ll make everything from scratch,” said Salanga.
Down the road, she hopes to open a Filipino-themed bar with tapas and cocktails that use traditional Filipino spirits and flavors.
Kusinera is open Tuesday to Saturday from 11:30 am to 7 pm and Sunday from 11 am to 3 pm at 192 E. Meadow Ave., East Meadow. 516-246-9419.