To say that rice and snacks are a big deal in the Philippines is an understatement. For one, asking “Kumain ka na ba? Have you eaten yet?” pretty much means “How are you?” and the verb “kain” or “to eat” in many of our dialects comes from the word for rice, “kanin.” And while there truly are fewer times in the day happier than Happy Hour, the Filipino merienda (snack time) would put up a solid fight seeing as it happens at least twice a day. If you’re looking to enjoy both rice and snacking, there’s no better way than through our pastries and kakanins (rice cakes).
Representing centuries of culinary evolution, everything from French cakes and American pies, to Chinese mooncakes and Spanish breads have been transformed on the archipelago and across the diaspora into uniquely Filipino pastries. And the number of kakanin types rivals the individual grains you could count in a sack of rice you’d find in a Filipino household.
While these treats were once limited in New York to the long-standing bakeries that doubled as restaurants and grocery stores in the Little Manila section of Woodside, newer stores across the city and social media-era bakers with never-ending waitlists are making them easier to find. Check out one of these nine spots the next time you’re asked if you’ve eaten (your merienda) yet.
Purple Yam’s Amy Besa and Romy Dorotan have left a permanent mark on global Philippine cuisine with their tireless advocacy of using local ingredients to recreate flavors of home. Diners keep coming back for dishes like their debate-ending adobo, eggplant with burnt coconut cream, and fresh lumpia. But Romy’s kakanins in particular, often paired with homemade ice cream, have been responsible for many an out-of-state drive. I have ridden the R train nearly end-to-end for their banana leaf-lined bibingka, a baked rice cake often eaten at breakfast or on holidays that gets a luxurious update for weekend brunch with gouda and feta crowning the lightly golden crust. For something completely off-menu, call this Flatbush spot ahead of time for their tikoy - the Chinese nian gao gets a Filipino treatment with ube and is paired with champoy (dried salted plum) ice cream as a nod to the centuries-old Chinese communities of the Philippines.
Getting through Kimberly Camara’s sari-sari pastry box waitlist has become a sort of rite of passage, with its size quickly ballooning from dozens to 800 - 10,000 in just a few short months. Born during the pandemic and a continuation of Camara’s grandmother’s legacy, the pastries in the ever-changing boxes reimagine classic Filipino desserts and flavor combinations within brioches that swing more ensaymada than doughnut. There’s the leche flan ni lola, where rich flan that feels closer to tocino del cielo sits atop even more flan by way of cream before being enclosed by brioche. Traditional ingredients like kalamansi, a citrus native to the Philippines that tastes like an orange and a lemon’s firstborn, saba banana, and ube also make appearances. Set a timer for 3pm, head to their website, and hope the weeks you spent helping your family book vaccine appointments have paid off.
A popular chain back on the islands known for their celebratory pastries and heart-tugging commercials, Red Ribbon is where I go when I’m missing my family a little more than usual, or when I want to point out to my mom that NYC isn’t just one giant set for Home Alone 2. Peer through the glass cases and you’ll see European-style cakes that have since become common in the Philippines, like super chocolatey Black Forest, as well as others that have taken on more Filipino flavors like mango, ube, and yema caramel. If I’m bringing a cake to a party though, I go for the one that’s the most difficult to make: the sans rival. Brought to the Philippines by students who were studying in France in the 1920s, this Filipino take on the dacquoise meticulously alternates layers of cashews, meringue, and buttercream.
Formerly known as Fritzie’s, Kapamilya is one of the many “turo-turo” style restaurants in Woodside’s Little Manila. These types of restaurants - where you “turo,” or point, to the food you want from a selection laid out on a steam table - can be found as far as Saudi Arabia where I’m from and anywhere else there’s a significant Filipino population. The compact space also features a table with their current selection of pastries and kakanins. Ask for some puto - a whole class of steamed rice cakes in the Philippines. Like most kakanins, puto can be eaten for breakfast, as a snack, or even for dessert. My favorite is the salted egg version where the background sweetness of the cake is accented by the salty funk of cured egg yolks on top. For a more substantial treat, nab a few of their suman sa lihiya. Suman are rice cakes steamed in leaves, and I prefer this one that comes in banana leaf with a side of coconut syrup as it’s cooked in lye water for a chewier texture. Make sure to grab a pack of hopia too. These Chinese mooncake-like pastries were brought to the Philippines by Fujianese immigrants and feature Filipino fillings like mung bean, ube, and even pork.
Lamí is an online-only bakery that sells Filipino-inspired donuts, cakes, and popsicles through its website. Impeccably glazed and fluffy doughnuts come by the half dozen and feature flavors like ube, matcha, and black sesame, as well as Filipino tsokolate (chocolate) and buko pandan (a mix of young coconut and screwpine, a fragrant plant often used to impart a grassy, floral scent to many Southeast Asian dishes). If you’re more in the mood for cake than doughnuts, you can order one that’s ube flavored, but per usual, I’d go for the sans rival.
Any Filipino parent worth their fish sauce will point you to Phil-Am Mart in Woodside, where on the weekends lines of people stock up on pantry items that reflect the Philippines’ long history of colonization: canned Spam and Vienna sausages, Lady’s Choice mayonnaise and tuna spread, and instant noodles and soup mixes. The frozen section hides imported and hard-to-find kakanins - from suman sa ibus (suman steamed in palm leaves) to tupig (a grilled rice cake). Head to the back to find their array of homemade kakanins sitting aside their house-cured sausages and other meats - like kutsinta, pitsi-pitsi, and sapin-sapin, which all use different ingredients, but have the same smooth chewiness of mochi. Kutsinta uses rice flour and brown sugar while pitsi-pitsi has cassava as its main ingredient. My favorite is the sapin-sapin, which has an eye-catching tri-color of layered glutinous rice. I also make a point to add a few rolls of the tableas de cacao to my basket, for making thick Filipino hot chocolate at home - and you should too.
A rare find of a Filipino coffee shop far from Queens, Williamsburg’s Mountain Province serves fair trade, single-origin coffee from the mountainous regions of the Philippines that you can enjoy in their space designed as an homage to the owner’s lola (grandmother). I like to pair a strong cup of coffee with ensaymada, a rich brioche bun stuffed with ube custard, blanketed by a layer of butter and sugar - especially since theirs are fresh and always retain their fluffiness. If you’re in the mood for more than a coffee and pastry merienda, Mountain Province also has paninis, picadillo buns, and some other lunch items.
The name might have changed, but the restaurant and bakeshop formerly known as Krystal’s still serves pastries baked onsite. The first thing you’ll want to order is the pandesal, which has a tendency to sell out fast because these are some of the best in Little Manila. Pandesal isn’t salty as one would guess from its Spanish name (“pan de sal” literally translates to “salt bread”) and is to the Philippines what sliced white bread is to the US: ubiquitous, basic, and ranging in quality from mass-produced to freshly baked at the local panaderia. Ask for it plain or ube, eat it straight or toasted, dunked in coffee or hot chocolate, filled with meat or left alone. A slight step up would be the pan de coco, which comes stuffed with grated coconut, and on the far end of the richness spectrum sits their Brazo de Mercedes (Arm of Our Lady of Mercy). The Brazo is a type of jelly roll where a custard of egg yolks is encased in a pillowy meringue.
My merienda of choice is what this Elmhurst spot called Kape’t Torta - or “coffee and cakes” - specializes in. Their cake is a soft, spongy one also known as mamon in certain regions of the Philippines, and while I like plain best for maximum airiness and dunkability, you can also get a yema version, or one with a bit of ube jam inside. This goes with the other half of the equation: a cup of kapeng barako, a particularly strong coffee native to the Philippines (barako means “stud” or “wild boar”) that can only be found in the few cafes that import it. If you prefer denser cakes, try their take on the scarlet bread pudding pan de regla.
Entering Kabisera on the Lower East Side is like walking into the living room of that one aunt who always seems to have new people over and has a penchant for rearranging all the furniture every few months. Augelyn “Augee” Francisco is that aunt. Since 2017, Kabisera has undergone a constant stream of reiterations, and the ever-changing menu and frequent pop-up collaborations with other Filipino chefs and artists reflect that. The pastries and kakanins, however, are what first put this place on the map - like the biko, a sweet cake that uses glutinous rice and is topped with latik, a syrup made of coconut cream that will make you reassess your relationship with caramel. For something a little more summery, I prefer the lighter maja blanca, a pudding of coconut milk and corn with Spanish origins that goes well with their iced ube lattes and outdoor seating. Every visit to Kabisera has been a different experience for me - from summer block parties to winters where Augee busts out special equipment flown from the Philippines to make puto bumbong. These tubular rice cakes with the unmistakable ube purple hue and a shower of grated coconut are my favorite Christmas kakanin, and Kabisera is the only place I can get them cooked to order.