At Unique Restaurants, Politics Plays a Part

Chefs prepare to roast a whole pig at Jeepney, East Village, New York. Photo by Joshua Lucas

New York City is a place where different cultures and different people connect. In Manhattan, there are folks from all over the country and all around the world questing for the “American Dream.” In order for some to do that, it means adapting to the culture of their new home, shedding as much of their previous life as they can to blend in. For others, it means bringing their culture with them, proudly displaying and sharing their culture with their new neighbors.

For years, Nicole Ponseca and Mauricio Salenas have both called New York City their home. Nicole is a first generation Filipino-American from San Diego. Mauricio immigrated to the United States from Bolivia in 1985. Both run restaruants — very different kinds and style of restaurants — and they both have very different takes on their place and the place of their restaurants in this city. Ponseca’s successes emerged through her aspiration to introduce under-represented Filipino cuisine into the oversaturated New York City restaurant market. Salenas’ diner, an independent, fully functioning restaurant inside of the mental health building at East Harlem’s Metropolitan Hospital, is his attempt at a staple of American dining, and his business, acording to Salenas, is floundering because of the success of Obamacare.

An All-American Fight Rooted in Filipino Cuisine

Entrepreneur and activist Nicole Ponseca is the owner of two well-known restaurants in Manhattan’s East Village. At Maharlika and Jeepney, Ponseca lovingly expresses Filipino culture, and both eateries have attract a large following of Filipinos, Filipino-Americans and New Yorkers alike.

Jeepney and Maharlika owner, Nicole Ponseca explains her brand of activism. Photo by Isabella Rolz

As a daughter of Filipino immigrants, Ponseca is firm in her opposition to President Donald Trump’s proposed immigration policies. She has made a successful business based on the premise of promoting diversity, and now, she feels Trump is threatening that. The tragic irony, in her mind, is that her father, who immigrated to the United States and joined Navy while still a citizen of the Philippines, voted for Trump in the 2016 election. Nicole tries to come to peace with this.

Nicole Ponseca describes her unique brand of activism, and how it is at odds with her immigrant father’s political beliefs. Audio by Joshua Lucas, Reporting by Isabella Rolz and Joshua Lucas
Ponseca plastered the walls of the back dining room of Jeepney to express her sexual freedom and power as a Filipina woman. Photo by Joshua Lucas

At Metropolitan Hospital, A Downside to Obamacare

Bolivian-born Mauricio Salenas moved from his native town of Cochabomba to New York City in 1985 and soon after, he found work at the diner that he, today, is the manager of. Grand Café is a diner like you might expect anywhere else in the city; it has pictures of 1950’s movie stars on the wall, has pleather booths, and serves breakfast, lunch, or dinner at any time it’s open.

Mauricio Salenas hard at work behind the coffee counter at the front of Grand Café. Photo by Joshua Lucas

It is also a diner in a unique part of town: it is situated right inside the mental health building at Metropolitan Hospital in East Harlem. As you might expect, the diner is frequented by patients and doctors, but it is also wide open to people from the neighborhood. In recent years, however, the number of diners has been dwingling.

Situated squarely within the aged mental health building at Metropolitan Hospital, Grand Café is seeing a dwindling number of diners. Photos by Isabella Rolz and Joshua Lucas

At a public hospital, it could be assumed that the Affordable Care Act is a good thing. But with a sinking patient base and wide-spread hospital cut backs on clinics and staff, Mauricio’s costumers just aren’t coming in the droves that they used to.

A short look into a fully functioning diner found inside the mental health clinic at East Harlem’s Metropolitan Hospital. Video by Joshua Lucas, Reporting by Isabella Rolz and Joshua Lucas, Grand Café, Metropolitan Hospital, East Harlem.

Unexpected Political Perspectives

Like Ponseca’s parents, Salenas is an immigrant to the United States. And like Ponseca’s father, Aniel, Selanas chooses to support particular political stances of Donald Trump, a person who outspokenly calls for the limitation of immigrants, legally or illegally, into the US.

There is a stark contrast in stylistic approach to Ponseca’s Jeepney (left) and Salenas’ Grand Café (right). Photos by Joshua Lucas

Nicole Ponseca draws in her crowd of New Yorkers, and Filipinos, and Filipino-Americans by serving the cuisine from the archipelago of her parents’ birth. Nicole’s duel restaurants are both Filipino and American, which has proven to draw a large and loyal client base. Though it may have no impact whatsoever on the Grand Café’s financial troubles, Mauricio’s diner is neither an Authentic American diner, and is not representative of his native culture. However, Jeepney, Maharlika and Grand Café alike function to service, in one way or another, the people who come to them.