After 18 months of excitement and curiosity, Asheville’s first Filipinx restaurant Neng Jr.’s finally opened, but finding it can be tricky — particularly to those unfamiliar with West Asheville. There’s an advisory tacked onto the reservation site, “Our front door can be difficult to find.” While the street address is 701 Haywood Road — also claimed by creative hub Different Wrld — the entrance is actually in the rear of the building. To get there, walk down the steep, dead-end Jarrett Street, past the colorful Neng Jr.’s mural and turn left into the alley, then another hook left into an exterior alcove, fully bathed in brilliant red. The black door is the front door, identified by the restaurant’s logo looping around a red medallion.
No need for a password; simply open the door and walk up 14 steep-ish steps in a narrow enclosure, also swathed in red — to the maitre d’ stand, likely to be occupied by artist and performer Cherry Iocovozzi, who wed Neng’s creator Silver Iocovozzi (nee Cousler) on June 10.
Cherry is the sharply dressed usher to the dining room, which includes only nine seats on the L-shaped banquette and eight 1930s-era stools at the red-topped bar, and sits about six feet from where Silver works. The small and efficient open kitchen is tiled in emerald green, which Silver says is their favorite color. The red is a nod to their mother, Marissa Cousler, whose nickname Neneng was shortened and passed along to Silver and became the name of the restaurant. “My mother’s preferences are mostly around luck,” Silver says. “She told me I needed a red countertop bar. Red is such a bold color — we used it a lot.”
The walls of the dining room are serene shades of blue, but the overall inspiration — which includes a rounded glass display case at the end of the counter holding items meaningful to the couple — derives from Silver’s treasured youthful memories of a soda shop they frequented in their small hometown of Apex, North Carolina. A painting on one wall by friend Drake Richard Carr depicts an exuberant Marissa and Silver connected by a yellow ribbon.
“Highly anticipated” hardly scratches the surface of the fever pitch among Ashevillians since Silver signed the lease in January 2021, driven by a combination of familiarity with their restaurant resume and pop-ups, as well as curiosity about the cuisine.
Silver is excited to introduce the food they grew up with in North Carolina and in the Philippines. “What every Filipino knows about Filipino cuisine is they know their dish is authentic because their mother or uncle made it that way, so it’s authentic to them,” they explain. “Everyone does the same dish slightly differently. I grew up in the South, so I also have that influence. It’s really ‘what do I want people to know about me from my food?’ Overall, I love simple. I don’t want fussy plates or long descriptions.”
Simple and complex, on the same dish. The July Fruit, for example, is indeed pieces of summer fruit — white peaches, cantaloupe, and heirloom tomatoes sourced from Lee’s One Fortune Farm — on a plate, with a pounded tangy, spicy sauce of seven ingredients. Tangy, or sour, says Silver, is a descriptor for many Filipino dishes.
The adobo oyster is the diva of the menu — two pristine, briny, silky raw oysters nestled in their shells puddled with adobo mignonette, topped with the bright yellow yolk of quail eggs cured overnight in a brine, encircled with a two-inch rope of sea grapes, which deliver a delightfully unexpected snap-pop in the mouth. Spring onion bistek is available carpaccio or by four-ounce filet. Sweetbreads come marinated and poached, tenderized to a velvety texture, then skewered, grilled for a bit of crispiness, and served with a fermented barbecue sauce.
The menu is succinct in quantity — a dozen items — and description. It will also change frequently, Silver says. “I think the menu will have a couple of staples depending on what people are ordering, but I am quick to change, and I need that. I love that. I have such a personal relationship with going to the market and seeing what’s available and going from there.”
All of which makes general manager Q, stationed behind the bar, and the waitstaff key to diners’ understanding and experience; they breeze through questions enthusiastically and knowledgeably.
Q also mixes up Filipino-influenced cocktails like the adobo martini, pandan daiquiri, and Neng’s milk punch, as well as a non-alcoholic bitter melon shrub and pours from the wine list selected by Cherry Iocovozzi. Staff delivers small bowls of garlic-roasted salted peanuts with beverages, which gives diners something to crunch on while playing I Spy with the memorabilia displayed on the shelf over the bar — small stuffed animals, an antique tin canister, The Joy of Cooking, and Tammy Wynette’s autobiography Stand By Your Man among the quirky collection. In the display case are decks of playing cards, a vintage Playboy magazine with a red-clad Anna Nicole Smith on the cover, and a canister of rice harvested from the Philippines with coins for luck.
“Americans are familiar with Italian food, Mexican food, Chinese food,” Silver says, “Filipino food is not only new to Asheville, but it has not hit that mainstream avenue even in bigger cities. It has been getting more attention and exposure the last six or so years. I think the moment is now, and I’m excited to do it here, in my town.”