After 18 months of anticipation and curiosity, Asheville’s first Filipino restaurant, Neng Jr., has finally opened, but finding it is proving tricky, especially for those unfamiliar with West Asheville. There is a notice posted on the booking site, “Our front door may be difficult to find.” While the mailing address is 701 Haywood Road – also claimed by creative center Different Wrld – the entrance is actually at the rear of the building. To get there, walk down (literally, it’s a hill) to dead end Jarrett Street, past the colorful Neng Jr. mural and turn left into the driveway, then another left hook into an outdoor alcove, completely bathed in brilliant light. red. The black door is the front door, identified by the restaurant’s logo looping around a red medallion.
No password needed; simply open the door and climb 14 steep steps into a narrow enclosure, also shrouded in red – to the butler’s stand, likely to be occupied by artist and performer Cherry Iocovozzi, who married the designer of Neng , Silver Iocovozzi (née Cousler) on June 10.
Cherry is the well-dressed usher of the dining room, which has just nine seats on the L-shaped banquette and eight 1930s stools at the red-topped bar, which is about six feet from where works Silver. The small, 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 down to Silver and became the name of the restaurant. “My mom’s preferences mostly revolve around luck,” Silver says. “She told me I needed a red counter bar. Red is such a bold color – we used it a lot.
The dining room walls are serene shades of blue, but the overall inspiration – which includes a rounded glass display case at the end of the counter containing items meaningful to the couple – stems from Silver’s treasured childhood memories of a soda shop they frequented in their small hometown of Apex, North Carolina. A painting on a wall by Drake’s friend Richard Carr depicts an exuberant Marissa and Silver tied together with a yellow ribbon.
“Highly Anticipated” barely scratches the surface of the Ashevillians’ climax 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 kitchen.
Silver is excited to showcase the food he grew up with in North Carolina and the Philippines. “What every Filipino knows about Filipino cuisine is that they know their dish is authentic because their mother or uncle made it that way, so it’s authentic for them,” they explain. “Everyone makes the same dish a little differently. I grew up in the South, so I have that influence too. It’s really ‘what do I want people to know about me from my food?’ Overall, I like the simplicity. I don’t want complicated plates or long descriptions.
Simple and complex, on the same dish. Fruit of July, for example, is indeed chunks of summer fruit — white peaches, cantaloupe, and heirloom tomatoes from Lee’s One Fortune Farm — on a plate, with a tangy, spicy seven-ingredient hot sauce. Pungent, or sour, Silver says, is a descriptor for many Filipino dishes.
The adobo oyster is the diva of the menu – two pristine, brackish, silky raw oysters nestled in their reseda adobo coated shells, topped with the bright yolk of quail eggs dried overnight in brine, wrapped in a rope of two inches of sea grapes, which deliver a deliciously unexpected liveliness on the palate.
Spring onion bistek is available in carpaccio or a four-ounce fillet. The sweetbreads are 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 in description. That will also change frequently, Silver says. “I think the menu will have a few basics depending on what people order, but I change quickly and need it. I like this. I have such a personal relationship with going to the market and seeing what’s available and going from there.
All of this makes general manager Q, posted behind the bar, and servers key to diners’ understanding and experience; they answer questions with enthusiasm and knowledge.
Q also mixes Filipino-influenced cocktails like the adobo martini, pandan daiquiri, and Neng’s milk punch, along with non-alcoholic bitter melon shrub and pours from the Cherry Iocovozzi curated wine list. Staff deliver small bowls of salted garlic roasted peanuts with drinks, giving diners something to munch on while playing I Spy with the souvenirs displayed on the shelf above the bar – small animals stuffed animal, an antique tin box, the pleasure of cooking, and the autobiography of Tammy Wynette Stand close to your man from the original collection. In the display case are decks of playing cards, a vintage Playboy magazine with an Anna Nicole Smith dressed in red on the cover and a box of rice harvested in 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 hasn’t hit that traditional avenue even in the big cities. “It’s gotten more attention and exposure over the last six years or so. I think the time is right, and I’m excited to do it here in my city.”