Margaret McLeod Leef Published

Chef Iocovozzi Brings A Taste Of The Philippines To Asheville

A bright and colorful diner counter with stools can be seen. Above the diner counter are shelves with an assortment of nick-knacks. Through the diner counter window is a kitchen.
The vibrant kitchen and bar area of Neng Jr.’s tucked away in Asheville, North Carolina’s artsy West Side.
Margaret McLeod Leef/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

This story originally aired in the May 5, 2024 episode of Inside Appalachia.

The first thing I notice about Neng Jr.’s is its lively decor. There’s a green-tiled open kitchen, fire engine red countertops, and turquoise walls. Adorning the space are items from Chef and owner Silver Iocovozzi’s personal life — stuffed animals and well-worn books, trinkets from Iocovozzi’s mom for good luck, a quirky telephone in the shape of a red high heel and a vibrant painting of Iocovozzi’s husband, Cherry.

But, what I’m here for is Iocovozzi’s popular Filipino creation — the adobo.

“To me, it is like a quintessential Filipino dish, and it evokes all those flavors,” Iocovozzi says. “I think a lot of people get their minds blown by it, and I love that.”

Inside the kitchen, Iocovozzi cooks in a high-powered wok over an open flame. The adobo is served with duck on the menu. But today, Iocovozzi makes the adobo with pork cheeks that he has on hand. The adobo sauce simmers while he prepares a bitter melon relish to set off the adobo. The dish has a uniquely Filipino flavor profile.

“I would say it’s really a kind of a tangy cuisine, lots of vinegar and lots of sour,” Iocovozzi says. “There’s a lot of tart aspects to it.”

A young man poses for a photo. He has dark hair, wears a long-sleeved shirt that is white with plaid arms. He has a tattoos on his arms.
Silver Iocovozzi, chef and owner of Neng Jr.’s.

Photo Credit: Will Crooks/Courtesy

The bitter melon, a spiky cucumber-looking gourd, is almost too tangy on its own. But paired with the rich and silky adobo, my mouth waters for more. The dish is an example of the taste and technical skill Iocovozzi is known for.

Neng Jr.’s was recently nominated for a James Beard award, and Iocovozzi was named one of Time Magazine’s Next 100 People to Watch. He traces the start of his cooking journey back to his mother. He has fond childhood memories of her cooking.

“She would sit down on the ground with this really heavy cutting board and tenderize meat and marinate it, and it was a really simple marinade. It was just soy and oil and garlic and onion and black pepper. But it tasted so good to me,” Iocovozzi says.

Iocovozzi and his mom loved the soy, garlic and onion flavors. His mom is Filipino, and his dad was from North Carolina.

“They met in Japan. My dad was stationed there; he was a Marine. My mom, a Filipino woman, was working in Japan at a karaoke bar. She was an entertainer,” Iocovozzi says.

Iocovozzi’s parents met and married, and his mom immigrated to the United States. His mom was the only person of color in her new family. Staying connected to her Filipino heritage was difficult.

“My mom was really seeking some comfort of home and realizing she couldn’t find that representation of Filipino food or cooking, or even that warmth of culture that Filipinos bring,” Iocovozzi says.

But she found a way to share her culture with Iocovozzi.

“I would go with her to the Asian market and get all these ingredients that she could tell me about and get excited about. Because I think that was like the little amount of representation that she could share with me,” Iocovozzi says.

It wasn’t until visiting Manila and Batangas in the Philippines that Iocovozzi fully understood his mom’s culture and the link between food and celebration. “I grew up between Manila and eastern North Carolina, where my grandparents lived. And [I] really had a lot of experience in Batangas. Batangas is coastal in the Philippines where we would go visit. And because we were in town, they would just bring a reason to have a fiesta and a big celebration around food,” Iocovozzi says.

Those fiestas often centered on butchering and cooking a whole hog. “This was the first time I’d seen a pig be sacrificed. A lot of the cookery in Batangas is no electricity, no gas, just fire. And to see the way … these people that are living in these provinces cook with fire and break down pig and really know how to kill a pig with their hands — it’s an experience I’ll never forget. And also understanding how much I can appreciate food and where it comes from,” Iocovozzi says.

Understanding where food comes from — and how to prepare it — was a quest that took Iocovozzi from the Philippines to the American South and around the world in the restaurant business.

He got his start in Asheville as a dishwasher in 2011 after a friend suggested he’d like the city. Soon, he attended culinary school in the area and worked as a chef at Buxton Hall BBQ — an Asheville institution — before eventually cooking at award-winning restaurants in Tokyo, New York and Grand Cayman Island.

In 2020, he returned to Asheville to build his own community around food. Within two months, he secured a building with a takeout window for what would later become Neng Jr.’s. When designing Neng Jr.’s, Iocovozzi was as intentional about the space itself as the menu.

“I just want to create a space that shows some representation for those that have been seeking it and know that it can exist,” Iocovozzi says.

At Neng Jr.’s, Iocovozzi created a space that welcomes people of all ethnicities, genders, and orientations — just like Iocovozzi’s mom made room for her culture when she moved to the States. “I’m putting myself out there and my heart,” Iocovozzi says, “It’s really a passion project.”

Drawings and paint can be seen on the side of a white building. It says, "The Fabulous Neng Jr.'s."
The exterior of Neng Jr.’s, located in a narrow alley in Asheville, has a brightly painted mural.

Photo Credit: Margaret McLeod Leef /West Virginia Public Broadcasting

And it was also a way to honor his mom, whose Filipino nickname was Naneng.

“It’s an affectionate name for a young girl. And I don’t, you know, identify as that, but … Neng Jr.’s is an iteration of that nickname stemming from my mom’s nickname. Because I’m her mini-me,” Iocovozzi says.

Iocovozzi shares his story through Neng Jr.’s, embodying the flavors, warmth and joyfulness of home. “I don’t think of myself as just like a restaurant in Asheville. I think of Neng’s as a restaurant in the world,” Iocovozzi says. “It’s so important to be a Filipino restaurant in Asheville because the people need to know what this food tastes like. And also understand this level of hospitality that comes from a Filipino.”

The Filipino traditions in Chef Iocovozzi’s family history continue to shape the restaurant. Iocovozzi is in the process of building a stage modeled after the original karaoke bars in Japan, like the one where his parents met.


This story is part of the Inside Appalachia Folkways Reporting Project, a partnership with West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Inside Appalachia.

The Folkways Reporting Project is made possible in part with support from Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies to the West Virginia Public Broadcasting Foundation. Subscribe to the podcast to hear more stories of Appalachian folklife, arts and culture.