This Asheville restaurant is as colorful and varied as the menu. Music blares from the open kitchen, switching back and forth between Latin pop, 90s R&B, and hip hop. Mariah Carey’s voice competes with the sizzle of the stove. The small kitchen staff (usually Iocovozzi, a bartender, a line cook, and a dishwasher) sing and dance along as they cook. The best seats in the house, of which there are only about 20, are at the bar, where you can smell skewers as they’re flame-grilled.
Adjacent to the restaurant’s entrance is a painting by Brooklyn-based artist Drake Carr. In the center sits Neneng, Iocovozzi’s mother, done up in a way reminiscent of the 80s and 90s glamor-style photos Iocovozzi remembers her posing for at a local mall near where they grew up as a military brat in Jacksonville, North Carolina. Iocovozzi (nickname Neng Jr., hence the restaurant’s name), sits just behind their mother’s left shoulder, as the yellow ribbon of Neneng’s dress wraps around Iocovozzi’s arm. Neneng is the thread that runs through Iocovozzi’s life, and in many ways, through this restaurant. For Silver, she represents the marriage of Filipinx heritage with North Carolina cuisine that finds its way onto this menu.
“Most of the menu items directly correlate to my mom,” Silver explains. “If it isn’t an exact replica of a dish that she has made, it is a version that I fine-tuned. I try to stay true to the flavors of my mom.” In fact, when Neneng is in town, she’s often in the kitchen at Neng Jr.’s. On a recent visit Neneng put a Filipinx spin of the Mexican tripe stew menudo on the menu. It sold out that weekend.
At its very core, Neng Jr.’s is a space where Silver can celebrate their biological family and the queer one they have built. Dining here means sitting below that painting of Iocovozzi and their mother, and eating a plate of fresh summer fruit, or lumpia, or bulalo corn. As customers have filled the snug Asheville restaurant over the past few months, Iocovozzi watches on from the open kitchen. “I see people understanding the concept [of Neng Jr.’s],” they say. “It is the deepest reward.”