Paolo Dungca had never tasted a Bloomin’ Onion, that caloric fun ride found at Outback Steakhouse, before he collaborated with fellow chef and business partner Tom Cunanan on a Philippine version for Pogiboy. Dungca’s inexperience with the prototype didn’t really matter. The massive fried bulb lives in the imagination as much as it squats on a plate. It’s an appetizer, with apparent roots in Japanese vegetable carving, designed for a quasi-Australian chain, where it’s consumed by American diners with a boundless affection for morsels pulled from a deep fryer.
The Bloomin’ Onion is both rooted in place and completely divorced from any cuisine. The finger food’s selling points are as easy to grasp as those fried petals that reach for the sky: The dish is playful. It’s excessive. It lives in a vacuum of its own creation, where chefs don’t have to worry about conforming to anyone’s idea of authenticity. The Bloomin’ Onion is a toy for chefs to take apart and reassemble as they please.
Pogiboy is a partnership between Cunanan and Dungca, two guys who hail from the same province, Pampanga, often described as the “culinary capital of the Philippines.” They were practically destined to become cooks and, after working together at Bad Saint, where Dungca was sous chef to Cunanan’s executive chef, the two have reunited for this decidedly more lighthearted project. Located in the Block D.C. food hall (1110 Vermont Ave. NW; pogiboydc.com), Pogiboy doesn’t place boundaries around its chef-owners. The fast casual is a free-for-all, drawing inspiration from obvious sources (Jollibee, a fast-food juggernaut in the Philippines) and unlikely ones (Bob’s Big Boy and Baltimore pit beef).
The connection between Pogiboy and Outback is more poetic than literal: Cunanan and Dungca noticed how the Bloomin’ Onion, when sliced, splayed and fried, resembles a sampaguita, the national flower of the Philippines. That was all the connection they needed to create the Blooming Sam-"Pogi"-Ta ($12.95), a jumbo Vidalia bulb brought to its full budding potential with a Nemco Easy Flowering Onion Cutter, the same one used in Outback kitchens.
The secret to the dish is its dipping sauce, which leans on a crab-fat paste widely used as a condiment in Pampanga. The paste starts with a confit of garlic, shallots and ginger, slow-cooked until soft and brown. The chefs then add crab roe and cook the combination even longer. They’ll goose the mixture with further flavorings — honey, chiles and salt — and blitz it all in a Vitamix until smooth. The guys take the resulting paste and fold in housemade mayonnaise, along with lime juice and slices of fresh Thai chiles.
Every fried petal that you pluck from the Blooming Sam-"Pogi"-Ta — its bottom half a slippery length of exposed onion, all browned and beautiful — comes alive only after a dip in the chili/crab fat mayo. As I devoured one slathered petal after another, I didn’t care about the nutritional value. I didn’t care about the dish’s connection to a chain, either. I cared only about the genius and deliciousness of this Philippine-American invention.
When it comes to food, our country has a love-hate relationship with authenticity. We seek it like a hidden treasure, and yet we may not have the expertise to actually identify it once the food lands on our table. Or we may demand that a cuisine be so inexpensive that, from the outset, it never stands a chance of replicating the complex flavors of its home country.
For these reasons, and many others, I have found myself attracted lately to chefs and restaurateurs who are willing to experiment, to blur the lines between cultures. They haven’t necessarily abandoned their pursuit of authenticity (however they define it). They’ve just made a decision that a cuisine, whether regional Chinese cooking or Central Texas barbecue, should not stand still. So they’re evolving it, carefully and playfully, often melding the world where they were born with the one where they now live.
Call it fusion if you must. But these cross-cultural dishes don’t seem as self-conscious as some of the early fine-dining efforts to fuse Asian ingredients or techniques. These dishes feel lived in, built from personal experience or from deeply personal preferences.
Brisket and pulled pork pupusas at 2Fifty Texas BBQ. Debby Portillo, co-founder of the best barbecue joint in the DMV, is picky about her pupusas, which makes sense when you realize she was not only born in El Salvador but raised in a family that runs its own pupuserias. Portillo insists that the fruit vinegar for 2Fifty’s curtido — the pickled vegetables that add a jolt of acid to pupusas — be produced in-house. Same for the salsa, which must be wrestled from fresh tomatoes, aromatics and jalapenos. Portillo even had her mother, Silvia Montes, visit 2Fifty to train an employee on the proper way to form pupusas (three for $13.99), which come stuffed with a three-cheese blend and either lean brisket or pulled pork, both cooked low and slow by pitmaster Fernando González. These pupusas, fragrant with wood smoke, may be atypical. But they may also be the best you’ll ever taste 'round these parts. Available only on Sundays at 2Fifty Texas BBQ (4700 Riverdale Rd., Riverdale Park, 240-764-8763. 2fiftybbq.com).
Cacio e pepe cream cheese on cheddar bagel at Call Your Mother Deli. Daniela Moreira practically apologizes for not having a better origin story for her deli take on cacio e pepe ($4.50), in which a bagel stands in for pasta. She and her husband and co-owner, Andrew Dana, just happen to love cacio e pepe. Her affection for peppery pasta began in childhood, in Argentina. “I didn’t like red sauce growing up,” she says, "so anytime I’d go to my grandmother’s house, she would make a dish with butter, pepper and cheese. I didn’t know that was a thing. And now I know it’s cacio e pepe.” Moreira’s schmear features the usual suspects: Philly cream cheese softened with whole milk, Parmigiano Reggiano and lots of cracked pepper. But the success of this surprisingly faithful preparation hangs on two elements: the addition of Dutch Gold honey to the schmear and the cheddar bagel on which it is spread. “It’s cheese with cheese,” Moreira says, "Why not?” Don’t question it. Just enjoy it — for as long as the special stays on the menu. (3301 Georgia Ave. NW; 701 8th St. SE: 3428 O St. NW; 8804 Old Georgetown Road, Bethesda, Md. callyourmotherdeli.com.)
Beef burrito at Yanzi Noodle House. Tucked among the fried intestines, the marinated duck feet, the luosifen soups and other regional Chinese specialties is a dish that looks decidedly out of place at Yanzi Noodle House: It’s simply called “beef burrito” ($10.99), as if it were no different from the frozen ones you nuke in a microwave. I tried it anyway. It’s nothing like a burrito as you might understand one. Chef-owner Audrey Keenan takes green onion pancakes and rolls them up with slices of beef, fragrant of Chinese five spice and her own special sauce. She fries the stuffed pancakes until crisp and golden, then cuts the logs into bites small enough to handle with chopsticks. "All the ingredients are Chinese, but she won’t tell me what they are,” explains her husband, Jim Keenan. This dish may be an outlier on the menu, but it’s also a star. (15108 Frederick Rd., inside New York Mart, Rockville, Md., 301-777-8888. yanzinoodle.com.)