More than five hours after I sampled my first balut, I can still taste the fertilized duck egg in the back of my throat. The flavor is unmistakably ducky. I mean, this duckiness just won’t quit, no matter what else I eat, as if the tiny embryo curled up inside the egg plans to haunt me for eternity for contributing to its premature death at Matthew’s Grill, a Filipino strip-mall restaurant in Gaithersburg.
Balut is one of those dishes that make non-Pinoys squirm. There’s practically a cottage industry online devoted to Westerners taking their first bite of the traditional street food, and each video, more or less, mines the same theme: Our fear of eating foods with a face, especially the face of a “baby” duck. Let me say for the record that, over the years, I’ve grown to despise these gastronomic dares, which imply the superiority of the Western diet, as if all cultures don’t have their own version of balut. Frankly, I almost spew at the sight of green-bean casserole.
Reymond S. Domingo, the co-owner and head chef behind Matthew’s Grill, understands that his non-Filipino diners might recoil at the sight of balut. So he has tinkered with the traditional preparation, in which customers crack open the top of the egg to expose its warm liquid, its custardlike yolk and its gray embryo. Instead, Domingo hard boils the fertilized eggs, removes the shells and sautes the oversize ovals in butter and garlic. He thinks it helps to mask balut’s basic funk.
Maybe it does. I don’t know. The flavors tattooed on my tongue are both familiar and foreign, a combination of duck, egg and liver, perfumed with a touch of garlic. Domingo earns my respect for introducing locals to the dish, but I can’t say it’s love at first bite.
Here’s what I really admire about Domingo and his staff at Matthew’s Grill: They patiently guide non- natives through the dense tangle of international influences that have shaped Filipino food, a cuisine almost impossible to define with any clarity. The ongoing fascination with Filipino fare is, in a sense, a testament to globalism, colonialism or some other -ism that will no doubt raise somebody’s hackles out there in the quick-draw frontier known as Twitter. But there’s no denying the influence of both commerce and conquerors on Filipino cooking, which borrows from Spain, China, Malaysia, Mexico and even the United States.
Whenever its doors are open, Matthew’s Grill offers a buffet that, to the discerning eye, doubles as a road map to the many cuisines that have shaped Filipino food. The lumpia, these crispy little pork tubes, all but trumpet their connection to Chinese spring rolls, even when they’re accompanied by a Thai sweet chili dipping sauce. The mild bone-in chicken curry carries a faint echo of India, as does the sinigang na salmon, a sweet, surprisingly supple soup tarted up with tamarind powder. The tocino pork, a sublime confluence of Chinese and Spanish ingredients, takes bite-size pieces of pork butt (cured in brown sugar, sugar cane vinegar, soy sauce and more) and boils them in water until the liquids reduce into a sweet, savory, deeply satisfying sauce.
Pork is central to the Filipino table, a gift from the Spaniards. Matthew’s Grill serves up several plates that speak to the country’s love of pig — and not just the loin, shoulder and belly cuts familiar to mainstream diners. The crispy pata is a bone-in leg, trotter and all, simmered and deep-fried until the entire mass of meat, skin and tendon is transformed into something rich, sticky and crunchy. Dunked into a vinegar-soy sauce mixture, spiked with bird’s eye chiles, the hunks of pata are pure punk: loud and undeniable.
Don’t look for the crispy pata on the buffet. It must be ordered a la carte; the same goes for Domingo’s other pork-based showpieces. As he does with a number of traditional Filipino dishes, Domingo takes liberties with his sizzling pork sisig: He ditches the usual head meat in favor of fried belly, which the kitchen chops and tosses with chicken liver, onions and a hard hit of calamansi citrus to balance the richness. Traditional or not, I went whole hog on that sisig. I might have done the same with lechon kawali, striated blocks of deep-fried pork belly, but I found them a tad too one-note, like a marathon of Seth Rogen movies.
Domingo has a backstory as multilayered as his country’s cuisine. He’s a native of Pampanga, a province in Central Luzon known as the “culinary capital of the Philippines.” The title is no joke. Local Filipino cooks have been known to stress out when a Kapampangan enters their restaurant. But Domingo worked in the construction business, not kitchens, in the Philippines. He turned to cooking only in 2005, four years after he moved to New Jersey. His wife, Maria, encouraged him. He started a part-time catering business around 2007 and then leapt headfirst into the hospitality industry last March when an uncle, a real estate broker, enticed him to Gaithersburg to open Matthew’s Grill.
The restaurant is named for Domingo’s 12-year-old son, the one who still lives in Jersey, the one who the chef visits every few weeks when he’s not fussing over customers in the utilitarian dining room, where Matthew’s name glows in neon. Domingo calls the arrangement a necessary sacrifice for his son’s future.
If I’m making a donation to Matthew’s college fund with every order of dinuguan (the moody pork belly stew’s minerality has no bottom), every plate of kare-kare (the peanut sauce brings order to this stew of beef rib and oxtail) or every serving of stuffed milkfish (whose semi-oily flesh assumes a more acidic persona with its dipping sauce), then you might as well call me Uncle Tim. I’ll be a regular contributor. I might even try the balut again for the cause.
213 Muddy Branch Rd., Gaithersburg. 301-990-8858. matthewsgrill.com.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday-Friday; 11:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday; 11:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday.
Prices: $12 to $18 for lunch and dinner buffets; $1.50 to $15 for appetizers; $8 to $20 for entrees.