This review appears in The Washington Post’s 2018 Fall Dining Guide as No. 10 on a list of the year’s top 10 restaurants.
Kuya Ja’s Lechon Belly: 5268-H Nicholson Lane, Rockville, Md. 240-669-4383. kuyajas.com.
Open: Breakfast, lunch and dinner Wednesday through Monday; breakfast and lunch Tuesdays.
Prices: Sandwiches, bowls and combination meals, $6.99-$12.59.
Sound check: 74 decibels / Must speak with raised voice.
The Top 10 restaurants of 2018:
The following preview was originally published May 24, 2018.
It’s been said that the best roasted pig in the Philippines is found on the island of Cebu, which happens to be where the chef and co-owner of the upstart Kuya Ja’s Lechon Belly, a fast-casual storefront in Rockville, was born.
While I’ve never been to the Philippines, I can attest to the great satisfaction of the pork belly as made by Javier Fernandez, whose slow-cooked lechon sports mahogany skin that shatters like glass and meat that resonates with lemon grass, garlic and the sweetness of pineapple. Framing the fleshy pleasure are a scoop of steamed rice and a nest of pickled papaya slaw, sharpened with a gingery vinaigrette.
No surprise, the pig “is the star of the show,” says the chef, a 2007 graduate of the former L’Academie de Cuisine, who runs the 23-seat Kuya Ja’s with his wife, Jennifer. Their concept began as a pop-up in Gwenie’s Pastries, the chef’s sister’s nearby wholesale bakery; the name of the couple’s venture borrows from the word for “big brother” in Tagalog (kuya) and the chef’s nickname (Ja).
Bring some patience. I’ve never dropped by without being met by a line. Yet the order-takers behind the counter are a cheerful bunch and the reward for any wait is food that tastes as though Fernandez and company have taken time to get right. Lumpia are pencil-thin wands of fried pastry filled with pureed shrimp, ground pork and vegetables that retain delicate crunch. Empanadas arrive as flaky half-moons that break open to reveal ground-beef centers. They are best eaten with a riff on ranch dressing, green with cilantro and tomatillo. (“It’s not Filipino,” says the chef of the dip, “but I like it.”) Kuya Ja also makes a burger, shaped in part using a sweet chorizo that’s made in-house, topped with a fried egg and served with a spicy mayonnaise. The sandwich’s sole flaw is a batch of blank french fries.
Pancit is a kitchen sink made compelling with slippery rice noodles, scrambled egg, moist slivers of chicken, cabbage, shrimp and more, offered with a wedge of lemon to brighten the eating. The dish, moistened with shrimp broth, is made to order, boosting its appeal — a detail that also elevates the jumble of headcheese, pig ears, Thai chile, garlic and cane vinegar known as sisig. The latter, fatty and chewy in parts, is an acquired taste. (I’m sold on the stuff.)
Meals destined for a ledge or table in the cramped dining area are staged on aluminum trays. Takeout accounts for 70 percent of business, reports the chef, whose mentors include Jeff Black and the late Michel Richard.
Returning his sister’s favor of a space for his pop-up, Fernandez, 34, offers Stella Fernandez’s desserts, including cheesecake, flan, cupcakes in flavors including ube (purple yam) and ice candies that bring to mind freezer pops, except they’re sold in plastic slips rather than on sticks.