Food critic

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.


The signature slow roasted Cebu-style pork belly at Kuya Ja’s Lechon Belly in Rockville. (Dayna Smith/For The Washington Post)

No. 10. Kuya Ja’s Lechon Belly

(Good)

Of the many advancements on the dining scene in recent years, the rise of Philippine restaurants has been among the most exciting, a trend famously jump-started by Bad Saint in the District three years ago and nurtured since by upstarts including Kuya Ja’s Lechon Belly in Rockville. The name of the suburban storefront tells you what to order: slow-cooked pork that gets its savor from lemongrass, pineapple and garlic; its sound effects from mahogany skin that breaks apart like glass. Add to the beast some pickled papaya slaw and rice with toasted garlic, and you can believe co-owner Javier Fernandez when he says customers come from as far away as New York. The only thing I question is where the fans sit. Twenty-three seats translate to lines at both lunch and dinner, and lechon is by no means the sole attraction. The piping hot lumpia are the best around, chicken adobo pulses with soy sauce, garlic and vinegar; and desserts, from the chef’s sister’s nearby bakery, run to colorful shaved ice, cupcakes and rich custards. Some of the combinations may test your sense of ad­ven­ture; sisig is a stir-fry of pigs ears, headcheese, Thai chile, garlic and cane vinegar — funky, fiery and fabulous, you should know. Starting this month, Fernandez is rolling out a reservation-only dinner on Tuesday nights, at which diners will eat the chef’s food off tables covered in banana leaves, with their hands. Break out the moist towelettes and open wide.

2 stars

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:

10. Kuya Ja’s Lechon Belly

9. Little Havana

8. Three Blacksmiths

7. Spoken English

6. Momofuku

5. Maydan

4. Himitsu

3. Centrolina

2. Pineapple and Pearls

1. Del Mar

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The following preview was originally published May 24, 2018.


Staples of the menu at Kuya Ja’s Lechon Belly include, from left, lechon belly, pork and shrimp lumpia, and pancit with shrimp, chicken and noodles. (Dayna Smith/For The Washington Post)

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).


Chef-owner Javier Fernandez holds the signature slow-roasted, Cebu-style pork belly. (Dayna Smith/For The Washington Post)

Pancit with shrimp, chicken, egg and noodles at the fast-casual restaurant in Rockville. (Dayna Smith/For The Washington Post)

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.)


Fried beef empanadas served with cilantro and tomatillo dip. “It’s not Filipino,” Fernandez says of the ranchlike condiment, “but I like it.” (Dayna Smith/For The Washington Post)

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.