Kuya Ja’s is a Filipino counter service joint located in the White Flint area. The restaurant, which started out as a pop-up at the chef’s sister’s pastry shop, specializes in Filipino pork belly. It’s been on our radar since it was a pop-up, but once they got a permanent spot we knew we needed to head to Rockville and try it out.
Kuya Ja’s had only been open two weeks when we visited. It’s located about 0.5 miles from the White Flint metro, inside a random and partially forgotten strip mall in an area otherwise teeming with new residential high-rises. We walked there from the metro but to give a sense of where it is: the entrance to the parking lot contains a grand sign for the White Flint Mall, which is currently a pile of rubble and has been for three years.
The place opens at 5pm and when we arrived at 4:58pm there were already people queuing outside. A word of advice: this restaurant is extremely popular and also tiny, so try to go during off hours. We had a few questions when it was our turn to order at the counter, but the staff was extremely friendly and patient.
We ordered ½ pound of lechon belly and a crispy adobo chicken sandwich. As a bit of background, lechon belly is basically Filipino porchetta. The chef, whose nickname is Ja, hails from the island of Cebu which, according to the restaurant’s website, has the best lechon belly in the world.
The first thing you’ll notice about the lechon belly is that the skin is so thin and shiny from glaze it looks like glass. In fact, both Marnay and I were legitimately concerned that when we bit into it, it would be like biting into glass. Thankfully, our concerns were misplaced. Here’s another thing: Very often, the skin is the best part of meat since it gets the most flavoring, while the actual meat is a letdown. Let me tell you, that is NOT the case as Kuya Ja’s. Here, the skin is crispy and redolent of all types of umami flavors. Meanwhile, the meat is insanely tender and unctuous to the extreme. The meat is made even better by two condiments: one is a thick vinaigrette that taste a bit like soy while the other is a Filipino vinegar. Our favorite was the vinaigrette because of its balanced flavor.
The crispy chicken, with an adobo glaze and crisp lettuce on a soft hamburger bun, is also a winner. The abobo glaze, with its soy sauce undertones, turns this from a good chicken sandwich to a great one. It doesn’t hit you over the head but it is lurking in the background of every bite.
The next day we came back around 8pm. While it was packed, we miraculously got a table just before our food came out. It was a good thing, since it was raining and therefore we were either getting a table or eating standing up. (Unlike most people who come here, we do not have cars). They did not have the ½ pound of lechon belly available, but that ended up being a good thing. Instead, the staff steered us towards the lechon belly combo, which comes with white rice and atsara, or pickled ginger papaya salad. As Marnay noted, the addition of the rice made it feel like more of a meal, with the added benefit of using the rice to scoop up the sauces.
Kuya Ja’s also serves Filipino pastries from the chef’s sisters bakery, many of which contain ube halaya, a sweet paste made from purple yams. I would compare it to how red bean paste is used in Chinese and Japanese desserts. We tried the Ube Brazo, which tasted like a delightful cross between bread pudding and pound cake.
The fact that we liked Kuya Ja’s enough to go back two days in a row should tell you how we feel about this place. The incredible food, warm service and wallet-friendly prices are sure to keep us coming back again and again.
Paul: Lechon belly
Marnay: Crispy chicken
Kuya Ja’s Lechon Belly: 5268-H Nicholson Lane Rockville, MD 20895
Closest Metro: White Flint