Kuya Ja’s Lechon Belly

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.

Outside Kuya Ja’s restaurant in Rockville, MD

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.

Inside Kuya Ja’s restaurant in Rockville, MD

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.

Kuya Ja’s dinner: lechon belly and crispy adobo chicken sandwich

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 dinner: lechon belly combo with Ube Brazo for dessert

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.

Best Bite
Paul: Lechon belly
Marnay: Crispy chicken

Address
Kuya Ja’s Lechon Belly: 5268-H Nicholson Lane Rockville, MD 20895
Closest Metro: White Flint

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5 Best Pizzerias in the DMV

In our household, we like pizza. A lot. Part of this is due to the fact that we each grew up in pizza-crazy regions of the country (New Jersey and Philadelphia, respectively) and part has to do with the fact that pizza makes a relatively inexpensive night out. After living in the DC-area for the last five years, our taste in pizza has changed from New York style to Neapolitan, but when it comes down to it, a good pizza transcends styles.

Without further ado, here is our list of the top five pizzerias in the DMV. Note that it’s not in order, because they are all excellent!

Inferno Pizzeria Napoletana

Inferno graces our list having the “chefiest” pizzas around, made by former Oval Room executive chef Tony Conte. You will do well with a classic margherita, but this is the place to load-up on top-notch toppings and well-thought out pizza-creations. One of our favorites was a summertime special – a shrimp sausage pizza with sweet corn, smoked parmesan and basil. Don’t forget to end your meal with soft serve ice cream!

Inferno Pizzeria Napoletana

Inferno Pizzeria Napoletana soft serve ice cream

Frankly Pizza

Frankly Pizza is the place for pork. That’s because chef-owner Frank Linn makes his own bacon and sausage The crust is thicker than the other pizzerias on this list and the tomato sauce is a touch sweeter. It’s liberally applied, but not excessive. The Porky Marge is the best way to experience Frankly Pizza, with mozzarella, bacon, basil, tomato sauce and a light topping of romano cheese. The restaurant has a very small selection other than pizza, so you may want to try multiple pies while you are here, along with a housemade soda.

Frankly Pizza Porky Marge

Pizzeria Vetri

Our award for best crust goes to Philadelphia-import Pizzeria Vetri. The crispness and char are something to behold. We like to wash it down with a beer or wine, both on draft. Since the crispiness of the crust makes for a lighter pie, we have plenty of room to pair it with a rotolo, a cinnamon roll-looking creation filled with ricotta, mortadella and pistachio pesto.

Pizzeria Vetri neapolitan pizza

Pizzeria Vetri pistachio rotolo

Pizza CS

Pizza CS, in the Twinbrook section of Rockville, has taken the time to earn VPN-certification, making pizzas to the exacting standards of the international Neapolitan pizza organization. This is the place to go when you’re in the mood for an absolutely textbook Neapolitan pizza. Pizza CS is good for kids, since it’s a counter-order spot with plenty of space of kids to run around. Other than pizza, there are a few basic salads to choose from, so come to CS to get your pizza-fix. Plus, there’s foosball.

Pizza CS

Pizza CS

Pacci’s
Pacci’s is our neighborhood pizzeria and we feel fortunate that we have it in walking distance. The pies here are Neapolitan and margherita is your best bet if it’s your first visit. Our favorite, however, is the La Diavola, which really brings the heat. That traditional Neapolitan base is then topped with copious slices of spicy Neapolitan salami. If it’s nice out, ask to sit on their large outdoor patio. The experience is worth it.

Pacci’s La Diavola Pizza

I hope that you enjoyed our list! What are you favorite pizzerias? They don’t even have to be in the DMV – a great pizza is something worth traveling for!

Bob’s Shanghai 66

Bob’s Shanghai 66 is located in a strip mall just off Rockville Pike, near the Rockville metro station. It has been in Washingtonian’s Best Cheap Eats for many years, so I was very excited to finally get to try it.

Bobs Shanghai 66

When we walked inside from the cold at 8pm on a Friday, the dinner rush was just about ending. We were greeted by a genial host who brought us to our table. Upon being seated, we were served complementary tea. The menu at Bob’s is long, but it helps to go in knowing that they specialize in soup dumplings, also known as XLB. You will want to make sure soup dumplings are part of your meal at Bob’s.

We took our own advice on the soup dumplings and also ordered lamb with cumin, sautéed snow pea tips (leaves) and dry noodles with pork. It takes practice to eat the dumplings, because they are twice the size of normal dumplings. They are also filled with very hot broth, so putting the whole thing in your mouth and biting it is out of the question. My suggestion is to gently pierce the top and have a spoon nearby, ready to scoop up the rich, gelatinous, porcine broth.

Bobs Shanghai 66 dinner

The surprise hit of the night was the snow pea tips. Next time we sauté greens at home, this is how I want them to taste. The preparation is simply snow pea leaves cooked in flavored cooking oils. Even when our table was crowded with food, this was the dish we kept coming back to. Also a surprise was that, at $16.95, they were the most expensive dish of the night.

Both ma and la of “mala” were present in the lamb with cumin. I had heard of mala before and knew that it had something to do with Sichuan peppercorns, but I did not know the exact translation until a read a review by the New York Times’ Ligaya Mishan of a restaurant named Sichuan Dry Pot. She explained that “ma” means tingling and “la” refers to heat.  The lamb was not quite as spicy as similar dishes at Peter Chang, but it was full of flavor.  I happily ate the leftovers for lunch on Monday. The dry noodles with ground pork, on the other hand, were unremarkable.  They were not bad, but it isn’t something I would order again.

As we finished our meal, the kitchen staff sat down at a spot near us to enjoy a tableful of their hard work.  Bob’s Shanghai 66 is a good deal in a metro-accessible location in Rockville. We will be back.

Best Bite
Paul and Marnay: Snow pea tips

Address
Bob’s Shanghai 66: 305 N Washington Street Rockville, MD 20850
Closest Metro: Rockville

Peter Chang

We made a game-time decision on a Thursday night to go to Peter Chang in Rockville Town Center. Peter Chang is the former chef at the Chinese Embassy and has a history of opening a restaurant in the South and then disappearing. More about that here

The restaurant was crowded when we arrived, but we got a table right away. We started out with two of his signature dishes: scallion bubble pancakes and dry fried eggplant. The dry fried eggplant looks like thick French fries dusted with Szechuan peppercorns and herbs, along with a sprinkle of salt. The peppercorns are more than just spicy, they truly give off a numbing sensation.

The scallion bubble pancake is one of the craziest things we have ever eaten, a work of art. I’m just glad that we have visual proof of the thing, because it’s hard to do it justice through words alone. It tasted a little like fried wontons, but more doughy and more like fresh bread. Very addicting and very difficult to stop eating, especially when dipped in a warm curry sauce.

These were just our appetizers. We knew we were ordering more food than we could eat, but the food makes for great leftovers. Marnay got Golden Mountain Chicken, which is similar to a classic Sesame Chicken but much fresher. This is what Sesame Chicken wishes it could be.

I got the Szechuan Double Cooked Pork Belly, which was stir-fried with leeks, cabbage and Szechuan black bean paste. This was a very rich dish. It’s was not particularly spicy, although I don’t think it was intended to be. The leeks were the most prominent non-pork belly part of the dish. The white parts of the leeks felt more incorporated in the dish than the green parts. The black bean sauce was subtle and didn’t overpower the dish, it just added a little saltiness. Not too much, though, because the dish already had plenty of salt from the pork belly.

Overall, it was a fantastic Szechuan dinner. I am sure that we will be back to Peter Chang, and soon!

Address
Peter Chang: 20A Maryland Ave, Rockville, MD 20850
Closest Metro: Rockville