This authentic food is the best Filipino food we’ve tasted. Go there before they’re gone!
We recently spent two weeks in Bethesda, MD (just outside of Washington, DC) for work. Each meal was treated as a time to discover different and off the beaten track eats. Lucky for us and for you our readers, we found a place that cannot be missed: Kuya Ja’s Lechon Belly.
Kuya Ja’s Lechon Belly is a pop-up hosted at Gwenie’s Desserts, a wholesale bakery. The pop-up offers a variety of authentic and extremely delicious Filipino food in addition to home-baked desserts. This is a family operation. Gwenie’s Desserts was started by Ja’s mother, Gwen, over 10 years ago in a basement. It has since grown into catering and a wholesale/distributor business that Ja’s sister, Stella now operates. Javier (Ja) hosts Kuya Ja’s Lechon Belly only on Friday from 10am-3pm and Saturday from 9 am -8:30 pm.
On a Friday afternoon, while Lora was at work, I decided to check out Kuya Ja’s Lechon Belly pop-up restaurant. The quaint storefront has a simplistic setting has a fantastic dessert case with a few tables and chairs for those wishing to dine-in. Feeling a bit hungry, I order a wide array of dishes to sample. During this time, I strike up a conversation with Chef Ja and his wife, Jen. Ja is a classically trained chef. Originally from Cebu, Philippines, Ja wants his cuisine to reflect his heritage while bringing a refined touch from his culinary training. Jen’s background is Cambodian, Thai, and Chinese. I can see that they are a great team and look forward to the meal!
Everything I tasted was incredible. I dined on the best lechon I’ve ever tried. Chef Ja makes this each day beginning at 3 AM for preparation of the meat. He cooks it for a much longer time than other Filipino cooks to render the fat and ensure that the meat is extremely moist and tender and the skin is crisp as can be. In fact, I learn he traveled back to his family home in Cebu to master this dish. I can definitely taste the love put into the lechon!
Along with the lechon, the combo plate comes with rice, crisp lumpia, atsara (a pickled papaya ginger salad) and drink. I add on a side of handmade sweet sausage (sweet pork longanisa) that tastes extremely flavorful. Although Lora was away at work, I ordered her favorite dish, sisig, to take to her. We have tried sisig from several Filipino restaurants in San Diego and Hawaii and I’ve made it at home as well. I must say that this is the tastiest sisig we’ve tried. It’s flavorful and not oily. This version does not have any organ meat. There is the perfect amount of vinegar to cut the intrinsic fattiness of the dish. Be sure to try this with one of Gwenie’s sweet Filipino rolls, pan de sal, which is Lora’s favorite way to eat this dish.
While I ate, I spent time talking with Ja and Jen. They are very methodical about their approach to starting their restaurant. Although they have very brisk business with their pop-up restaurant, they have spent the last year looking for a permanent storefront. They have a location in mind and hope to open within the next 6 months. Ideally, Ja would like to have an open kitchen so that he can interact with his customers. In the meantime, Ja is experimenting with recipes and one of his interests is making a spicy longanisa sausage to complement the sweet one he already offers.
After getting my fill of delicious Filipino food, I get an array of desserts to take back to the hotel for Lora to go along with the sisig (she has a sweet tooth)! She tried 3 different cupcakes (ube was her favorite), ube pie, three flavors of bao-like sweet buns, a tasty sweet corn pie-like dessert (maja blanca), amongst other terrific offerings. Lora claims that everything was wonderful. As with most Asian desserts, the treats are sweet, but not overly so. Her favorites were the ube pie and maja blanca.
As I write this, I’m still amazed by the hospitality of Ja and Jen AND the amazing Filipino food they serve. Especially the lechon. Oh, that lechon was heavenly and is making my mouth water as I write and think of it now! Please do yourself a favor and check out this pop-up restaurant. And be sure to order the lechon! And sisig! And save room for dessert! And order more lechon to-go! You will be glad you did!
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