May-June 2016 | Featured Article

Table Talk: Where to Find Filipino Food in Rockville

Plus, traditional Taiwanese and Korean cafés

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Photo by Laura Chase McGehee

Brother-Sister Act

Sibling chefs churn out Filipino goodies in Rockville

Kuya Ja’s Lechon Belly

Chef Javier Fernandez displays his specialty, lechon belly (above). Baker Stella Fernandez with ube cake, a Filipino treat (below). Photos by Laura Chase McGehee

While he searches for space in Rockville to open a fast-casual restaurant called Kuya Ja’s Lechon Belly, chef Javier Fernandez holds pop-ups on Saturdays (9 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.)
at his sister Stella Fernandez’s wholesale bakery in Rockville, Gwenie’s Desserts.

Fernandez, 32, a graduate of L’Academie de Cuisine in Gaithersburg, left his job as chef at Met Bethesda in October. Though he offers a varied menu of Filipino items at his pop-up, Fernandez’s focus is on lechon, a roasted pork belly dish that is a specialty of Cebu, the Philippine island his family is from. A combo plate (with crunchy Filipino egg rolls, rice, salad, drink) is $10.

To make lechon, Fernandez brines pork belly for one-and-a-half days, ties it around pork tenderloin and an aromatic stuffing of lemongrass, garlic, scallions and spices, scores the skin and bakes the roast for six hours, thus rendering the fat. He blasts it on high temperature at the end to crisp the skin. “If the skin isn’t crispy, you may as well throw the whole thing out,” he says. You likely won’t be throwing this lechon out—you’ll want to eat all of it.

At Gwenie’s Desserts, 12113 Nebel St., Rockville, 301-468-0639,

Gwenie’s Desserts.

While working as a housekeeper for a Bethesda family 10 years ago, Gwen Fernandez started a business out of her own house, making baked goods from her native Philippines for friends who had Filipino stores. The business grew so much over the years that in 2010 her daughter Stella, 34, gave up a job at the National Institutes of Health to make the business her career. Stella co-owns and runs the business now; her mother helps with developing new products and ideas.

They built their own production kitchen in a small industrial strip in Rockville last year. They now have 17 wholesale clients in Maryland and Virginia.

On Saturdays (9 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.), Gwenie’s hosts pop-ups (along with Javier Fernandez’s pop-up) in the production kitchen, offering such Filipino goodies as:

Ube (purple yam) pie ($4.50/slice): made with taro root extract and purple food coloring, with a thick, pastry-cream-like base and taro buttercream topping

Ube cake ($4.25/slice): purple layer-cake version of ube pie

Mongo hopia ($3.75/five pieces): pastry with bean paste

Pan de siopao ($2/each): like Chinese bao buns but baked and filled with pork asado and hard-boiled egg

12113 Nebel St., Rockville, 301-237-4823,

Janet Yu of Hollywood East Café cooks Taiwanese fare, including snap pea, mushroom and lily bulb stir-fry (left) and Taiwanese fried chicken. Photo by Laura Chase McGehee

Taiwan On

Sometimes a restaurant’s menu doesn’t divulge all the kitchen has to offer. Such is the case at Hollywood East Café in Wheaton. In February, Janet Yu, owner of the longtime eatery now located in Westfield Wheaton mall, prepared a Taiwanese lunch comprised of dishes representing the island’s culinary evolution and historical influences. The feast was hosted by

Les Dames d’Escoffier, a women’s organization devoted to promoting the culinary profession.

The bad news: The Taiwanese dishes are not featured on Yu’s regular menu. The good news: With three days’ notice, she will gladly prepare them for you.
These items are worth making that call:

Taiwanese fried chicken, an homage to the street foods found at Taiwan’s famous night markets. Yu’s chicken, redolent of five-spice powder, is a plateful of golf ball-size nuggets covered with a light, crunchy coating. “The secret,” says Yu, “is sweet potato starch. It makes the chicken crispy but still tender.”

Fresh lily bulbs, snap peas and wood-ear and black mushrooms sautéed with ginger and garlic. Dried lily bulbs are often used medicinally in soup; they are said to be mind-calming. Fresh, they are slightly sweet, delicate and delicious.

Hakka-style stir-fried cuttlefish and vegetables in Yu’s house-made XO sauce. The sauce is prepared with dried shrimp and scallops, bacon, cured ham, garlic and peppers.

11160 Veirs Mill Road (Westfield Wheaton mall), Wheaton, 240-290-9988,

Photo by Laura Chase McGehee

First Taste


When bartender Jung-Ah Park bought Sligo Café from David Galinsky last year, she and general manager Katie Golden decided to ditch the original concept. The Silver Spring market was saturated with American eateries, says Park, and unfavorable press had gained the space a bad reputation. She realized that what was missing was food from her own country, Korea. In February, she opened BiBim, a 65-seat full-service, casual restaurant, with a bustling 50-seat patio. It has a great local vibe much as its late, lamented ex-neighbor, Jackie’s Restaurant and Sidebar, had.

The Concept: Park badgered her mother for recipes and tinkered with them, relying on line cooks to execute them. The centerpiece of the menu is bibimbap, the Korean meal-in-a-bowl dish of rice (bibim means mixed, bap means rice) usually topped with vegetables, sauces (especially gochujang, which is red chili paste), protein and a fried egg. BiBim offers composed bowls ($13-$16) and a build-your-own option ($10 and up).

Dishes to Try: Chicken wings dredged in potato starch are crispy, juicy and lightly coated, rather than stodgy and sauce-laden like double-coated Korean wings found elsewhere. Another fine option is ssam, plates of sizzling marinated meat or oyster mushrooms served with lettuce cups, rice and dipping sauces.

Takeaway: BiBim could use the steady hand of a professional chef, but definitely shows promise.

923 Sligo Ave., Silver Spring, 301-565-2233,

Comings & Goings

In Westfield Montgomery mall in Bethesda, supernova chef José Andrés announced a summer debut for the first Maryland location of his quickly expanding fast-casual, (mostly) vegetarian eatery, Beefsteak.

Also look for a summer opening, this time on Bethesda Row, of a fast-casual concept from the Denver-based operator of Modern Market restaurants. The website features familiar buzzwords: tasty, affordable, healthy, farm-to-table, American fare.

The British restaurant and pub Union Jack’s ended an 11-year run on St. Elmo Avenue in Bethesda in February. The space is slated to become Tapp’d Bethesda, a beer-centric pub.

In more brew news, World of Beer is coming to Bethesda, in The JBG Cos.’ 7200 Wisconsin Ave. building. The franchise, known for an extensive beer list, previously announced plans for a location near Rockville Town Square.

Chef Michael Harr and Francis Namin’s City Burger on Wisconsin Avenue in Bethesda closed in February. Harr left the business, which Namin is replacing with Fish Taco, a Southwest/Mexican fast-casual concept with locations in Cabin John and Bethesda.

Potomac Pizza in the Kentlands in Gaithersburg was expected to reopen as Potomac Village Deli in April. The deli’s Potomac location was a popular spot before closing in 2006.

Also planning to open in April was Pi Pizzeria, an eatery filling the Pitzze space on Wisconsin Avenue in Bethesda.