Joining a growing media chorus, gastronomic luminaries Anthony Bourdain and April Bloomfield issued similar predictions this year about Filipino cooking’s prominence in America, with both calling it the next big thing. The problems of broadly trendifying and commodifying an entire culture aside, such a proclamation likely won’t surprise you if you’ve ever spent time shopping and eating at the Filipino vendors, grocers, and restaurants centered in Woodside, Queens, and peppered elsewhere around the city. The heightened recognition might even seem long overdue, especially if it happens to be the cuisine you were reared on in a Filipino household.
For Armando Litiatco, it’s “amazing, for sure, to see people talking about Filipino food.” The Manila-born chef points to the archipelago nation’s incredible diversity, responsible for scintillating stews made with peanuts and tamarind, hulking deep-fried pig parts, and coconut rice tamales. (The country is also the home of balut, or boiled duck embryo, which has yet to catch on with the wider foodie culture.) “We’re just scratching the surface,” Litiatco adds. “Hopefully it’s not a trend. There’s so much more to the seven thousand islands, and I really hope we get to explore that.” The chef, who grew up in Northern California and spent time cooking at Daniel, that haughty bastion of haute cuisine on the Upper East Side, adds to the conversation at F.O.B. (Fresh off the Boat), an adorable Carroll Gardens restaurant where he and partner Ahmet Kiranbay evoke “a grandmother’s home on the islands.”
As the sun set one temperate evening on F.O.B.’s serene back patio, I got to know the pleasures of bagoong, a bordering-on-brackish fermented seafood paste that is to fish sauce in method and concentration what miso is to soy sauce. Litiatco works the briny stuff into a lemony dressing for the jicama-and-watermelon salad ($10) and into the marinade for a platter of thinly sliced grilled lamb leg. While those two immediately caught my attention, I was downright gobsmacked by the $3.50 side of laing, greens sautéed with bagoong and tiny, ferocious red chiles then barely tamed by a dash of coconut milk. In fact, the graciously affordable sides ($3.50 each or $5 for two when paired with an entrée) make it blessedly easy to sample a broad variety of dishes and ingredients, from pancit — springy stir-fried noodles — to green beans tossed with sweet longanisa pork sausage to callos, a sumptuous Spanish-Filipino stew of soft tripe, chickpeas, and chorizo.
Precede these supplementary tastes and any main courses ($14-$24) with appetizers ($7-$12) including an octopus chopped salad with tamarind dressing, or addictively buttery, garlicky peel-and-eat head-on shrimp, which get a dose of sweetness from the 7 Up in their marinade. Heartier starters include spicy coconut-milk-marinated chicken wings and pan-fried ground-beef dumplings fortified with fish sauce. Sisig, that audible, edible orgy of chopped and sautéed pig parts — in this case soft belly, chewy ears, and shredded, nearly melting cheeks — hits the table sizzling in a cast-iron pan, invigorated by onions, a ton of lime, and crunchy pork rinds.
Also fabulous (and sizzling) is bulalo, a fork-tender, marrow-filled beef shank braised for three hours in vegetable stock. Its velvety, earthy mushroom gravy is thickened with a roux to mimic the pale color of this West-influenced dish’s original preparation, which called for canned cream-of-mushroom soup. Just as rich and comforting are Litiatco’s two kinds of adobo, chicken thighs simmered in marinade. Both are family recipes: His father’s, from the north, renders the dark-meat chicken even darker thanks to a soy-heavy sauce backed up by garlic, vinegar, and black pepper; his mother’s southern version is suffused with coconut milk and chile peppers, adding silkiness and noticeable heat.
F.O.B. bills itself as a barbecue joint, and Litiatco’s grills stay busy: lending smokiness to juicy chicken inasal, bird halves basted in citrus and annatto butter; charring skewers of chicken and pork glazed in sweet banana ketchup; searing the fatty caps of San Miguel beer-braised spare ribs; and singeing grill marks into butterflied slabs of pork belly that smack of their vinegar, lemongrass, and dark palm sugar marinade. All come with atchara, a sour pickled-papaya slaw, but only the pork belly gets dipped into fiery, chile-spiked black cane vinegar, a fine counterpoint to the meat’s supple, flavorful fat.
Although there’s still no booze after almost a year in business, F.O.B. has set its sights on addressing other vices, providing multiple ways to satisfy your sweet tooth. Bibingka is listed with the appetizers, but the kernel-strewn rice flour cake, dense with coconut cream, eats like corn pudding, its burnished top sprinkled with farmer’s cheese. Milkshakes and slushes ($6.50) come in flavors like purple yam, avocado, and palm sugar, with tapioca pearls and cubes of grass jelly corralled at the bottom of the glass. And at meal’s end there’s no wrong move for dessert ($8). Enjoy the in-your-face-ness of halo-halo, shaved ice anointed with ice cream, all manner of jellies, sweet beans, and fruits, or dabble in nostalgia with a messy hunk of cake, its layers of peanut butter and chocolate ganache recalling the Filipino candy bar King Choc Nut. Like the restaurant Litiatco and Kiranbay have built, lush caramel flan and biko — a glorious mound of coconut sticky rice stained amber with coconut caramel — are less unassuming than they let on. And like F.O.B., they deserve your attention.
271 Smith Street