I’m going to open this review by admitting that it’s difficult for me to be objective in it. Being Filipino-American, I spent a great deal of my childhood wondering why there existed no successful Filipino restaurant in the DC metro area, where I grew up amidst a thriving Filipino-American community. The past few years have seen an influx of Filipino restaurants in New York, California and other parts of the country. There exist plenty of excellent Filipino restaurants in the Philippines —obviously— and it’s hard to picture a major city that doesn’t have Chinese, Japanese, Thai, and Vietnamese food. So why is Filipino food taking so long to catch on in a country that has so much history and maintains such close, amicable political ties with the Philippines? The Philippines is the most westernized (Americanized?) country in Asia and utilizes American English as a second language, but our food hasn’t been big in the food scene. Until now.
I’m not going to answer the riddle of “Why aren’t there more Filipino restaurants?” That could be its own post. But I just wanted to say that, having grown up with the cooking of my family, I’m a pretty hard sell when it comes to Filipino food. If I can make it better and for cheaper, I probably won’t be impressed with a restaurant.
That being said, I’m so proud of Chef Cristina Quackenbush and her team for what they’ve done with Milkfish, taking it from a pop-up that’s travelled across the city to its new home in MidCity. Chef Cristina (no H… a very Filipino spelling of the name) has spent two years recreating and finessing her menu, and the hard work is showing. Dishes have gotten more beautifully plated. Vegetarian (perhaps vegan?) options have been added to a menu accurately reflecting a country’s love of pork and seafood.
Chef Cristina also devoted time and effort to fundraising for Typhoon Haiyan victims with both proceeds from her pop-up and from a Christmas gala last year with other local chefs. Money, I must add, that a more selfish person would have put toward opening her restaurant. Having patronized Milkfish in all its incarnations, I can bring you a full review of their current menu. Let’s start with the small plates:
Lumpia is the Filipino equivalent of an egg roll. Filipino cuisine has many influences—Malaysia, China, The USA, Spain… You can also find some influence from other countries like India (e.g. curry) but I’d say those are the four primary sources. The “Lumpia” at Milkfish comes in “regular” form, in the shape and size you’d expect and also in “Shanghai,” named after an obvious influence, which is meat-heavy and a little smaller than a pinky finger.
Lechon Kawali is pork belly that’s cut into cubes and deep-fried until crispy. Not for those watching their cholesterol but a great treat, especially with beer.
Kinilaw is the equivalent of ceviche, but think of coconut milk, green mango, and fresh chili. Island flavors. Extremely refreshing, it will make you think you’re on a beach. It always makes me want a rum cocktail.
Sinigang is another signature Filipino dish. It’s a tamarind broth soup that can contain pretty much any protein—in this case pork—and always comes with some form of cruciferous greens—in this case bok choy and spinach. If you like Tom Yum, it’s that kind of sour flavor but without being (as) spicy.
Bagoong Fried Rice. Bagoong is fermented shrimp paste and, to me, the signature flavor of southeast Asia. No other cuisines really use it outside of the region. I happen to LOVE it since I grew up Filipino-American, but it has a very potent smell. The deep umami taste would probably convince other people to like it. The rice is fried in bagoong and has pork, garlic, egg, and green mango. I could eat a whole pot of this.
Spam Fried Rice. Any island involved with the United States has a love affair with Spam—I think American soldiers brought it over maybe? Also, it’s an import, so it’s obviously a delicacy. (Like the way we used to think of Nutella as being exotic and European until it became a grocery staple.) So just like Hawaii has Musubi, the Philippines has Spam Fried Rice. Onion, garlic, more egg. A great dish – as long as you like Spam – that reminds me of Filipino breakfast.
Veggie Fried Rice. I’m not going to explain this one.
Pulutan Sampler. A mix of lumpia and kawali with the addition of grilled chicken and crispy pig tail.
And for the Entrees, which almost all come with coconut rice or garlic fried rice:
Adobo. This is the Philippines’ signature dish. Like every Indian family has a unique curry recipe, every Filipino family has their adobo recipe. It always involves vinegar, garlic, black pepper, and soy sauce. It’s incredibly balanced, which is why I think everyone loves it. It’s available with chicken or pork (its two most famous proteins), but in the Philippines you can find endless versions involving everything from squid to lamb. Chef Cristina stews pork ribs until their meat is fork-tender. If you want to eat adobo the way my family does, order a combo of Chicken and Pork together.
Kare-Kare is my favorite. Oxtails stewed in peanut butter with eggplant, bok choy, and green beans. Think of it like a curry but without spices. It’s a wonderful dish that’s usually served with bagoong on the side, but chef incorporates it right into the dish. Beefy, hearty, and satisfying. If you want to be a difficult customer, order the “Andrew Special,” which is Kare-Kare served OVER Bagoong Fried Rice. Two birds. One stone.
Sisig is a dish born on American bases, when someone got creative with the leftover pig heads and concocted a sizzling mess of pork face, chicken liver, garlic, and calamansi (a tropical citrus similar to lime). It comes with a sunny-side up egg, that in truth I’ve always received with an accidentally solid yolk at Milkfish, but I’m not complaining. It goes very well with cold beer, and in Filipino lore, it’s supposed to be a hangover cure.
Bistek (“beefsteak”) is a beef dish that’s sautéed with onions and soy sauce. It comes with a side of tomato salad, which a lot of Filipino families use to supplement meat or fried fish dishes. Easy to like.
Diniguan, nicknamed “chocolate meat” for its color, is a pork stew made with pig’s blood and no chocolate. Chef makes one of the best versions of this dish I’ve had, but it’s not really my thing. (That’s just a personal opinion.) Lots of Filipinos love it, so it’s something for the adventurous diner.
Pancit is like Filipino chow mein, thin noodles with vegetables and your choice of meat or shrimp. Pancit Malabon is similar but with pork belly, seafood, and much thicker rice noodles. A Filipino superstition is eating this on your birthday for long life, so I ate it during Milkfish’s soft opening and wished them the same luck.
Pinakbet is pork and shrimp sautéed with bagoong and veggies. This dish doesn’t get as much love in most Filipino restaurants or kitchens, but I’d say it sums up the country nicely in terms of signature ingredients.
Tosilog is a portmanteau of tocino (cured Filipino bacon), sinangag (garlic fried rice), and itlog (egg). Filipinos refer to lots of breakfast dishes as ___silog. The Tocino, a sweetened pork, is cured in house, and this is a fantastic “breakfast for dinner” or Sunday Brunch suggestion.
Milkfish, or “Bangus” as we call it in Filipino, is the namesake of the restaurant and the Philippines’ national fish. It’s easily the most popular fish in the country. (There’s a whole chain of restaurants in the Philippines named “Bangus.”) Chef Cristina changes the preparation of this regularly, but I most recently had it in Ginataang Bangus, which means braised in coconut milk with slices of red cabbage and coconut rice. It’s fantastic, and the fish is sought for its visibly fatty belly. Definitely worth a try if you’re a seafood lover.
I admit I don’t know the dessert menu by heart, but Turon is plantains and jackfruit wrapped in lumpia wrappers and deep-fried. It’s not too sweet, thankfully. Maybe someday she’ll serve it over coconut ice cream, like a Filipino Bananas Foster.
Well, that’s all I have for you. I hope you go give Milkfish a try. I was worried I wouldn’t like the finished restaurant and nitpick everything to death and have to write a half-hearted post, but the team has done an amazing job. Things weren’t always so pretty—I’ve had overcooked pork belly and oily pancit in the pop-up past, but it looks like they’ve worked out all the kinks. I had the pleasure of dining with my friend Nina and her son Dan. As three Filipino-Americas of different generations, we were all satisfied… impressed even.
Milkfish is BYOB until they get their liquor license, but you should definitely take advantage of their freshly squeezed tropical juices. Bring some Batavia Arrack if you have it lying around.
125 N. Carrolton Avenue
New Orleans, LA 70119
Thursday – Tuesday: 11am – 11pm