Balangay Restaurant Review: Ambitious Filipino Cooking in a Popup

Erwin Villarias’ great-grandfather was one of seven men who boarded a narrow wooden boat on Cagayancillo, a small island in the Sulu Sea, and set sail in search of. . . What exactly? The historical record is unclear. More arable land? lush forests to provide timber for the construction of Balangay boats, the main form of transportation among the islanders? Maybe just a better life?

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Whatever the motive, Villarias’ predecessor and the rest of the crew came upon the pristine coast, the northeastern coast of Palawan, a long, skinny strip of land that seemed to be trying to escape from the rest of the Philippine archipelago. The area had everything men wanted: low areas, ideal for growing rice, coconut, and other crops; abundant marine life for fishing; and virgin forests for wood. The men eventually settled on the land and called it home. In 1951, their thriving community was officially recognized as the municipality of Roxas, the birthplace of Villarias.

On his phone, Villarias, 36, holds a photo of the decision that created a permanent sign dedicated to pioneers who have “shown their dedication, perseverance and diligence” in making Roxas what it is today. Send me a copy. The first of the “Seven Brave Men” mentioned in the document is his great-grandfather: Benito Cardigon.

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When he started his own adventure, a pop-up restaurant inside Bullfrog Bagels on H Street NE in Washington, Villarias called it a Balangay, for the type of boat his great-grandfather used to navigate the rough seas between Cagayancillo and Roxas. Chef had never met Cardigon, but the sheikh was, according to an official source, a boat maker by trade. Cardejon could have used available resources—perhaps the hardwood of a dongon or barayong tree, cut down by craftsmen under a moonlit sky—to build seaworthy ships that could transport goods between islands. Or even unlock new worlds.

It’s not hard to see the symbolic, if not literal, links between Cardejon and his grandson: As a chef, Villarias works with his hands too. He uses available resources – ingredients sourced from his kitchen – to build dishes that carry the flavors, memories, and history of the Philippines straight to American diners. They are also dishes that, based on my taste, will take him places. Perhaps it was just a coincidence that Villarias’ nickname is “The Wing,” as if he was destined to fly.

Balangay is still a business in progress, as is every pop-up, but even in her faltering youth you can see where Villarias might one day find itself in a chain of Filipino cooking in the province, somewhere akin to the chef-paid ingenuity of a saint The bad rather than the game’s innovative amenities. There is an aspiration in the chef’s cooking, the kind of brave ambition once championed by the poet Robert Browning, whose reach always remains beyond your reach. You can tell that Villarias has trained in some disciplined kitchens. Among them are Makito led by Eric Brunner Yang and the now closed Bibiana, which was once part of the Ashok Bajaj restaurant constellation.

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A good place to start is the little Tagalog language from Villarias. It takes the island standard, essentially a Filipino take on steak and onions, and extends it beyond recognition. A slab of short-fork ribs is paired with caramelized pearl onions, pickled red bell peppers and diluted with soy and coconut, the latter of which is a sauce that leans on the sweet, milky flavors extracted from those dry flavors scattered throughout his hometown. Eat the dish like a Filipino revisit of beef bourguignon.

The Inasal chicken is something special, too, although it’s a bit tougher than one you might be familiar with: you know, a spiced bird whose canary yellow skin has been marked by a hot grill grate. Villarias broth – a thick blend of coconut milk, garlic, lemongrass, and more – turns this Filipino roast chicken into scrambled chicken. Fried chicken wings, practically caramelized with adobo sauce and garnished with sautéed garlic and onions, topped with pub fare, camera ready for prom.

Villarias takes an informed approach to developing their menu. Almost half of the dishes are what the chef calls “vegetarian friendly” and what I call delicious under any name. The dish referred to simply as “green beans” is ridiculously under-selling: It’s an umami-rich mixture of vegetables, some fried, some glazed and one ready to explode on contact. Puso ng saging, the name which translates to “banana heart,” is a dish of fried banana blossoms, roasted king mushrooms, soybean-glazed tofu, and more, all drenched in fragrant coconut milk, looking colorful and lively. ominous. The dish turned out to be a surprisingly “meaty” preparation, a little sweet and a little tasty.

One evening during the 4th of July weekend, my friend and I sat on two decks by the front windows at Bullfrog, Balangay’s first customers of the night. It was about eight in the evening on a Saturday. The waiter and server were singing with T.I. and Lady Gaga on the sound system, beaming at their work. Meanwhile, the kitchen missed some tunes. Kinilao, salmon and mango, turned into a fruit salad when it arrived without the fish. My friend’s Tofu Inasal dish was missing at least two garnishes, including roasted cashews, depriving the dish of balancing the crunch.

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I should point out that Villarias took a vacation that weekend, which indicates how important his presence is to Balangay’s success – and, perhaps, how he still needs to evolve on the training and management side of kitchen management. However, Villarias may not have much time to tighten up their systems, at least as a pop-up in Bullfrog Bagels.

Jeremiah Cohen, founder of Bullfrog, told me that while he’s been enjoying hosting Balangay and seeing no reason to end the pop-up, the future of this relationship is out of his hands. Cohen says the building’s owner plans to renovate it soon. Construction can begin in six months. or nine months. or even later. The timetable is not yet clear.

What is clear, however, is that Villarias has clever ideas and the pieces to pull it off. He shouldn’t find himself adrift now that he’s charted a path for Balangay, one that promises a lot of good things.

1341 H St. NE, Inside Bullfrog Bagels; balangaydc.com.

hours: 6 to 9 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 5 to 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, and 5 to 9 p.m. on Sunday. Closed on Mondays and Tuesdays.

nearest metro: Union Station, with a roughly one-mile ride to the popup.

the prices: From $8 to $26 for all items on the menu.

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