In the last couple of years, Filipino-American chefs have gained fame for their food trucks, pop-ups and eateries. The East Bay seems to be having its own moment, and the local Filipino food scene got even stronger when a prominent player, FOB Kitchen, opened two months ago in Oakland’s Temescal neighborhood.
FOB Kitchen was started as a pop-up in San Francisco’s Mission District by Brandi and Janice Dulce. The business and life partners were looking for a permanent location when chef Preeti Mistry announced she was closing her five-year-old modern Indian street food restaurant Juhu Beach Club.
The Dulces took over the space, which is in a mini strip mall, and transformed it into an island paradise. (The restaurant name is reportedly the Dulce’s way to reclaim a slang term used as a slight against new immigrants from Asia — FOB means “fresh off the boat.”) The small space maintains the same layout of Juhu Beach Club, but gets its tropical feel from palm frond-print wallpaper and ocean-colored tiles.
On my first visits for dinner, the buzz for this highly anticipated restaurant was clearly at fever pitch, as the spot was nearly full even though I visited in the early evening. FOB Kitchen doesn’t take reservations, so expect a wait.
But Brandi Dulce, who manages the front of the house while Janice is behind the counter supervising the kitchen, is quick to welcome diners and make them feel at home. She checks up with guests throughout the night, and the rest of the staff is also friendly and attentive. The only spot that might need some help is the one-woman show behind the bar. The single bartender has to keep up with all the cocktail orders while also serving dining customers who eat at the bar.
Still, some of the cocktails from the specialty craft cocktails menu are worth the wait, like the “Golden State of Mind” ($12), a gin drink with a tropical twist of passionfruit but made unique with egg white and just a hint of matcha. The cocktails all include flavors of the Philippines, like calamansi (a variety of citrus) in the Mabuhay Mule or pandan (an aromatic leaf) in the “Fresh Off the Boat.”
The menu is an introduction to Filipino food that goes beyond lumpia and adobo, although, both dishes are also offered. There are three sections in Tagalog: pulutan, or snacks; ulam, or mains; and gulay, or vegetable sides. The plates during dinner are meant to be shared family style. (On the weekends brunch is served with more simple rice plates.)
Two weeks after it opened in November, the dinner menu offered specials, including an oxtail kare kare stew served with bok choy, eggplant, long bean and bagoong (a condiment made with fermented fish or shrimp).
While the flavors were rich and beefy, the oxtails could have been a bit more tender. Still, the dish has been popular enough; the kare kare is now on the regular menu ($24).
A dish that doesn’t fall short in the tender department is the classic adobo, which is stewed meat (often chicken or pork) braised in soy sauce and vinegar. FOB Kitchen presents a pork adobo, made with palm vinegar, soy, garlic and annatto ($16), served with rice. The bowl of pork chunks was everything you’d want from braised meat — fork tender and full of the flavors of the marinade. While the dish is presented in its classic form, you can pimp it out by ordering it “bicol style” for an additional dollar, adding coconut milk and Thai chili to the sauce.
While I often think of Filipino food as meat-centric (think sisig or bistek), chef Janice Dulce makes a point of adding vegetarian options to the menu. For example, there’s a vegetarian version of the classic lumpia (fried spring roll) made of sweet potato. And Dulce seems to have a fascination with eggplant, which shows up in many dishes, from an eggplant salad, to the aforementioned kare kare to an eggplant omelette.
Balancing the savory meat dishes are light and bright plates such as the singkamas ensalada ($9), a tart shredded salad of jicama, mango, red cabbage, carrots, garlic peanuts and cilantro. It’s like a tropical-flavored cole slaw.
Another classic dish is the pancit sotanghon ($9) or stir-fried glass noodles. Chef Dulce tosses these vermicelli-thin noodles with a bright soy sauce and carrots, red cabbage, green beans, garlic and scallion. It’s my favorite version of pancit around and a must order to complement the rest of your meal.
Dessert options feel a bit limited, with only three choices: turon, or Filipino fried banana rolls; suman, or coconut rice cake and an affogato with macupuno (coconut) ice cream and pandan coffee.
At FOB Kitchen, Janice Dulce presents modern Filipino food, not in a crazy, molecular gastronomical way, but in an authentic and comforting fashion using seasonal, quality ingredients. With her wife Brandi, they’ve created a fresh, homey setting to introduce and celebrate the flavors of the Philippines.
Benjamin Seto is the voice behind Focus:Snap:Eat, where he dishes on food at restaurants and shops in the Bay Area, in his kitchen, and from his culinary adventures.