Balangay restaurant review: Ambitious Philippine cooking in a pop-up

Erwin Villarias’s great-grandfather was one of seven men who climbed into a narrow wooden boat at 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 the lumber to construct balangay boats, the principal form of transportation among islanders? Maybe just a better life?

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Whatever the motivation, Villarias’s ancestor and the rest of the crew came upon a pristine shoreline, the northeastern coast of Palawan, a long, slender strip of land that looks like it’s trying to flee the rest of the Philippine archipelago. The area had everything the men desired: low-lying tracts, perfect for growing rice, coconuts and other crops; abundant marine life for fishing; and virgin forests for wood. The men eventually settled the land and called it home. In 1951, their burgeoning community would be officially recognized as the municipality of Roxas, Villarias’s hometown.

On his phone, Villarias, 36, has a photo of the resolution that established a permanent marker dedicated to the pioneers who “displayed their selfless dedication, perseverance and diligence” in making Roxas what it is today. He sent me a copy. The first of the “seven brave men” mentioned in the document is his great-grandfather: Benito Cardejon.

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When he started his own adventure, a pop-up restaurant inside Bullfrog Bagels on H Street NE in Washington, Villarias named it Balangay, for the type of boat that his great-grandfather used to navigate the rough seas between Cagayancillo and Roxas. The chef had never met Cardejon, but the elder was, according to one official source, a boat maker by trade. Cardejon would have used the available resources — maybe the hard wood of a doongon or barayong tree, which craftsmen cut under moonlit skies — to build seaworthy vessels that could carry goods between islands. Or even open up new worlds.

The symbolic, if not literal, connections between Cardejon and his great-grandson are not difficult to see: As a chef, Villarias also works with his hands. He uses the available resources — the ingredients sourced for his kitchen — to build dishes that carry the flavors, the memories and the history of the Philippines straight to American diners. They are also dishes that, based on my tastings, will take him places. Maybe it’s just a coincidence that Villarias’s nickname is “Wing,” as if he were predestined to take flight.

Balangay is still a work in progress, as every pop-up is, but even in its stumbling youth, you can see where Villarias’s restaurant might find itself one day on the continuum of Philippine cooking in the District, slotted somewhere closer to the chef-driven finesse of Bad Saint than to the crafty comforts of the Game. There is ambition to the chef’s cooking, the kind of fearless ambition that the poet Robert Browning once advocated, in which your reach always remains tantalizingly beyond your grasp. You can tell that Villarias has trained in some disciplined kitchens. Those include Maketto under Erik Bruner-Yang and the now-closed Bibiana, once part of Ashok Bajaj’s constellation of restaurants.

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Villarias’s bistek Tagalog is a good place to start. He takes the island standard, basically a Philippine take on steak and onions, and stretches it almost beyond recognition. His slab of fork-tender short rib is paired with caramelized pearl onions, pickled red chiles and a soy-coconut reduction, the latter a sauce that leans into sweet, milky flavors extracted from those dry drupes so prevalent around his hometown. The dish eats like a Philippine reconsideration of beef Bourguignon.

The chicken inasal is something special, too, though it’s saucier than the ones you may be familiar with: you know, a marinated bird whose canary-yellow skin has been branded with the grates of a hot grill. Villarias’s gravy — a chunky mixture of coconut milk, garlic, lemongrass and more — turns this Philippine grilled chicken into a smothered one. The fried chicken wings, practically caramelized with adobo sauce and garnished with fried garlic and onions, are dressed up pub food, camera-ready for the prom.

Villarias takes an enlightened approach to menu development. Nearly half the dishes are what the chef calls “vegan friendly” and what I call delicious under any name. The plate simply referred to as “green beans” is ridiculously undersold: It’s an umami-rich combination of vegetables, some fried, some glazed and one ready to detonate upon contact. The puso ng saging, a name that translates into “heart of a banana,” is a plate of sauteed banana blossoms, roasted king mushrooms, soy-glazed tofu and more, all lounging in a fragrant coconut milk reduction, looking at once colorful and ominous. The dish turns out to be a surprisingly “meaty” preparation, a little sweet and a little savory.

One evening during the Fourth of July weekend, a friend and I sat at a two-top by the front windows at Bullfrog, seemingly the first customers of the night for Balangay. It was nearly 8 p.m. on Saturday. The bartender and a server were singing along to T.I. and Lady Gaga on the sound system, joyful in their work. The kitchen, meanwhile, was missing some beats. My kinilaw, a salmon and mango ceviche, turned into a fruit salad when it arrived without the fish. My friend’s tofu inasal was missing at least a couple of garnishes, including its toasted cashews, depriving the dish of its counterbalance of crunch.

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I should point out that Villarias had taken time off that holiday weekend, which indicates just how important his presence is to Balangay’s success — and, perhaps, how he still needs to grow into the training and management side of running a kitchen. Yet Villarias may not have much time to tighten his systems, at least as a pop-up at Bullfrog Bagels.

Jeremiah Cohen, the founder of Bullfrog, tells me that while he’s enjoyed hosting Balangay and sees no reason to end the pop-up, the future of this relationship is out of his hands. The owner of the building, Cohen says, is planning to renovate it soon. Construction could begin in six months. Or nine months. Or even later. The timetable is not yet clear.

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

1341 H St. NE, inside Bullfrog Bagels;

Hours: 6 to 9 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 5 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 5 to 9 p.m. Sunday. Closed Monday and Tuesday.

Nearest Metro: Union Station, with about a 1-mile trip to the pop-up.

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

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