The secret about the multi-cultural offerings at bustling Asian restaurant Kaliwa is that they are just the first wave of flavors co-founder Cathal Armstrong and his seasoned culinary team want to share with D.C. diners.
The critically acclaimed Wharf newcomer currently features two dozen dishes split between the three countries showcased within: Korea, Thailand, and the Philippines. Cathal Armstrong tells Eater that the menu currently in place features about half the dishes he and chef de cuisine Paolo Dungca developed for Eat Good Food Group’s debut D.C. restaurant. Cathal Armstrong says he plans to phase in additional interpretations — including his take on blood-spiked dinuguan, savory kare kare, and marinated galbi — as daily specials over the next few months.
The opening menu items are meant to be representative of the respective cuisines. But several items also resonate with Cathal Armstrong, Dungca, and Kaliwa co-founder and native Filipina Meshelle Armstrong on personal levels.
Meshelle Armstrong says she promised her late mother that her lumpia — ”The one thing my mother could cook,” she tells Eater — would make into the mix at Kaliwa. The defining characteristic of the dish: Meshelle Armstrong’s mom insisted on always hand chopping the filling rather than grinding anything.
“Don’t be lazy,” Meshelle Armstrong says of her mother’s sage advice. Cathal Armstrong abides by her wishes in preparing his pork and shrimp-filled rolls. Meshelle Armstrong says other Filipinos who’ve dined at Kaliwa hold the restaurant to similar standards. “Filipinos come in here, and they love what you’re trying to do … but say ‘it’s not like my mom’s.’”
Striking the proper balance between the very different countries is always at the front of Cathal Armstrong’s mind. “We’re trying to be mindful of three great cultures,” he tells Eater.
That consideration extends to everything from hunting down the highest quality local ingredients to managing the heat levels of various offerings. “I wanted to make sure that it wasn’t all killer spicy,” he says.
Compared to some of its chile-fueled counterparts, Cathal Armstrong considers the house rib-eye somewhat of a safety dish.
“It’s barely spicy,” Cathal Armstrong says of the beefy entree.
The same cannot be said of the jjampong — a spicy seafood dish that’s one of Cathal Armstrong’s personal favorites.
“I could eat that every day,” Cathal Armstrong says. He developed an affinity for the traditional noodle soup by virtue of eating at Korean restaurants all around the country while traveling to taekwondo tournaments with his wife and kids. His son, Eamonn, began studying the martial art about a decade ago. Cathal Armstrong followed suit shortly thereafter and immersed himself in the Korean lifestyle.
“I embraced the culture. I embraced the language. I embraced the food,” Cathal Armstrong says.
The one downside to his deep-dive into Asian cuisine: Cathal Armstrong maintains that he has yet to find a true vegetarian dish in Thai, Korean, or Filipino cooking. Every time he thought he’d found the one, Cathal Armstrong says he’d stumble across references to fish sauce, shrimp paste, or trace amounts of beef. His solution: he wound up bending the rules a bit to create an egg-topped bibimbap with pickled vegetables and gochujang.
“A lot of love and care went into that dish,” Cathal Armstrong says of the artful rice bowl.
Still, there are those who choose to focus on what’s missing rather than what Kaliwa brings to the table.
Cathal Armstrong relates how one woman was “horrified” that her Korean dish was accompanied with jasmine rice (native to Thailand).
“Nobody is trying to hurt anybody’s feelings,” he tells Eater. “[But] it’s not feasible for us to do rice from the Philippines, and rice from Thailand, and rice from Korea — yet. Maybe we’ll get there in the future when we’re that practiced and polished.”
For now, Cathal Armstrong plans to focus on more pressing priorities — including implementing the pending dishes, and continuing to educate customers about the revered culinary traditions at the heart of Kaliwa.
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