When Kuya Ja’s Lechon Belly reopened for takeout, the well-regarded Filipino restaurant outside of Rockville had to do away with its monthly kinamot meals. The communal feasts, made up of dishes meant to be eaten by hand across a spread of banana leaves, fostered a familiar atmosphere inside the restaurant, but they made no sense during the novel coronavirus pandemic. Instead, chef Javier Fernandez adapted to the COVID-19 crisis by offering a kinamot takeout special, “utensils optional,” as part of the local restaurant association’s revamped restaurant week. Preorders for the $60 option (for two) sold out well before they began running in late August.
Kuya Ja’s is trying to get back to normal after closing from the end of March through early June. During that time, Fernandez raised funds for out-of-work employees through GoFundMe, and the restaurant claimed a number of grants, including one from the Small Business Administration and an aid program for small restaurants in Maryland. A joint partnership between Core Cares and McCormick also helped provide groceries and essentials for staff during the time the storefront was closed. The restaurant sold T-shirts promoting its signature dish that read: LIVE LOVE LECHON.
After reopening, Kuya Ja’s was only able to rehire half of its staff. Because the tiny space has room for just 23 seats, Hernandez is continuing to serve takeout only.
Although it now arrives in a takeout container, the namesake pork belly at Kuya Ja’s continues to stand out in a region with an increasingly thriving Filipino food scene. Customers can get lechon kawali, deep-fried pork belly, at just about any of the DMV’s Filipino establishments. But Kuya Ja’s is the only place that serves this particular variety of trussed, slow-roasted pork belly, with flavor that comes from the lemongrass and garlic stuffed inside and a distinctly crispy skin that has been perfected through extensive trial and error.
Despite the loss in dine-in business, Fernandez feels that takeout is sustainable for the tiny shop. “A good majority of our business was takeout to begin with,” he says.
Filipinos know that Kuya Ja’s Lechon Belly is a family restaurant just by its name. “Kuya” is a Tagalog honorific for “big brother.” It’s what Fernandez’s younger cousins called him; Ja is short for Javier. Two years ago, when it came time to open his own restaurant, the name stuck.
Every week, the 23-seat Rockville business, which opened in 2018, draws customers from across the D.C. area, all hungry for its namesake speciality: the meticulously prepared lechon belly, which stands out even in an increasingly thriving Filipino food scene. The fast-casual outfit grew out of family traditions and influences that stretch from Cebu, the Philippine province where Fernandez grew up, to North Carolina, where his uncle sells whole roast pigs, to Maryland’s Montgomery County, where his parents moved three decades ago. And the final push came from his big sister, Stella Fernandez, who runs Gwenie’s Pastries on Nebel Street, a separate storefront that’s a four-minute drive away.
The bakery began as a home business.
Gwendolyn and Carl Fernandez came to the United States with their children, Stella and Javier, in the late ’80s. The couple found work with a Bethesda family. She was a housekeeper, and he was a personal chef. Gwendolyn, who goes by Gwenie, was still working full-time when she began making and distributing desserts as a hobby.
Stella remembers that Gwenie’s effectively took off as a business on July Fourth some 15 years ago. That’s the day Mom packaged some of her torta de Cebu (a muffin with a pound cake-like texture, sprinkled with sugar) and delivered it to Filipino grocery shops in Montgomery County. Gwenie knew all the Filipino shop owners and noticed the lack of fresh baked goods — sure, there were the occasional sweets shipped in from New Jersey or California, and an Oxon Hill bakery that made pan de sal, Filipino bread rolls. But there was something missing in local markets. Since she had the skills, why not do it herself?
Some years later, Stella came home from school in New York, where she was studying health care administration — “typical Filipino to become a nurse,” Stella says. She got a job at the National Institutes of Health, but at the same time was learning everything her mother knew about baking. Stella left NIH in 2010 and has been baking full-time ever since.
There was no pressure from her mother to join the baking operation, Stella assures. “Even when I decided,” Stella says, “she asked me, ‘Are you sure?’”
The venture began as Gwenie’s Desserts. They pass down old family recipes, like for flan or biko (a rice-based sweet with coconut milk and brown sugar), which came from Gwenie’s grandmother, and new recipes she developed herself, like kutsinta, a steamed rice cake, and ube halaya, made from boiled and mashed purple yam. These dishes were developed over years of experimentation.
“If it’s not good enough, she won’t sell it,” Stella says.
When asked in February if Gwenie’s had plans to make ensaymada — cheesy, buttery rolls that involve a complicated, all-day process — Stella said that “it hasn’t been perfected yet.” She recently said that Gwenie had finally developed a recipe that “we all agreed tasted the best out of all the tries over the years.” They have yet to try a large-scale production yet, but stay tuned.
Gwenie’s began distributing straight out of the family’s basement to shops in Montgomery County, but Stella saw more potential; there were Filipino groceries all over the DMV that could use fresh pastries. So Stella helped Mom expand the business, taking it out of the house and eventually finding an old office space in Rockville to convert into a kitchen.
Meanwhile, Stella explains, her brother was busy with his own emerging culinary career. “He was also newly married and working two eight-hour jobs at two different restaurants. I barely saw him.”
Javier Fernandez got his culinary training at Gaithersburg’s L’Academie de Cuisine, which closed in 2017 after more than four decades as one of America’s top cooking schools. Ja worked at Georgetown’s La Chaumiere (as did groundbreaking Bad Saint chef Tom Cunanan) and Michel Richard’s Michel in Tysons Corner before he even started cooking Filipino food in earnest. He began to cook the cuisine because he was inspired by his father.
Fernandez went to college with an entirely different career track in mind, studying business at Johnson & Wales and economics at University of Maryland Baltimore County. But then, with the encouragement of his mother, he went to culinary school, and his early years in the food industry were primarily spent in French cuisine.
Things changed around 10 years ago, when Fernandez was still immersed in French cooking. One night his father, out of the blue, made lechon belly for a party at home. It was Kuya Ja’s equivalent of Proust’s madeleine: It reminded him of his childhood, ultimately driving him to start the busy operation he runs today.
It also happens that around 2009, Anthony Bourdain visited the Philippines for the first time. The late chef and television personality filmed an episode of No Reservations in Cebu in search of lechon, a dish which he declared was “the best pig ever.”
What makes a great lechon belly? It’s all in the skin. When it’s done right, Fernandez says, “It’s like candy.” At a Filipino party, when somebody roasts a whole pig, the skin is the first thing to go. Fernandez says he’s been to Filipino parties where the hosts roast a whole pig, and if the texture is off, everyone will be sure to complain.
Fernandez learned how to roast whole pigs from Marshall Cruz, his uncle in North Carolina. Cruz had traveled to Cebu, talked to somebody who made lechon for a living, and paid him to share his secrets. The chef spent a year and a half perfecting his own process, which involves finding the right cuts of meat because he loses a lot of the fat in the process. Often, 30 percent of the weight will render out.
That fatty skin doesn’t go to waste. Fernandez makes some of it into chicharrón that adds texture to sisig, which traditionally gets its crunch from parts of a pig’s head chopped up and served on a sizzling platter. Since that doesn’t really work for a fast-casual operation, the crunch in Fernandez’s sisig comes from the chicharrón.
The chef goes back to Cebu every year “to refresh my palate and just learn as much as I can about the new flavors going on in the Philippines.” But while there are great chefs in the big cities, Fernandez says, “the techniques weren’t really there.” That’s where Ja’s culinary training comes in. “That definitely helped when I started cooking Filipino food because it’s just very more modernized. If you know how to cook French food, you can cook pretty much almost anything.”
How does this translate to a successful restaurant? “My brother had a vision,” Stella says. And while Filipino fine dining is having its moment today, that vision emerged from an aspect of Filipino dining that has always been available in the DMV: buffet-style steam tables known as turo-turos.
You can find the turo-turos — it means “point point” in Tagalog — in places like Manila Mart (5023 Garrett Avenue, Beltsville), a grocery store that also serves Filipino favorites buffet-style. “To this day I still deliver to these stores, and I’ll eat at these places and it’s not bad,” Stella says. But Javier imagined a Filipino restaurant that “wasn’t just for Filipinos.”
Javier knew the buffets weren’t how to get Filipino cuisine to a broader audience. “You put it in a steamer, a warmer all day. ... It doesn’t look very appetizing if that’s your first time eating Filipino food.”
Soon after Gwenie’s opened a storefront in Rockville, Javier started to talk to her about holding pop-ups where he’d introduce Montgomery County to his lechon belly. David Hagedorn of Bethesda Magazine helped put them on the map, and word of mouth spread through the Filipino community and beyond. Social media was a big part of that; if you were on Facebook and Instagram at the time, pictures of that pork and crispy skin made it clear to area Filipinos and adventurous foodies that there was a new pig in town.
Javier thought, correctly, that lechon would be fairly easy to market, especially for meat lovers.
“It’s similar to a lot of cooking,” he says, connecting lechon to Spanish, Cuban, and Caribbean cuisines, as well as Italian. “It’s basically a porchetta with different seasonings and different aromatics.”
Kuya Ja’s has recently expanded the takeout menu to include lechon manok, his version of rotisserie chicken, which may be an even more apt tribute to the homeland than the pork belly. “If you’ve ever been in the Philippines or Cebu,” he explains, “there’s a whole lot more lechon manok restaurants then pork belly — it’s everywhere.”
Although a lot of Yelp reviews give Kuya Ja’s props for authenticity, the chef doesn’t make any such claims. With more than 7,000 islands in the Philippines and countless regional variations, “I don’t try to do the whole cuisine at once. Everybody thinks their dishes or their version is more traditional. I’m like, you cannot tell me what traditional Filipino food is.
“I cook Maryland Filipino food, my style.”