FOB Kitchen Does Impeccable Filipino Food
Fresh is the word to sum up FOB Kitchen’s ingredients, its take on them, and the vibe.
Photos by Lance Yamamoto
In the Bay Area’s roiling restaurant scene, as diners seek out something novel, the element of surprise is getting harder to achieve. Take FOB Kitchen, the hottest newcomer in Oakland’s Temescal neighborhood. Its location — tucked next-door to La Calaca Loca in the little Temescal Plaza near Telegraph Avenue and 51st Street — was somewhat obscure in 2010 when SR24 brought elevated casual American dining to the compact strip-mall dominated by a pawn shop and a check cashing operation. By 2013, when Juhu Beach Club moved in, it was becoming a popular destination, no longer startling.
Likewise, FOB’s origin story as a San Francisco pop-up operation (launched in 2015) that settles into a residency (at Gashead Tavern in the Mission district) and finally secures a permanent brick-and-mortar home, is hardly unique these days. Nor are FOB owners Brandi and Janice Dulce the first wife-and-wife team to infuse Oakland dining with entrepreneurial energy and culinary creativity. And finally, the food of the Philippines has been rapidly gaining notice in the Bay Area, from food trucks to casual steam-table storefronts and contemporary eateries putting creative spins on Filipino classics.
So the surprises are subtle, and all the more satisfying for it, at FOB Kitchen, which slid quite naturally into the former Juhu space last November. The makeover of the intimate and striking interior involved muting the Mumbai-inspired, bright, beachy colors, replacing Juhu’s floral wallpaper with a black-and-white palm frond print. The front of the bar and the back-bar have been tiled with several shades of ocean-evoking blue, maintaining but understating and personalizing the tropical theme.
The restaurant’s name is a proud reclamation of a slur sometimes directed to recent immigrants, who are “fresh off the boat.” And “fresh” is a perfect summation of FOB’s fun and hospitable vibe and Janice Dulce’s impeccable cooking. Her style is based on foods she ate growing up in a Filipino family. Fresh also applies to FOB’s Pacific Islands-inspired but not full-blown tiki cocktail program, developed by Cali Gold of Beretta in San Francisco. On two dinner visits, Robin and I sampled three of the 10 custom drinks ($10-$13), each a winner in its own unique way. My favorite was The Town, probably because it was the most spirit-forward, a Manhattan-like concoction of rye, vermouth, Benedictine, and lemongrass. The tart and spicy Blow the Whistle brought together rum, tamarind, lime, and chili liqueur in a martini glass, and the Fresh Off the Boat riffed off a piña colada, with a not milk-shaky blend of rum, coconut, lime, and pandan, and a red bean-dusted rim on the highball glass. Other drinks, with such names as Mabuhay Mule, Golden State of Mind, Palawan Sunrise, Pineapple Express, and (with an affectionate nod) Juhu Beach Club, integrate ingredients like lambanog (arak), calamansi (citrus), matcha, passion fruit, chai, ginger, and cardamom.
At both dinners we toasted our good luck at finding a spot in the small parking lot, right in front of the restaurant, and at being seated immediately. Because FOB doesn’t take reservations (you can get on the wait list via a Yelp app), we’d timed our arrival for just after opening. We didn’t have much time to nurse our cocktails, however; on both visits the dishes, presented family style, came out of the open kitchen in rapid succession, set before us by cheerful and eager servers. The polished dark wood tabletop quickly took on the appearance of a banquet.
The first evening, the table was chockablock with offerings. Our ensalada talong ($10) was a bright and refreshing jumble of roasted eggplant, jicama, tomato, sea bean, cilantro, and scallion, dressed with coconut vinegar and soy, and topped with lacy, crunchy rice cracker. The pork adobo ($16) presented luscious chunks redolent of palm vinegar, soy, garlic, and annatto (for an extra $1 we had it “bicol style,” enriched with coconut milk and spiked with Thai chile). The pancit sotanghon ($10), one of the gulay (sides), a standard dish of glass noodles with carrots, red cabbage, green beans, garlic, scallion, and soy, was a bit mild but stir-fried to a perfect al dente texture. And the mechado ($18), a stew from Janice’s grandmother’s recipe, combined a tantalizing mélange of tender beef, tomatoes, carrots, and red bell pepper, topped with a nest of angel hair fried potatoes. The mechado was new to the menu that night and should be a keeper.
The second evening, our groaning board included three pulutan (starter) dishes. The veggie lumpia ($10) put sweet potato, carrot, garlic, potato, green bean, and onion inside crisp, pastry-thin hand-rolled wrapper (the Shanghai lumpia, another grandmother recipe, have pork in the filling). The singkamas ensalada ($9) was a shredded salad of jicama, mango, red cabbage, carrots, garlic peanuts, and cilantro and tasted like a tart, tropical cole slaw. The lechon kawali ($10), small chunks of thrice-cooked pork belly, with skin, was so compelling that I had to remind myself to use the soy-chile-lemon dip and add some pickled onion to each unctuous yet crunchy bite. To my delight, Robin demurred completely. Our ulam (main dish) was sinigang baboy, a vinegar-brothy comfort-food combination of tender pork, tamarind, bok choy, daikon, long bean, and tomato. Other choices that night included roasted whole fish, tofu and mushroom adobo, rib-eye bistek, and grilled chicken inasal.
On both nights we took home some of main dishes and their accompanying white rice so we could try a couple of the desserts. The suman ($8) won us over with the mochi-like log of sticky coconut rice cake, served with sliced mango. The turon ($8) came in a close second with a gooey lumpia of banana, jackfruit, and caramel and a scoop of macapuno (coconut endosperm) ice cream. An affogato with pandan coffee, and calamansi shaved ice were the other options.
On weekends, the brunch menu highlights garlic rice bowls with a sunnyside-up egg and such protein as pork adobo, house-made spam, tocino (sweet-cured pork shoulder), tapa (boneless short ribs). There’s also an eggplant omelet, longanisa (sausage) hash, and more. The genius of FOB Kitchen is that you needn’t be conversant in Tagalog or the ingredients of Filipino cuisine to appreciate what Janice Dulce is bringing from her kitchen, and her background, to your table — at that you will want to return often enough that it does become reassuringly familiar.
Filipino. 5179 Telegraph Ave., Oakland, 510- 648-3839. Serves dinner Wed.-Fri. 5 p.m.-10 p.m., brunch Sat.-Sun. 10:30 a.m.–2:30 p.m., FOBKitchen.com $-$$$$