Pop-up burger joints, taco stands and Italian dinners can be fun. But at its highest and best use, a pop-up restaurant can introduce or test the market for food that's otherwise absent from established places. That's part of the reason for the creation of Milkfish and its Filipino menu of lumpia eggrolls, pancit noodles and Spam fried rice.
Local restaurant veteran Cristina Quackenbush, a native of the Philippines, staged her first pop-up last spring. It led to an encore, then to a weekly gig at Marie's Bar, a Marigny dive that's become a pop-up incubator. Soon, a fan invited her to take over the kitchen in his neighboring coffee shop, the Who Dat Cafe.
Tucked behind the barista counter, Milkfish still retains some trappings of a pop-up. But it also features service more like a full-fledged restaurant, with table service, an inexpensive wine selection and a few Philippines-inspired tropical drinks.
Filipino food is a fusion of Latin American, Chinese and southeast Asian cooking, and it's robustly expressed at Milkfish. But while many traditional Filipino dishes have the mishmash contours of comfort food, Quackenbush draws from her long career in fine dining to compose original, striking contemporary renditions.
The best example is the namesake milkfish, a staple in the Philippines with white, firm flesh and a strong, oily flavor akin to a sardine. Its other name is bangus, and I'm not sure which of these terms is least appetizing. But in Quackenbush's kitchen, milkfish is grilled, doused with creamy, shrimp-studded coconut milk curry and topped with an intensely spicy red cabbage slaw that rivals kimchee. The result is a unique showstopper.
Assertive garnishes, artfully arranged bok choy and long beans and precisely molded rice shapes are hallmarks of Quackenbush's style, even for the burly oxtail vertebrae of kare-kare. Fist-sized columns of bone and meat are smothered in stew that is a bit slimy and gray but powered by a surprisingly compatible combination of peanut butter and garlic and ignited by dabs of pungent shrimp paste. Your whole palate may tingle after eating this, and your lips will stick together.
Pork turns up everywhere, from the brittle-crusted, cigarillo-sized lumpia and the dark-seared ribs in the classic adobo, to unwieldy fried pig feet (best reserved for pig cultists) and "pork face," which sounds provocative but tastes like especially tender, garlicky carnitas when mixed with chicken livers for sisig, a spicy, sizzling, fajitalike dish. There are vegetarian alternatives for most dishes but they rely too much on mock meats.
End a meal with the mellow cassava cake, dripping with coconut milk and topped with cheddar, or the Asian-style shaved ice parfait called halo-halo. Unique food like this is always worth a try, and when it's all put together as well as it is at Milkfish, it could become a habit.