In what might be the sweetest gesture a restaurant can offer, Temescal’s FOB Kitchen has a cocktail named for Juhu Beach Club, Preeti Mistry and Ann Nadeau’s much-missed restaurant, which had occupied the address for five years until last January. It cost them nothing to do that, of course, but I can’t think of too many other examples of a similar shout-out. (Hayes Valley’s Doppio Zero has a Stelle pizza that may be a nod to its predecessor Caffe Delle Stelle, although it is also star-shaped). And FOB’s combination of Indian rum, chai, lemon, ginger, cardamom is about as zesty and warming as alcoholic drinks come. But the underlying kindness is the more important element to focus on.
Brandi and Janice Dulce’s Filipino restaurant was both star-crossed and fortunate. Having run FOB out of Gashead Tavern in the Mission as a weekly pop-up for a couple years, they thought they might have to find a permanent home somewhere far away — like Nevada City. But then this space became available for a brick-and-mortar, and FOB Kitchen managed to open its doors ahead of schedule. (That’s another trait for which additional examples are few.)
Considering that Filipino-Americans are the largest population of Asians in California, Filipino food remains marginal, underappreciated, and prone to weird booms-and-busts. Greater L.A., with its huge number of Filipinos, has made gains in moving beyond turo-turo establishments and marrying the cuisine’s strong, meaty flavors with a New American approach. (The sweetbread sisig at Ma’am Sir in Silver Lake remains one of the best things I have ever tasted.) The Philippines is not homogenous, and as an island nation subjected to colonization, the foods of other cultures made deep impressions — so it’s not entirely dissimilar to Hawaii. Visually appealing and approachable, FOB Kitchen concentrates on the Bicol (or Bikol) region, known for an annual festival based on a literary epic, which natives and visitors are meant to celebrate together. And it’s part of a crop of restaurants — along with Jeepney Guy and the Lumpia Company — establishing a new beachhead for Filipino food in the East Bay.
Sprinkled with togarashi and some pickled carrots, the fried chicken skins ($7) are FOB’s mandatory starter, since they’re chewy and gooey and made even better with a few dashes of the vinegary chili sauce that’s on every table. The same goes for the lechon kawali ($10), which a bartender correctly referred to as “vessels for black vinegar.” (Pork belly may bve tired but pan-fried pork belly is not.) For entrees, meat-eaters should definitely get the bicol-style adobo ($17) with coconut milk, an ideal marinade that exhibits a genuine harmony. Then there’s a whole branzino ($27), which is delicate and extremely satisfying to pick apart, dipping every other piece into more of that vinegar while dousing the rice with yet more hot sauce. It’s a magic not found in the kare kare special (a $24 peanut-oxtail stew with eggplant and bok choy), which felt like little more than the sum of its parts. But to return to the hot sauce, FOB sells it by the bottle — and if you bring the bottle back, refills are discounted.
Standbys like pancit (or glass noodles, $10) mostly seem like they’re there in case of emergency, but as a veggie-heavy vehicle for more hot sauce, you could do a lot worse. Jufran (Filipino banana ketchup) shows up in one of the most intriguing dishes, a $16 plate of three extremely dark ribs prepared with coffee and a coconut porter, underneath a semi-ornamental sauteed green onion that adds just the right vegetal note. One category of food that seems relatively absent is offal, which is admittedly a subjective preference but also a shame.
You can wash it all down with a good old bottle of Red Horse, a classic Filipino lager, or else head for FOB’s most excellent cocktail, the Golden State of Mind, a balanced gin-and-passionfruit experience with a dusting of matcha powder atop the egg-white foam. Although fruit forward, it’s not altogether sweet, and goes well with the lechon kawali. One notable offering that shows up on the dessert menu is Don Papa, a small-batch Filipino sipping rum with a beautiful caramel nose that was very hard to find in the U.S. until a couple years ago.
The biggest brunch revelation was a nonalcoholic drink, the fizzy, coconutty Junior ($7). It’s like a lovechild of a mango lassi and an egg cream, with a dried calamondin rafting on top. Otherwise, the brunch menu consists of many variations on the same meat-plus-a-fried-egg-over-rice theme — although the sea bream with plenty of halved cherry tomatoes ($18) was the savory standout, its crackling skin irresistible in the yolk. The tocino, or sweet-cured pork shoulder, was sweet indeed, while the superior longaniza hash ($16) might attract your notice mostly owing to the interplay of the garlic cream against the sausage, enlivening what could otherwise be the most ordinary American-style dish, and the one with the heftiest portion size, too. That’s the one to come back for.
There’s a bit of unevenness, more generally. FOB is relatively good for vegans and the gluten-free world, plus there are dedicated parking spaces, but the hours are fairly restricted (weekend brunch, plus dinner on Wednesdays through Fridays only). The biggest issue is that they run out of a lot of stuff, with servers often returning to a table to inform people that they have to re-order not one but two dishes because the kitchen had suddenly run out. (This happened twice to people sitting next to me.) Even if you arrive right as they open, nothing’s a guarantee. But that’s fixable, and what the amiable FOB lacks in polish it more than makes up for in spirit, with its cheery, quasi-two-story interior and staff that might be singing along en masse to whatever’s on the playlist. Minor hiccoughs aside, this is exactly the type of middle-tier restaurant — neither bank-account-emptying nor fine-casual — we need to see stage a comeback. And Oakland is of course sure to do it better than San Francisco. Watch and see.
FOB Kitchen, 5179 Telegraph Ave., Oakland, 510-817-4169 or fobkitchen.com