A broadcast at Pogiboy.
During the pandemic, there was one sector of the restaurant industry that flourished: cheffy fast-casual. So when the office salad makes its inevitable comeback, it will have a lot of fresh competition. Three upstarts we love:
1110 Vermont Ave., NW (inside the block)
For chef Tom Cunanan, it was the James Beard Award he got for his work in the Filipino hot spot of Bad Saint that prompted him to go out on his own – a plan accelerated by the pandemic. While Cunanan has an ambitious vision for a restaurant with a tasting menu, he also teamed up with another Bad Saint alumnus, Paolo Dungca, for a drop-in location inside the Block dining room at the downtown DC.
The place, which opened in January, is full of winks. There’s a riff on Bloomin ‘Onion from Outback. (A classic Cunanan twist: savory crab fat mayo for dipping.) The Pogiboy logo evokes the apple-cheeked child of Bob’s Big Boy. And the menu, with its smash burgers and fried chicken, was largely inspired by Jollibee, the Philippine fast-food juggernaut (and cult favorite of American foodies) who recently opened its first local branch in Wheaton.
At Pogiboy, the smash burger deserves as much love as its inspiration. Usually, this style of burger is more about the sum than the parts. The meat here is so good that you will want to taste it. Chefs ground beef from Roseda Farms in Maryland, then shape it into 3.6-ounce patties. (They wanted them to be more generous than the 3.3 ounces of Five Guys.) Spicy caramelized onions with adobo, cheese and a special sauce finish it off.
The pair tocino burger has already developed an audience. The magenta-tinted pancake is made from salted pork and longanis sausage. It’s pretty sweet, but there’s enough acid, in the form of pickled green papaya, carrots, and cabbage, to balance it out. I also had an “Eugene” sandwich, named after Cunanan’s late brother. This is a big serving of finely sliced marinated top rings that is countered by a good dose of horseradish, as well as raw and cooked onions.
The chefs’ fried chicken is made memorable by a marinade that includes buttermilk, mashed long peppers and calamansi, the citrus ubiquitous in Filipino cuisine. It gets double fried and stays crisp even if you put it in the fridge. A roasting version of the bird is marinated in burnt coconut and curry for three days, then served with the same creamy kale with coconut milk you would have already found in Bad Saint.
There is already a late night menu, with poutine and sinigang Chicken quesadillas, but Cunanan and Dungca – two major talents who are there every day – have bigger plans for Pogiboy when the offices reopen: happy hours, catering and more seating. Like in Bad Saint, I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a line to contend with as well.
1819 Seventh St., NO
It took a whole year for Maria Helena Iturralde to perfect the dough for her salteña, the crescent-shaped Bolivian snack that looks like an empanada but filled with a beef or chicken stew.
She tinkered with her recipe on weekends – when she wasn’t tied to her DC catering business – and looked for alternatives to the yellow-orange dye found in most Bolivian salteñas (she suggested a mixture of turmeric and annatto seeds) or vegetable shortening which gives the crust a great crunch (no dice on that one).
This struggle turned into a safety net for Iturralde when his restaurant business shut down last year. She started Saya Salteña, in part to hang on to her longtime employees. When food halls such as Union Market and La Cosecha weren’t giving her time (“They weren’t even tasting the food!”), She began to build a following by showing up in breweries. She now has a storefront delivery / pickup business in Shaw.
The small menu has a few superfluous items, like pork-filled sliders and steamed corn cakes, but you’re really there for the salteñas. They take three days to make, and they’re great. If you’re new to them, approach one as you would a soup dumpling: bite off the tip, then suck in the steaming liquid. (Iturralde includes instructions for each order.) Whether you go for beef or chicken, you’ll also find pieces of hard-boiled egg, kalamata olive, and diced potatoes. I head for the pocket of spicy beef. It’s not really spicy at all, as it’s flavored with aji, the slow-burning Andean pepper rather than a punch.
The other big hit of the menu is the cunap, a small soft cheese puff pastry made with tapioca starch and egg. Understanding this was not easy for Iturralde either. It didn’t take a year, but we had to test recipes with around 50 Latin American cheeses.
3809 Rhode Island Ave., Brentwood (miXt food hall); 967 Rose Ave., North Bethesda (The Block)
Birria– the slow-cooked beef, lamb or goat’s long-cooked taco filling – has become so popular in the United States over the past year or so that I wouldn’t be surprised to see it pop up at the Cheesecake Factory. What sets taco apart – and turned it into a TikTok craze – is that you dip the meat-stuffed tortilla into a brick red consomme made from the braising liquid.
Even if birria has long been on the menu at traditional places like Columbia Heights’ Taqueria Habanero, the Jalisco-born dish is increasingly popping up here. (See Taqueria Xochi, Mama Tigre, Rebel Taco.) Mackenzie Kitburi was a birria early adopter. His Little Miner Taco started in 2019 as a booth in a Brentwood dining room. It has since spawned two food trucks, one in Baltimore, as well as a stand inside the Block Food Hall at Pike & Rose and an upcoming location in Brookland.
Kitburi buys whole animals, so his birria is a mix of halal cuts of beef – you might find rib eye, you might find tenderloin – and it cooks the beef for eight hours in French broth. It serves it in many forms: ramen, egg rolls and, most successful, a zigzag cheesesteak with chipotle aioli. As good as this sandwich is, the birria is best sampled in one of its more classic forms: quesabirria of res. The corn tortilla is topped with cheese and showcases the richness of the meat and broth. Birria tacos represent half of Kitburi’s sales.
A nice touch: Kitburi, father of three, allows the children to eat for free.
This article appears in the June 2021 issue of Washingtonian.