New Orleans has always been called a melting pot, a cultural gumbo incorporating many elements: Spanish, Italian, French, Creole, Cajun, Jewish, Vietnamese, Irish and more. In addition to our homegrown dishes, the Big Easy dining scene has exploded in recent years, resulting in a town where one can find a helping of almost any culture’s cuisine, be it Ethiopian, Thai, German, Mexican or any point in between.
Except for one.
Chef Cristina Quackenbush, a native of the Philippines, found the food of her forebears sadly absent from a town so rich in dining options.
With her new restaurant popup, Milkfish — housed in the Who Dat Cafe on Burgundy Street in the Marigny — Quackenbush is looking to change that.
The chef was working in the local service industry, as a G.M. and kitchen manager, when she noticed the dearth of Filipino food here. This is surprising, since the first Filipino settlers arrived in South Louisiana some 250 years ago.
“One day, I said, ‘I want some Filipino food ... where can I get some?’” she recalled. “I couldn’t find any for miles, even in the next state over.”
After impressing her boss, Chef Adolfo Garcia at RioMar, with the home-cooked entrees she’d bring for the restaurant’s staff and cooks, Quackenbush decided to take her passion for Filipino food to the next level.
Garcia encouraged Cristina to start a popup to showcase her cuisine in early 2012, beginning with a five-course prix fixe menu, costing diners all of $25, on Sunday nights at Rio Mar, when the restaurant was traditionally closed.
A second popup, at A Mano, helped to spread the word to hungry New Orleanians looking for something unique, but it wasn’t until a third popup spell, operating out of the back at Marie’s bar in the Marigny, that things really took off for the chef.
One of the regulars at Marie’s happened to be the owner of Who Dat Cafe, who quickly fell in love with her food.
‘”I’m here for my pork crack,” he’d say every Sunday,’” recalls Quackenbush referring to lumpia, traditional Filipino-style egg rolls.
“He’d just done a significant renovation of the cafe’s kitchen, but wasn’t using it in the evening, so he offered it for me to use, and here we are, six days a week now.”
So, what is Filipino cuisine like?
Said Quackenbush: “The Philipines were taken over by the Chinese in the 1600s. In the 1800s, the Spanish came and conquered.
“So you have the Spanish influence, the Chinese influence, and also the Malay and Indonesia. So all of those elements come together to create what we know today to be Filipino food — it’s a little mix of everything. It’s like Asian/Spanish fusion, a good mix of those two cultures in particular. It’s unique.”
On top of those seemingly disparate influences, Cristina describes the cuisine as “Southeast Asian soul food,” usually served in large portions, family-style. It’s hearty, filling, and often meat-centric, although Quackenbush offers vegetarian versions of many of her dishes.
A recent meal at Milkfish began with an appetizer sampler featuring her meaty — and vegetable filled — lumpia, served with a sauce made from banana ketchup and coconut vinegar, as well as lechon kawali, which is marinated pork belly, poached for an hour, then fried crisp and served with a citrus and garlic sauce.
Tangy, marinated chicken sticks with pineapple relish and bean sprouts rounded out the plate.
A second dish, known as sisig, featured part of the pig not commonly found on local menus: its face.
“Another thing that’s common in Filipino cuisine is that we use every part of the animal,” Quackenbush said. “A lot of my culture’s cuisine is about taking the parts that most people don’t use and finding a way to make them delicious.”
Quackenbush’s sisig pairs the surprisingly delectable pork face, poached in garlic and citrus, then chopped up, with chicken livers and onions, a healthy portion of white rice and a sunny-side up egg.
Two other notable entrées included pancit, a rice noodle dish with tocino (caramelized Filipino-style bacon), snow peas, red cabbage, mushrooms, celery, bean sprouts, and a boiled egg; as well as fried rice with tocino, cooked with shrimp paste and onions, and served with fried egg strips, cucumber and green mango.
The combination of sweet, sour, salty and meaty was an intriguingly delicious introduction to traditional Filipino flavors, and the large portions were more than comforting.
Desserts are both tasty and novel at Milkfish. Joined in the kitchen by her daughter, Hailey Hunt, Quackenbush offers a warm cassava cake made from grated yucca and coconut milk, then topped with shredded cheddar cheese, as well as turon, fried bananas with brown and cane sugar, caramelized and rolled in lumpia wrappers.
Cristina refers to the third dessert option, halo-halo, as a “Filipino snowball,” shaved ice with condensed milk topped with a bonanza of flavored gels and garnished with shaved coconut.
Ultimately, Quackenbush hopes to open a full brick-and-mortar restaurant, but for the time being, she has one particular ambition.
“I want every single person who comes here and tastes this food for the first time to leave here thinking it’s as delicious as I know it to be,” she said.