New Orleanians don't have many local opportunities to try Filipino cooking. But after a chef staged a pop-up to showcase the jungly fusion of flavors from her homeland, the concept quickly blossomed into a full-fledged restaurant in the Marigny.
Pop-up restaurants are all the rage, and in New Orleans these unconventional, here-today, gone-tomorrow eatery concepts keep coming at us from all directions — whether it’s a pop-up burger joint, taco stand or old fashioned Italian dinner. These can all be fun. But I think that at its highest and best use, the pop-up approach can introduce food that’s otherwise unattainable across the mainstream restaurant scene, and maybe even test the waters for how it might go over here.
That’s precisely the narrative that led to Milkfish, an oddly named but uncommonly delicious restaurant in the Faubourg Marigny that serves the food of the Philippines. Milkfish was created by Christina Quakenbush. She’s a native of the Philippines and a long-serving veteran of the New Orleans restaurant business. She staged her first Filipino pop-up as a one-off experiment at a Warehouse District restaurant where she worked. It quickly led to an encore and soon to a weekly edition. Then one of her fans invited her to take over the underutilized kitchen in a Marigny coffeehouse called the Who Dat Café.
That’s where you find Milkfish today, at the corner of Burgundy and Mandeville streets, just off Elysian Fields. It’s tucked away in a pair of small, colorful dining rooms behind the coffee shop counter and it still exudes a bit of a pop-up, or even speakeasy, feel. But Milkfish also has the functionality of a full-fledged restaurant. It’s open six nights a week, there’s table service and you can even order wine.
We don’t have many standards for comparison here in New Orleans, but traditionally Filipino cooking is a jungly fusion of Latin American, Chinese and southeast Asian influences. That multi-cultural mix is robustly expressed at Milkfish. But if many traditional Filipino dishes tend to have the mishmash contours of comfort food, Quakenbush draws from her long career in fine-dining to compose original, often-striking modern renditions.
The best example is the namesake milkfish. This fish is a staple around the Philippines with a white, firm flesh and a strong, oily flavor akin to a sardine. It’s also known as bangus, and I’m not sure which of these names is less appetizing. But no matter, the proof is in the cooking and in this kitchen milkfish is grilled, doused with coconut milk curry and topped with an intensely spicy red cabbage slaw. The result is utterly unique and a real showstopper.
Assertive garnishes and artful arrangements are hallmarks of this chef’s style. Pork turns up everywhere, from the brittle-crusted, cigarillo-sized lumpia eggrolls to the classic adobo. And while seeing the term “pig face,” on a menu may seem provocative, the stuff just tastes like especially tender, garlicky bits of pork. Vegetarians should note that the Milkfish kitchen will re-engineer meatless versions of most of its dishes.
You can end a meal with the mellow cassava cake, dripping with coconut milk and topped with cheddar, or the halo halo, a shaved ice parfait that pushes some of the same frosty buttons as a New Orleans sno-ball.
So far as I can tell, Milkfish is our one place for Filipino cooking in New Orleans. Unique food like this is always worth a try; but when it’s all put together like it is here, it could become a habit.
2401 Burgundy St., New Orleans, 504-327-0635