It’s early morning when I arrive at FOB Kitchen in Oakland, California, where chef/owner Janice Dulce is already hard at work searing ribs in a wide, high-sided rondeau stretched across two burners on the stove. The ribs, cut crosswise through the bones and separated into smaller sections, will form the base for sinigang, a savory/sour soup rich with ginger and tamarind.
Sinigang is a cornerstone of Filipino cuisine and a popular dish at Janice’s bright, welcoming restaurant.
Janice works quickly: talking, cooking, flipping the ribs, setting the browned ones aside to make room for another batch. Her mise en place is set up on a nearby butcher block, and when the ribs are sufficiently browned, she adds sliced onions and handfuls of julienned ginger to the pot where they just begin to soften.
Next a few minced Thai chiles; fresh tomato puree; fish sauce; and lemon juice, which she uses instead of calamansi, a sour fruit commonly used in Filipino cooking. As the mixture begins to boil, she returns the ribs to the pot, along with several cups of sliced daikon radish and enough water to cover it all.
For the soup’s signature sourness, Janice places blocks of tamarind paste in noodle baskets and submerges them in the soup. The tamarind slowly dissolves as it simmers, while the tamarind seed pods stay trapped in the baskets to be discarded later. This batch of sinigang will run as a special on the evening’s dinner menu and needs to simmer for at least 2 hours for the ribs to become tender. The rest of the vegetables will go in later.
Janice has a sentimental attachment to sinigang. “Growing up, my family would make it all the time,” she says. “Honestly, I didn’t care too much for it until I moved away from home. Then, I missed the dish and wanted to learn how to make it.”
Janice’s only prior restaurant experience was working as a server. She came to cooking later in life through a rediscovered passion for her Filipino heritage. “I remember when I wanted to learn [to cook]. I would just watch my family in the kitchen,” she says. “And, of course, when I would ask how much ginger or how much onion they used, they would say, ‘We don’t know, just look. There are no measurements.’” But Janice persisted, and before ingredients were added to the pot, she would pause the action to write down the measurements.
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After a month in the Philippines cooking with her grandmother in 2015, Janice returned to the Bay Area to open FOB Kitchen as a pop-up in the Mission district. “The menu was Filipino home cooking,” she says. “I was inspired by The Slanted Door restaurant and what they did for Vietnamese food. No one was treating Filipino food like that, using quality ingredients.”
In the beginning, Janice wondered if anyone would come. But there were lines out the door from the start. “I was hustling two serving jobs, doing my pop-up one night a week, getting friends to help me and paying them in beer and whiskey, and just having fun.” By December 2018, she’d opened the doors to her permanent brick-and-mortar restaurant on Telegraph Avenue.
With the ribs finally tender, Janice begins blanching the vegetables that will garnish the soup: okra, branches of water spinach, slices of Japanese eggplant, and fresh peas still in their opened pods. She pauses to point out that searing the ribs and blanching the vegetables are adaptations she’s made to the soup to make it more elegant for the restaurant.
“Traditionally when my family makes this dish they don’t sear the meat, or do any of that stuff. They just throw the meat in, throw the vegetables all in, and boil it. And I do that too when I’m at home.” She makes the soup at least once a week for her twin daughters and tells me it’s a great way to get them to eat their vegetables. She adds that the rib bones contribute more flavor than boneless pork (she sometimes makes the soup with boneless pork butt) and that cutting the ribs through the bones exposes their collagen to give the soup extra body.
Sinigang (Pork and Vegetable Soup)This sour, complex pork-and-vegetable soup helped one chef embrace her Filipino culture.
As the line cooks trickle into the kitchen to prepare for the evening’s service, Janice tells me how excited they get when they see non‑Filipinos enjoying Filipino food. “But when the Filipinos come in I always get intimidated,” she says. “Sometimes I’ll have people come in and say, ‘This is not authentic.’ It’s not authentic to what they had growing up. But this is authentic to me.”
Janice ladles the soup into shallow clay bowls and garnishes it with the bright green vegetables and eggplant slices, which she browned in a skillet after blanching. She combines fish sauce and a little minced Thai chile in individual ramekins for a condiment to add at the table.
We sit down to enjoy the soup with a large plate of jasmine rice set family style between us. I’m instructed to hold the spoon in my right hand and to use the fork in my left hand to “bulldoze” bites onto the spoon, each a balanced combination of rich, tender meat; bright vegetables; sour tamarind; and chile-spiked fish sauce.
Naming the restaurant FOB Kitchen was important for Janice, who explains that she wanted it to be both playful and significant. But at first it was met with trepidation by some. “‘FOB’ means fresh off the boat, and it’s a term that my brothers and I would use to make fun of our family, because they talked with a very thick accent,” she says.
“When I was growing up, I was embarrassed. But when I wanted to learn how to cook Filipino food, I went to my family. And I realized I was so proud of them. I wanted to take the name [FOB] back and empower it. Now I’m not embarrassed anymore. Now I just want, more and more, to embrace my own culture.”