In a classic scene from The Simpsons, Lisa — after announcing she has become a vegetarian — is peppered with questions from her skeptical father about whether or not she will eat ham, bacon or pork chops ever again.
"Dad, those all come from the same animal," says Lisa.
"Oh sure, Lisa," Homer responds, "Some wonderful, magical animal."
Much of the menu at Milkfish is a lesson in the mind-boggling versatility of pork, but each new porcine presentation created by chef Cristina Quackenbush feels like a fresh discovery.
My first dish at Milkfish during the restaurant's early days was a doozy: a hulking, crispy pig's foot that took up almost the entire dinner plate and swam in garlic-studded, gelatinous gravy. While the menu and hours have expanded, a commitment to the authentic Filipino cuisine that pushes diners outside their comfort zones remains.
The road from pop-up to permanent digs has been a long one for Quackenbush and the Milkfish team, who staked a claim as New Orleans' lone option for Filipino food in 2012 and shuttled between venues before settling into the current space in Mid-City in early spring.
Milkfish's new home is festive and convivial, with primary color-painted walls and a smattering of vintage Filipino movie posters, maps and advertisements. (A vintage Filipino ad for Chiclets gum featuring a floating, grinning mouth is amusing.) Service may lag on nights when the restaurant is busy, but the staff's enthusiasm and the quality of the food make delays largely forgivable.
The small plates err on the side of generous portions, deep frying and snack-like qualities, with a casual, comforting spectrum of flavors that comes off like well-plated street food. The lumpia — Filipino spring rolls — are crispy, bite-sized and delicious when dipped in the accompanying sweet-and-sour sauce or (Filipino-favorite) vinegary banana ketchup. Even diners skeptical about ham from a can should take the leap and try the Spam fried rice; it's a salty, carb-heavy meal that could cure a hangover in just a few bites. The crispy pig's tail, however, is so cartilage-heavy it could double as a dog's chew toy and should be avoided if you're not interested in playing tug-of-war with your meal.
A good jumping-off point for Milkfish's study in pork is the adobo, with tender meat that easily falls off the bone and is well-seasoned in a marinade of soy sauce, garlic and biting black pepper. It's accessible without being intimidating.
Sisig steps toward the exotic, featuring chunks of pork face and chicken liver marinated in the holy trinity of Filipino cuisine: garlic, chili and calamansi, a citrus fruit native to the Philippines that has a signature tart, acidic bite. For adventurous diners, there is dinuguan, a pork blood stew, more similar in its dark, chocolate color to English blood pudding than the bright, fire engine red of the Vietnamese duck blood soup tiet canh. The iron-heavy, offal flavors in the dish are offset nicely by light, fluffy banana-coconut rice and two dainty, one-bite servings of puto, sweetened steamed rice cakes.
Tosilog, a Filipino breakfast special, is the epitome of a square meal that's substantial any time of day. While all the components mesh well together — a runny, sunny side-up egg, starchy fried rice and crisp tomato salad — the spotlight falls on the thick, chewy pork preparation, tocino, which walks the textural line between jerky and sugar-cured bacon.
The drinks menu is a work in progress as the restaurant awaits approval of a liquor license. Diners can sample the ginger-heavy traditional Filipino tea salabat or bring their own wine (there's a $5 corkage fee).
The warmth of Filipino culture speaks through the dishes at Milkfish, with soulful food that pops with heritage and pride.