Lapu Lapu restaurant review: A superb antidote to the typical U.S. breakfast
Centuries later, Lapu Lapu would become a national hero in the archipelago eventually known as the Philippines. Depicted as young and muscular, armed with only a sword and shield, Lapu Lapu is considered a fierce symbol of Philippine independence, the first chief to stand up to European imperialism.
That’s the legend. The truth is apparently more complicated: Lapu Lapu may have been a geriatric warrior fortified by a relentless army. He may have been provoked into battle by the ruler of Cebu, who was using Magellan’s troops to rid himself of a mettlesome chieftain known to raid the trade ships that navigated the waters in and around the islands. The Battle of Mactan, in short, may have been as much an internecine conflict as a bold stance against colonialism.
But if history has taught us anything, it’s that we usually shape the past for our own purposes, sometimes noble, sometimes not. Javier and Jennifer Fernandez, the husband-and-wife owners behind Lapu Lapu, have latched onto this ancient warrior’s tale to, more or less, make a statement about breakfast: They want to fortify you in those hours after sunrise so you can fight the battles that lie ahead, no matter how big or small. Of course, they’re also asking non-Filipinos to take a second — maybe between bites of one of their superb sandwiches — to learn about Javier’s mother country. He’s a native son of the Visayas, a group of islands where Lapu Lapu once did battle.
Personally, after eating my way through the sandwiches at Lapu Lapu, I think the owners are waging a larger, if perhaps more silent, battle against the mediocrity of American breakfast menus. So much of what passes our lips in the morning — a precooked egg with two floppy strips of bacon stuffed into a pale English muffin, the whole of which is warmed in a ventless oven with the press of a button — is food that mocks the very idea of a hot breakfast. It’s as if have we have sacrificed an entire meal to the gods of convenience, just so we can get to work faster.
Lapu Lapu is the antidote to this.
Tucked into a tiny space in a Gaithersburg shopping center — so small that Javier compares it to a food truck — the shop sells only a handful of sandwiches, each served on a soft, enriched pandesal bun, the kind typically eaten during breakfast in the Philippines. (The buns, incidentally, come from Gwenie’s Pastries, a business started by Javier’s mom and now run by his sister, Stella Fernandez.) Half of the options at Lapu Lapu are polished interpretations of American breakfast sandwiches. The other half are bites that lean on Philippine culinary traditions.
Perhaps you recognize the names of Javier and Jennifer Fernandez? They’re also the couple behind Kuya Ja’s Lechon Belly, the Rockville storefront that specializes in Cebuchon, a kind of Philippine porchetta but with mahogany, soy sauce-brushed skin that crackles under tooth like brittle. Javier is a formally trained chef who’s worked under some of the finest French technicians in the business, including the late Michel Richard and Patrick Orange, the former chef at the august La Chaumière in Georgetown. Javier understands how to turn end-of-service leftovers into next-day profits.
Which is essentially how he created the paksiw breakfast sandwich. Javier and his team take the leftover lechon from Kuya Ja’s; dice up the pork belly, skin and all; then braise the mess of meat in cane vinegar, soy sauce, brown sugar, garlic and that Philippine secret weapon known as Mang Tomas. Javier calls the results “our version of pulled pork.” I call it the perfect start to any day or, should you be a late raiser like me, a solid lunch option.
Eggs play a role in every sandwich save for the B.A.L.T., Javier’s creamy avocado-enhanced riff on the cured-pork classic, a towering stack of Technicolor ingredients that will challenge your ability to wrap your jaws around them. You’ll find a way, believe me. Fried eggs, their yolks still wobbly, enrich a few of the Philippine sandwiches, including the housemade chorizo and the bistek. The latter is a pile of thinly sliced rib-eye braised in soy sauce, beef bouillon and lemon juice, then accessorized with pickled onions, white American cheese sauce, lettuce and a garlic-adobo mayo. It’s the Pinoy equivalent of a cheesesteak, an ingenious one at that, minus all the angst over whether you ordered it correctly.
You’ll spot Javier’s French training with his scrambled eggs, a loose and luxurious scramble, in which the line between curd, butter and cheese all but disappears. These scrambled clouds grace the classic American breakfast sandwiches, elevating them far above the typical drain stoppers served with a rubbery puck of egg product at your local coffee shop. Lapu Lapu’s egg-and-cheese and sausage-egg-and-cheese combos (you can substitute a Beyond Meat patty for the sausage) will ruin breakfast sandwiches anywhere else for you.
The same soft scrambled eggs are slipped into a pair of Philippine-inspired sandos. The one that delights me most is the sandwich featuring Spam, the U.S. Army hand-me-down that has already earned a place at the Philippine breakfast table with spamsilog. Javier takes the canned meat and, in a move that separates the chefs from the cooks, pairs it with those heavenly eggs and sturdy slice of smoked gouda.
You can pair any sandwich with an order of tater-tot coins, dusted with either Cajun seasoning or pecorino Romano cheese. They’re standard-issue potato poppers, never as crisp and satisfying as I would like. I’d save my calories for a post-sando serving of ube soft serve, this frozen confection with the royal hue and the spellbinding ability to bridge the gap between sweet and savory.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that Lapu Lapu has no indoor seating, which is going to be an issue once temperatures dip low enough that only polar bears and Chicagoans feel comfortable eating outside. What’s more, the patio is limited to a handful of tables, though they’re coveted seats at the moment, as the slight chill in the air makes holding one of Lapu Lapu’s warm sandwiches feel like a comfort for the mind, body and spirit.
216 Market St W., Gaithersburg, Md., 240-477-7764; lapulapubreakfast.com.
Hours: 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday.
Prices: $2 to $14 for all items on the menu.