Cue the modern BBQ

FEAST WITH ME - Stephanie Zubiri-Crespi (The Philippine Star) - June 14, 2012 - 12:00am

As a child I used to really look forward to the birthday parties of my friends. As all Filipino kids from the ’80s know, kiddy party food consisted of sweet spaghetti, bright red hotdogs skewered with pastel-colored marshmallows, chicken lollipops and barbecue. Everything as a kid looked fantastic. But come to think of it now, with more scrutiny: the spaghetti was always mushed up, cold and soggy with pasty pieces of bright yellow cheese; the hotdogs were also cold, the red food coloring bleeding into the robin’s egg-blue and pistachio-green marshmallows; chicken lollipop coating was a tad greasy, the meat cardboard-ish and far from crisp. Perhaps chafing dishes weren’t discovered yet back in the ’80s, or they thought that it didn’t matter because they were just kids. The only thing that was truly still good was the barbecue. Even at room temp it was still tender, the charred smoky bits of fat were my favorite — sweet, rich and tangy.

You would eat everything, the undiscerning palate eating this party fare linking it with fond, nostalgic memories rather than forming a sophisticated array of flavors on the young taste buds.

Today, all grown up, truffle-fied and foie gras-bitten, I still get the occasional craving for that kind of food. It’s like eating a memory. I almost always regret the last bite of sweet spaghetti with neon-red sauce and hotdog bits but savor all throughout the childhood memories that come with each bite. At the last birthday party I attended, BBQ still stood out. I stared at the pile of gnawed-at sticks on my plate, regret-free and happy.

There’s something so primal about a char-grilled hunk of meat. Preferably with the bone still in and definitely eaten with your hands. I discovered real barbecue when I was in Mexico. A fat old lady deftly forming fresh tortillas with her hands rhythmically slapping it onto the fire welcomed you at the door. The scent of charcoal in the air, an array of fresh salsas made with tomatillos, bright avocado, hot peppers ... soft, tender meat, slow-cooked over coals, all kinds: chicken, goat, pork ... it didn’t matter. It was all juicy. You pulled it away from the bone, wrapped it up in the tortillas, tried to catch the jus rolling down your wrist to your elbow. A heavenly mix of rich, sweet, smoky, hot, spicy, tender, crispy, savory ... a perfect barbecue has it all.

What defines barbecue? Legend has it that in the French Caribbean, rum-drunken pirates would dig a hole in the sand and roast a whole goat “de la barbe a’ la queue” or “from the beard to the tail.” The Aussies have their “barbies,” Mexicans got their “barbacoas,” Brazilian “churrascos” and the Americans have pretty much turned it into a national sport. It’s not only a technique but also a sauce and a lifestyle.

It’s no surprise why you have to queue up to eat at Cue (pun intended). Sure, we have grill houses, and the standard American rib joints that are wet and saucy; we have our inasal eateries and BBQ deliveries that arrive for our party in bilaos. But the real deal? This must be a first. The Moment Group is run by Abba Napa, Jon Syjuco and Eliza Antonino. Focused on the passion for food and eating, these guys built a kitchen six months ago without even knowing which concept exactly they’d be opening.

“We’d just hang out there, cook up a storm with Luis (de Terry) and lounge on the couches enjoying ourselves,” Abba says. It’s no doubt with her F&B pedigree (her family owns the L’Opera Group) that they would turn that passion into a full-on successful business.  When Ayala offered them the spot, they took it immediately thinking that Cue was the best fit.

Everything is homemade. No shortcuts, their myriad selection of sauces has been experimented on till perfection in the research laboratory. People have scrunched their noses at the dry rub. Not understanding what it really is all about, expecting overly sweet, syrupy, drowning-in-sauce mush, they’re taken aback at the fact that barbecue can be without barbecue sauce. True barbecue is about the open flame, the coals, the smoked-out flavor that the sauce tries to falsely replicate out of plastic squeeze bottles. It’s about choosing the right time and temperature for each cut of meat. About embracing the variations that come with it. The dry rub ribs? As soon as they put a full rack down I just dove right in, impolitely and impulsively grabbing a piece with my hands and sinking my teeth into it. The perfect test. Sauce does not equal tender but it can mask poor technique, so if your dry rub is falling off the bone? You get an A-plus in my book.

Chipotle crab cakes? Fantastic, one of my favorites from consulting chef Luis de Terry since his Lu days. Bone marrow and steak tortillas? Deathly indulgent but absolutely worth it. I’ve heard some complaints about the tortillas but seriously? It’s because they are the real deal, not some store-bought, can-survive-on-the-shelf-for-months stuff. The fat lady in Mexico would have been proud. Apart from the ribs, the chicken was so pure and simple, glowing in its glory, golden and blistering skin like gorgeous sun goddess Brigitte Bardot crusted with salt by the Mediterranean Sea. No herbs, no ketchup, no frills. The chicken that stands alone. It takes 30 minutes, but then again you don’t rush a superstar.

For the non-meat eaters? The blackened salmon was a great dish on its own. Spice-rubbed, it held its head up high amidst all the other strong characters on the table. My fave sides were definitely the sweet potato fries, onion strings and their chili monggo — a local spin on the Tex-Mex fave. A giant order of fresh, bitter arugula with balsamic dressing offsets the feast with fiber and conscience-clearing qualities.

I honestly went back three times to make my decision. Trying as much as I could on the menu, bringing three large men as reinforcements for the last time. Each time was better than the last. The only restaurant in my book that has held the record for having even better service and better food on a busy Friday night, packed to the brim than when I was there on a special press invite. That says a lot for me.

Bring out the inner child and primal desires. Have a hefty workout, gather some hungry friends, order everything on the menu and roll up your sleeves to dig in. No shame, lick your fingers clean ... find a combination that works for you. My fave? The dry rub with red wine sauce and chimichurri … Everyone has got their own BBQ experience.

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