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At the diners I frequent on deadline day, the waitresses know what I do for a living and don't hold it against me. They see me hunched up in the corner going longhand through these discursions on food and love and triumph and disappointment, dog-earing menus, smoking too much and drinking too much coffee.
Ribs, half rack: $12.99
Pork skewers, 6-inch $2, 10-inch: $3.75
Papa criolla: $3.25
Fried yucca: $3.50
Turon y langka: $1
All those waitresses out in Hotcakesland know long before anyone else in the city what restaurant's going to be getting the business, because they ask, and I tell. They almost always know the place, have a friend who worked there, or ate there themselves just last week. Waitresses know everything. If you don't believe me, just ask one. They like it when I'm trashing a joint, so long as it's not their joint. But they like it more when I don't, when I find some place that really moves me. What can I say? Girls like love letters.
And right now, I'm in love with MG's Barbecue & Grill.
I'm in love with the very idea of Filipino food being served in Englewood, of all places. I'm in love with MG's spare, honest space. This eatery doesn't have an open kitchen, it's all kitchen. Walk through the front doors and you're stepping straight into a working galley, all smoke and heat and gleaming stainless, with the dining room (nothing more than four or five tables pressed tight against the alley-view windows) separated from the working line by just a block counter, some flowers and the cash register. Above all, I love what comes out of that kitchen.
Owner Mary Grace Roaquin moved to Denver from the Philippines to be an instructor for the blind. That's what she went to school for, what she trained for, and when that fell through, she asked herself, "What else do I know how to do?" She knew how to cook, which she'd done for family and friends back home. But she has no formal training; this is her first restaurant, and the location is awful -- corner unit of an office park, invisible if you come up on it from the wrong direction -- but the space is what it is because an Englewood office park was all she could find (and afford). She'd cook everything outside if she could, and serve it picnic-style -- only business might fall off a bit when it rained. So the kitchen is how it is, too, because Roaquin wanted to be cooking for people, not shut away from them behind closed doors. And what she cooks at MG's is a combination of island traditional and home-cooked ingenuity. It's almost an alternate history of Filipino cuisine.
In terms of food, my first love is potatoes. Here, they're an Andean variety called papa criolla. Imagine starchy, mashed Yukon golds, stiff and buttery, still in their skins and served whole, sprinkled with coarse-grain salt. They're like classic poor-mick salt potatoes, but yellow-fleshed and a little sweet; like the best gold baker you've ever tried, only small -- ranging in size from grapes to cue balls. They come with just about everything on MG's short, tight menu, and they're addictive, as Roaquin warns, so watch yourself. Too many trips to MG's counter and you're going to start waking up at four in the morning with the cottonmouth potato sweats, jonesing for another fix of Colombian mountain papas.
Maybe it's the Irish in me, but potatoes of any variety -- when treated with the kind of respect owed the King of Tubers -- really get my motor running. Potatoes are why my hell would be an unending Atkins-only buffet line. I'd eat a dietitian before giving up the spuds, and MG's papas are now right up there in my desert-island top ten. Roaquin gets them trucked in special from a distributor in Miami who gets them special from a supplier in Colombia. But because of the recent jump (okay, pole-vault) in gas prices, her deliveries have become sporadic. Miami to Denver (let alone Colombia to Denver) is a long haul, and at two bucks a gallon and climbing, space on those trucks is becoming precious. And if these deliveries were to stop entirely? Well, that's one more thing for me to blame on Little George. Lie, cheat, steal, get all colonial up in the Third World, whatever. But get between an Irish kid and his potatoes? Man, that's just mean. How'd he like it if I stole all the tall boys and barbecue sauce out of the West Wing?
Speaking of barbecue, that's the bulk of what Roaquin does here. It's not everything -- and it's arguably not even the best thing, what with the great empanadas stuffed with spiced meat, potatoes and slivers of sautéed onion; wonderful, fresh salsa; brown-sugar-rolled Hawaiian bananas and jackfruit turon y langka fried in an egg-roll wrapper -- but it's the main thing. And this is Filipino barbecue, which is a little weird because the Philippines don't immediately leap to mind when you're considering the great barbecue capitals of the world. Texas, Kansas City and South Carolina, sure. Mexico and Korea if you're going ethnic, even Vietnam and Argentina. Filipino 'cue as envisioned by Roaquin (who calls her creation "aristocrat" barbecue) looks like the kind of stuff you'd get out of some driftwood shack in the Caribbean, an oceanside place with sand on the floor and a fine finger of smoke being blown back up the beach on the tradewinds. It's barbecue at its most basic -- marinated meat meeting mop and fire -- but without the storied history of refinement or generations of ghostly pit-man knowledge. Still, it's a barbecue that came out of the back yard, like all great 'cues, even if Roaquin's yard was in the Philippines. It's her translation of what Filipino barbecue might taste like if there were any such thing.
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