Get a 'Cue
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.
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.
"It's nothing fancy," Roaquin says. "Just fresh, you know? And good. Period. There's brown sugar, Filipino soy sauce, black pepper. Of course, fresh garlic, fresh lime, fresh everything. That's the hardest part. I have to squeeze, like, a gazillion limes." And then there are the secret ingredients, and she won't say what they are. But that's okay, because sometimes it's better not to go looking for the man behind the curtain.
In the year since she founded MG's, Roaquin has cooked thousands of pork ribs and tens of thousands of slabs of brisket, mostly for lunch and mostly for the cubicle dwellers in the wasteland of office parks that surround her place. She serves barbecued chicken and skewered pork that comes off the grill all juicy, soft and smoky (even though she doesn't actually smoke any of her meats), with her custom barbecue sauce on the side.
"You don't have to be saucy to be good." That's MG's motto, and it rings true. Because while the sauce Roaquin makes is great -- brown-sugar sweet and vinegar bright, thick and just a little spicy, with layers of earthy smoke and tart, puckering spikes of flavor -- the meat is even better. It is one-half pampas costilla with a little Sunday-afternoon lawn party thrown in for good measure, spiced with soy and lime, sugar and garlic, a little black pepper and a lot of practice. The ribs are tender, shot through with fat, big and meaty. The chicken is juicy, easily overwhelmed by the sauce. The pork skewers, sold by the inch, are hog heaven.
Instead of a smoker, Roaquin has that secret marinade and a grill juiced with a bit of hocus-pocus that imbues everything that touches its grate with a delicacy of flavor. You have to keep reminding yourself about the sauce in its little cup, because the unadulterated meat (unadulterated, that is, except for the mop, marinade and the blunt heat of the grill) is so good it makes you forget those little things like sauce, like work, like paying attention to your driving if you get an order to go.
The only thing pre-made here are the drinks, the cans of soda in her cooler. "I don't have much on the menu, you know? But everything is quality," Roaquin says. "Everything, I make from scratch. There's no MSG, no preservatives. I have to make sure you taste the tomatoes, the onions, everything. Everything in its balance."
Nothing I try from MG's menu is less than great, and I eat my way through most of it. Much as I love spuds, I would trade a universe of french fries for one order of Roaquin's fried yucca (the stalks of the succulent peeled, shortened and lightly breaded, then fried to a perfect pale and starchy yellow with a flavor like, well, potatoes, like deep-fried mashers cut into sticks); I would camp out in her parking lot for some of the fried patacon she makes by mashing together a bunch of fresh plantain slices into rough patties, then pan-frying them in butter until they go crisp around the edges and ooze a dull, fruity sweetness.
"It's just straightforward cooking," Roaquin says. "Everything fresh. Everything made with a lot of love. There's no hiding anything." And that's certainly true. On my first visit, I arrived at MG's just as the kitchen's hoods quit -- Murphy's Law in action. The restaurant had no ventilation save for a little fan that was on its last legs, so anything put on the grill immediately filled the small space with clouds of barbecue and char-scented smoke. Roaquin apologized, said maybe I'd be better off outside while she put my order together, but the haze didn't slow her at all. I went and sat under a tree, waiting while she prepared patacon, pork ribs, papa criolla and inihaw -- a traditional Filipino dish of pork belly, breaded and sliced and served in a big mound of fatty, powerfully piggy goodness with 'cue sauce on the side.
Under the worst possible circumstances, Roaquin never missed a step. My subsequent visits to MG's found the food just as impressive, but it was that first time through that's really stuck with me. Making it good -- that's just a cook's job. Making it good when everything around you is going bad, making it perfect when it really matters -- that's mastery. "The ideas was to have just a grill, a window and me," she says. "This place was as close as we could find."
A grill, a cook and a window -- as simple as that. It was all I needed to fall in love.
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