Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — The Manila menu of Mighty Quinn’s looks like a magazine. Or more appropriately, its “visual guide” looks like a magazine (with most of the food images done by master photographer Neal Oshima), which, spread out on the centerfold, is the same size as its serving trays, the images on the page matching the actual size of the New York famous charred pork brisket that is as inviting on paper as it is on the tray.
Mighty Quinn’s — the East Village-born smokehouse which professes to cook its meats with “wood and time” (using white oak to “kiss the meat” for at least 20 hours) — serves good old slow smoked barbecue: “the true American dish,” according to its co-owner and pitmaster Hugh Mangum, who graced the opening of the joint’s first Philippine branch in SM Megamall. Tourists to Mangum’s brand of barbecue will appreciate the acidic and trademark pork brisket (upon which the house was built, Mangum claims), the eat-it-with-your-hands spare ribs, and the restaurant’s humongous Brontosaurus ribs. Or maybe starters can easily fall in love with the corn fritters, whose smell can easily pervade the restaurant and fill it with a reassuring sweetness that comes from knowing that food was cooked slowly and thoughtfully.
Mighty Quinn’s started out in Mangum’s driveway in East Village. Six years ago, the tattooed drummer set aside a week’s paycheck ($600, he says) and bought an assortment of meats, transforming them the way he knew how: by slowly cooking them over wood and fire, as his father did. Over at Brooklyn’s Smorgasburg, an outdoor market for enterprising culinary lovers, Mangum’s ribs and briskets sold out in 90 minutes. It was an accurate depiction of what was to come.
It’s easy to imagine Mighty Quinn’s finding a stronghold in a local restaurant scene already filled with various permutations of what American smokehouse barbecue should taste like. For one, it already stands out for venturing to highlight its best fare in a visual guide, to be handed out while you’re in line, which can be easily compared to the actual fare once you sit down with your food. “We didn’t want people to have the perception that it was a sitdown restaurant,” says Denise Cabotage, the restaurant’s marketing manager. “It’s a cafeteria set-up so we wanted them to know more about the food, without them thinking it was an actual menu.”
The actual, gleaming pork brisket and spare ribs, in fact, were better than how they looked on the page. Praises have been heaped upon Mighty Quinn’s smoked meats: no less than The New York Times gave its East Village restaurant a two-star review and named it a critic’s choice, and described its spare ribs “exceptional,” its beef rib “an instant conversation stopper.” I’m no carnivore but that gleaming brisket is a sinful charred hunk of undeserved deliciousness. It takes a storied love to make that tart sweetness come out from a slab of meat and turn into something transcendent in my mouth.
And perhaps that’s part of the secret. Mangum says that when he tastes food — as he tasted our adobo and sisig — he tastes something more than flavors. “What I’ve witnessed here is the food tastes like history. In the restaurant [where I had the adobo], I can also imagine the grandfather making that 60 years ago.”
“I did not learn barbecue zero,” Mangum adds. “I learned it from watching my father, from watching various people, and it’s a longstanding tradition. And I think most of our beloved foods come from those traditions.”
Those traditions, Mangum says, don’t have to stay exactly the same, as long as the core of it is still intact. The philosophy is reflected in Mighty Quinn’s Manila. There is no attempt to culturally appropriate the outsized American barbecue to the Filipino palate. Perhaps it’s because barbecue, as a dish, is easy to accommodate. “Barbecue does not know any socio-economical divide. It’s very all-inclusive,” says Mangum.
Even the most “Filipino” dish in the menu, a side of dirty rice, is borne not out of an obvious attempt to try to placate the local tongue, making it undoubtedly Mighty Quinn’s still. The surprise is that the rice is richly flavored with calamansi, the lowly local citrus that has foreign chefs marveling at its potency as a distinct flavor. “I tasted the calamansi, and I was blown away,” says Mangum. “I knew it was in the rice.” According to Cabotage, Mangum plans to make the rice available for a limited time in New York.
Evidently, what Mighty Quinn’s has going is a firm conviction that doing things its own way — slowly, surely, as a piece of oak patiently burns — is a reward on its own. What you have here is a pitmaster passionate and articulate enough with his craft as to know people will — and should — enjoy what he has to offer.
Mighty Quinn’s is located at 3/F Mega Fashion Hall, SM Megamall, Mandaluyong