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Dining Out

Smoke and spice

Local restaurants share secrets about sauces that make grilled food great

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By Devra First
Globe Staff / May 20, 2009

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That smell — it’s strangely familiar. It’s been a long time, but it’s unmistakable. It’s smoke in the air, the char of grilling meat, the scent of summer. Barbecue season has, at long last, arrived. For many people, grilling is about the meat: juicy, dripping burgers; glorious steaks eaten straight off the grill fork, adorned with nothing but salt and pepper; chicken more flavorful than it’s been since the last cookout of the previous summer. Vegetables benefit, too: skewers of crisp-edged peppers and smoky mushrooms, sweet ears of corn enhanced by the flames.

Yum. But for me, grilling is as much about the toppings as what you put them on. Condiments can be a source of contention: Mustard or mayo? With or without relish? President Obama recently caught flak from conservative critics for requesting a hamburger with Dijon mustard. (Way to undercut the "real guy eating a burger" moment.)

I've got nothing against Dijon, or ketchup for that matter. But I think spice and smoke are a more perfect union. A beef patty with ketchup is good; lamb kofte with Indian tomato chutney is great. Flank steak soars in a salad dressed with chili-and-sugar-spiked Vietnamese fish sauce. And grilled chicken's potential for dryness is countered when it's shredded and folded into a warm corn tortilla with tomatillo salsa and a dollop of crema.

For topping inspirations, we turned to restaurants around town, places where the food is good but the sauces make it even better. Many of the cooks create their condiments according to taste, without a recipe. The sauces are simple to whip up, and a little bit of effort is rewarded with a big burst of flavor. You can create your own versions of the condiments these restaurants serve, or give your grill a break and head out to sample them in person.

Angela's Cafe
At this East Boston restaurant, chef Angela Atenco Lopez has earned props for making some of the best Mexican food in the city. She's from Puebla and specializes in the region's traditional dishes, among them her fantastic mole, which includes 50 to 60 ingredients. The woman knows from complex sauces.

But the simple red and green hot sauces served on the side at Angela's Cafe have their own appeal. Not much goes into them: plum tomatoes, chiles de arbol, and garlic for the red; tomatillos, jalapenos, and garlic for the green. But those ingredients are just enough to make the sauces mysteriously addictive; watch how quickly chips disappear when they are on the table. They're great on any kind of Mexican food (use them to jazz up a quick weeknight taco salad), but also with eggs, drizzled on grilled vegetables, or whisked into vinaigrette for a spicy and satisfying salad dressing.

131 Lexington St., East Boston. 617-567-4972.

Blue Ribbon Bar-B-Q
The barbecue here is some of the best in town. I could wax rhapsodic about the pulled pork sandwich, succulent shreds of meat piled on a soft roll, releasing their juices into the bread, creating some sort of cosmic perfection. . . . Wait, where am I? Ah, yes, attempting to talk about Blue Ribbon's barbecue sauces. Though the meat can be enough to put you into a blissful trance, the sauces spur harmonic convergence. They make every bite chime with tangysweethot completion.

There are plenty of offerings here - the South Carolina-style gold sauce, the North Carolina-style vinegar sauce - but I'm particularly fond of the Kansas City-style hot barbecue sauce. "It's hot, but with flavor and balance," says owner and pit master Geoff Janowski. "Balance is key. A lot of times a sauce will have too much vinegar, not enough sugar, not enough salt. It has got to dance on your tongue."

The hot barbecue sauce has plenty of ingredients on its dance card: tomato paste, Worcestershire sauce, pineapple juice, mustard, vinegar, brown sugar, and habaneros among them. There's no need to try anything crazy with this sauce; use it on barbecued ribs, brisket, chicken, and so on. But if you're inclined to push the envelope, serve it with a fish like mahi mahi and pineapple salsa.

1375 Washington St., West Newton. 617-332-2583. 908 Massachusetts Ave., Arlington. 781-648-7427. www.blueribbonbbq.com

Chacarero
When all those folks in LA excitedly talk about their Kogi truck - which delivers Korean barbecue tacos around the city, announcing its whereabouts via Twitter - yes, I do feel a bit jealous. But then I think, well, we've got Chacarero and they don't. The two branches specialize in Chilean sandwiches on round rolls, somewhere between hard and soft, filled with steak, chicken, or both; lettuce, tomatoes, and green beans; Muenster cheese and avocado spread; and hot sauce. Otherwise-harried people will regularly wait on Chacarero's long lunchtime lines without complaint.

It's hard to say what makes the sandwiches so compelling. The green beans go a long way, bringing a different kind of crunch to the mix. The avocado spread does not hurt, creamy and fresh. But my vote goes to the hot sauce. There are two versions, medium and spicy. Owner Juan Hurtado won't divulge what's in them, beyond jalapenos in the former and habaneros in the latter. Both are great. The milder one is warming; a big mouthful of the habanero version will clear your sinuses and make your eyes water. Though the formula is top secret, Hurtado is bottling the sauce, and it should be on supermarket shelves in a few months. Then you'll be able to create your own Chacarero sandwich at home. Don't forget the green beans and avocado.

26 Province St., Boston. 617-367-1167. 101 Arch St., Boston. 617-542-0392. www.chacarero.com

Fields Corner Vietnamese restaurants
The sauce called nuoc cham is such an important condiment on the Vietnamese table, it can't even be compared with ketchup. It's more like salt. Every cook has his or her own version, with subtle distinctions. For the most part, the farther south you go in Vietnam, the sweeter the sauce is. But the basic components are constant: fish sauce, chilies, lime juice, and sugar. It's easy to see from this list why nuoc cham is omnipresent. It's got everything you'd want in a condiment: salt, heat, tartness, and sweetness. Fish sauce is an important source of umami, the savory fifth flavor also found in meat, mushrooms, and Parmesan. (Try adding a tiny splash the next time you make tomato sauce, lentil soup, or beef stew.)

If you want to compare versions of nuoc cham, or more likely just want to consume a whole lot of Vietnamese food, Dorchester's Fields Corner neighborhood is where to head. Here you'll find Anh Hong, Pho 2000, Pho Hoa, Pho So 1, and more. Nuoc cham is commonly eaten with fried spring rolls, bun (or vermicelli) dishes, and rice dishes. At Pho So 1, you'll find a fairly balanced nuoc cham, for example, while Anh Hong's version is distinctly sweet.

At home, try rolling your own fresh rolls with shrimp hot off the grill. Set a table with dried rounds of Vietnamese rice paper, a big bowl of hot water, cooked vermicelli, and a platter of whatever vegetables and herbs you desire (carrots, cucumbers, green apples, lettuce, mint, Thai basil, and the herb shiso are all good choices). Dip the rice paper in the water, add a manageable amount of shrimp, noodles, herbs, and vegetables, and roll like a burrito. Dip in nuoc cham and eat. The sauce is also excellent drizzled over grilled meat or tofu with rice.

Anh Hong, 291 Adams St., Dorchester. 617-265-8889. Pho 2000, 198 Adams St., Dorchester. 617-436-1908. www.pho2000boston.com. Pho Hoa, 1356 Dorchester Ave., Dorchester. 617-287-9746. Pho So 1, 223 Adams St., Dorchester. 617-474-1999.

India Quality
At Indian restaurants around town, onion chutney is ubiquitous. The chunky, red mixture is often served as part of a condiment trio with spring-green mint and sweet, brown tamarind sauces. India Quality's version is particularly good, a little richer than some due to the addition of tomato paste, with a nice chili kick. It's great with papadums, samosas, and other appetizers, or with bites of rice to add variety to your entree. (Although it has a tingly heat, in comparison with India Quality's vindaloo it's positively cooling.)

The condiment is made differently in India, says Pammi Singh, a partner in the restaurant. It might contain onion, lemon juice, and vinegar - but certainly not bell peppers, which are present in small quantities in India Quality's chutney.

The chutney is easy to make. There's no cooking involved, just chopping, though that needs to be done by hand or the vegetables leach too much water, says Singh. If you're cooking Indian food, onion chutney is a natural accompaniment. Try it with grilled tandoori-style chicken skewers or on any kind of burger or meat patty, particularly one involving lamb.

484 Commonwealth Ave., Boston. 617-267-4499. www.indiaquality.com

La Pupusa Guanaca
Salvadoran pupusas are as simply delicious as any food can be: tortillas patted out from corn dough, stuffed with fillings such as pork or beans and cheese, and cooked to order on a griddle. They're served with a red salsa and curtido, a pickled cabbage slaw.

At La Pupusa Guanaca, owners Jorge and Mayra Flores make their red salsa with tomato, onion, garlic, cumin, oregano, and the herb culantro. It goes wonderfully with the savory little pupusas and the sour, crunchy cabbage.

But if you ask for hot sauce, the person behind the counter will hand you a bottle of something green. This sauce is a bit spicier than the red one that comes with the pupusas, with a slightly and pleasantly sour flavor. Mayra Flores can tell you what she puts in it: jalapenos, garlic, onion, white pepper, and the (formerly) secret ingredient: carrots. She just can't tell you what proportions she uses. "That's a problem I have with my husband," she says, laughing. "He always tells me, 'You have to measure, you have to measure.' But if I measure it won't come out the way I want."

Try the sauce at home, to your taste, with fish tacos or smoked pork. Or try it at La Pupusa Guanaca, to Flores's taste, with her simply delicious pupusas.

378 Centre St., Jamaica Plain. 617-524-4900.

Devra First can be reached at dfirst@globe.com.

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