We visit one of Manila’s best meat smokers
MANILA, Philippines – It wasn’t hard to find the Smoke’n Sweets headquarters amidst the row of unassuming houses. All we had to do was follow the smell: an inviting bouquet of apple and cherry smoke was evident from a block away. Located in a residential neighborhood in the outskirts of Quezon City, this is where Jack and Rachel Ruivivar prepare their exceptional pork ribs, brisket, stews, and bacon (which was named one of the country’s best by Esquire) to sell at the Sidcor Sunday Market in Centris.
Preparations for the coming Sunday market are in full swing… and it just so happens to be their neighbor’s laundry day as well. Clothes hang within line of sight of Jack’s massive garage smoker. “Haven’t had any complaints,” Jack says, chuckling, as he throws open the iron doors of his smoker. After all, who would mind going to work or school wearing clothes that smell like bacon?
With the doors open, a fragrant (and eye-watering) cloud of smoke spills out, and for a brief moment envelopes the front of the smoker. Jack calmly steps into the haze and heat, and begins inspecting the ribs, brisket, and pork belly with a thermometer. The racks of meat have been smoking overnight at this point, and a good bark had begun to form, but they aren’t done yet. “Every hour when I’m stoking the fire, I’ll move the meats, so they all get evenly cooked,” he says. “Sometimes I work overnight, and sometimes I start it at 4am, and done by 4pm.”
It’s an extremely time-consuming and demanding process, but the results speak for themselves. Smoke’n Sweets ribs are so soft they’re almost ethereal. They’re made without any extraneous (or “competition-style”) gimmicks, a choice that allows the pork’s naturally sweet, slightly caramelly, flavor to shine through. And people are starting to take notice. Renowned chef Margarita Forés got wind of Smoke’n Sweets’ work, and after a good meeting with Jack, began ordering bacon and smoked leg of lamb for Grace Park, her organic, farm-to-table restaurant.
Fire in the belly
Most commercial ribs use baby back or St. Louis cuts, which contain less fat. Smoke’n Sweets ribs, on the other hand, include the belly. This creates the aforementioned texture and flavor. Jack, an American, had his eureka moment upon discovering liempo. Using pork belly, apart for bacon, wasn’t really a thing where he was from. “In the States, we had bacon, we had ham, we had pork chops. That was about it, as far as I know,” he says. These ribs are the perfect marriage of American smoke and local meat.
Here’s a surprising fact: Jack hasn’t been smoking for very long. “As much as I would love to have some wandering smoking-genius story that just found his way over here, it’s more pedestrian than that,” Jack happily admits. While great barbecue pitmasters possess knowledge that is passed down through generations, Jack’s skills are the result of a less romantic process: good old trial and error.
And sometimes, things blow up. His smoker bears the scars of grease fires and, most notably, an exploding can of milk. “I just wanted to make dulce de leche!” Jack says. “I knew smoke wouldn’t enter the can, but I already had the smoker going, and thought I might as well put the can in there.” After a few hours, Jack and Rachel heard what they initially thought was a gunshot. The can exploded, warping the rack it was placed on and making Jack thankful he wasn’t checking on the meats when this happened.
Before the smoked meats, before supplying meats to fancy restaurants, there were the pastries. Both Jack and Rachel are dedicated bakers. Jack had his pecan pie (which is now smoked, of course) and lemon meringue pie, while Rachel had her brownies. The couple bonded over a shared love for cooking, and dreamed of opening their business. “I’d send her recipes for cheese dip and gorgonzola-stuffed mushrooms, as well as Ants on a Log (cream cheese, or any spread, and raisins on celery),” remembers Jack. “Then one time I sent her lemon bars that she absolutely loved – so much [that] we thought that would be our business when I arrived, but brownies quickly outsold the lemon bars.” As much as we love their ribs and brisket, the smoked pecan pie is, objectively, Smoke’n Sweets’ best offering. The smokey flavor works perfectly with the sweet, almost meaty, pecans.
After Jack’s move to the Philippines, the couple decided to renovate their home. Along with the renovations, Jack had a smoker built, and started practicing. After some misses (and near-death experiences via exploding milk cans), they eventually added meats to their repertoire and brought Smoke’n Sweets to the Sidcor weekend market.
Rachel’s dishes are the secret weapons in the Smoke’n Sweets arsenal. Her wagyu kaldereta is pure, beefy, heaven. And her chicken and crab rolls are the perfect companion to a plate full of ribs or brisket. And if you drop by Sidcor and find that they’re selling baked spaghetti, get as much of it as you can. Rachel rarely makes baked spaghetti these days.
One with the elements
The secret to Smoke’n Sweets ribs isn’t in the meat or the seasoning (although it’s certainly important – Jack and Rachel are pretty uncompromising when it comes to the quality of their meats). The secret is in the fire and smoke, and knowing how to control each of those two elements. That’s pretty apparent while watching Jack make micro adjustments to the wood in his smoker. There’s something base, or primal, about cooking meat on burning wood. The stinging heat, the fat rendering off the meat – it’s heady stuff.
“I let the smoke speak for itself,” Jack says. And we agree; while scarfing down those delicious, perfect meats, there isn’t anything more left to be said. – Rappler.com
Smoke’n Sweets sets up shop every Sunday at the Sidcor Sunday Market in Centris. And yes, they eventually managed to make dulce de leche without burning the house down.
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