Subo does Southeast Asian with a French flair
It was, what, 10 degrees outside? And there we were: sipping the sweet juice of a young coconut straight from its shell, which looked something like a volleyball that had been hacked open with a machete. I could almost smell the salt in the air, hear the waves beating against the beach, and feel the ocean spray spattering on my cheeks. And we hadn't even started on the pork candy yet.
Pork candy is just one of the many delights found at Subo, where chef Neil Guillen is applying four-star French cooking technique to humble foods of his Filipino homeland. Guillen's approach is similar to that of New York City's young wunderchef David Chang of Momofuku, who has been credited with popularizing the concept of Asian-influenced small plates. New York is home to a whole crop of such restaurants, including the one where Guillen most recently worked, Kuma Inn, on the Lower East Side. A frequent Kuma customer and Minnesota-based investor thought Guillen's cooking would be a hit in Minneapolis and offered to help him open his own place.
You'll hardly recognize the downtown Minneapolis space that once housed the original Hell's Kitchen, as it's now washed in earth tones with a few colorful splashes and lots of moody lighting. There's lounge seating in the front, an open kitchen in the back, and rustic wooden crates stacked behind the bar that display the liquor collection. The faux awnings hung along one wall make the place look a bit like a stage set from South Pacific.
Subo means "to feed" in the Filipino language Tagalog, and during a typical meal at the restaurant, your table will turn into a traffic jam of dishware. Subo's offerings tend to be boldly seasoned, melding the flavors of cultures that have influenced Filipino cuisine: Malay, Chinese, Spanish, and South American, among others. Like other Southeast Asian fare, Filipino food thrives on the interplay between sweet, sour, and bitter flavors—and, of course, a few hot chiles. The dishes may look as if they belong in a white-tablecloth restaurant, but at their soul they're the food of street vendors and open-air markets.
Now, about that pork candy: Take two of my favorite words, put 'em together, and you'll have a plate full of sliced Thai-style sausage covered in a ruddy lime gastrique of caramelized palm sugar with coconut vinegar. The sausage's flavor and soft texture resembles Spam, which was popularized in the Philippines during the U.S.'s World War II military occupation, and the sauce gives it a teriyaki-like, sweet-salty punch. Consider it the Asian version of those grape-jelly-and-cocktail-sauce-smothered cocktail weenies: comforting and addictive.
As at Momofuku, pork is king at Subo. Guillen's version of Chang's famed pork buns are called Peking cakes: a heaping mound of pulled pork shoulder tucked into a fold of puffy white bread that seems to me like a kid's version of banh mi. The bun has a sweet, yeasty flavor that mellows the earthiness of the meat and the brightness of pickled jicama and coconut aioli. Of course deep-fried pork belly, or lechon kawali, is also on the menu. The pork is first braised so the layers of meat and fat practically melt together, then fried so the skin puffs up and crackles. A bright soy-vinegar dipping sauce and more jicama pickles help cut through the meaty-fatty richness.
Guillen serves two types of chicken wings, one adobo-style, which is a classic Filipino cooking technique that involves braising in soy sauce and vinegar with spices, then browning or pan-frying to crisp the edges. Guillen's adobo riffs on his mother's recipe, and the salty-sharp flavors of the braising liquid are smoothed out with a little coconut milk. I preferred the adobo wings to the fried ones, which are soaked in buttermilk and coated with flour and a hint of five-spice powder, and then served lollipop-style with "banana ketchup" (a Filipino condiment that sweetens regular ketchup with bananas and golden raisins).
Filipino adobo and Spanish adobo, both marinated dishes, share the same name due to Spain's colonization of the Philippines during the late 1500s and early 1600s. The Spanish influence is also seen in dishes like the croquettes and the arroz valenciana, a Filipino version of paella—moist, rust-colored, sweet-salty seasoned rice with sausage, shrimp, and mussels.
Subo's menu items reflect the Philippines' many cultural influences, among them the vegetable lumpia, which resembles a Chinese fried egg roll stuffed with green beans and dipped in a sharp, acidic shallot-soy mignonette. There's also a Thai green-papaya salad, which is dressed up with green mango, pea shoots, and bean sprouts, and a not-too-fiery sriracha-sesame vinaigrette.
In the Philippines, the word "torta" is used to describe a sort of omelet, and Guillen's version includes potato, scallions, and bamboo shoots. These tortas also have a bit of Japanese influence, as they're topped with oysters fried in panko breadcrumbs and sprinkled with the tobiko that's used on sushi rolls.
About a third of Subo's menu is devoted to seafood, and even the ubiquitous seared scallop seems interesting with its sweet, mushy eggplant marmalade and sake-bacon beurre blanc. It's tough to find sardines on local restaurant menus, and the ones at Subo do a great service to an extremely healthful and overlooked fish. The whole fish are about five inches long, grilled with a little black char, then served with pickled onions and chimichurri, an Argentinian condiment made with parsley, garlic, oil, and red pepper flakes. Under the sardine's delicate skin, its flesh has a flavor that's a little like herring or trout—it's not as "fishy" tasting as tinned sardines tend to be.
The most expensive item on the menu tops out at $17—a whole grilled fish, head and tail still on, eyeballs popping. Mine was a red snapper whose sweet, slightly grilled flesh was perfect when dipped in its citrus/sesame/soy sauce and paired with a bite of coconut rice. Combined with a plate of sautéed greens in a garlicky fish-sauce broth, it's an unbeatable meal.
I encountered only a few missed opportunities at Subo. Vegetarian summer rolls were served icy cold, and their peanut sauce tasted too much like peanut butter without a strong enough kick of something—soy sauce, vinegar, citrus, or chile—to cut it. And I'd probably pass on most of the desserts, including the fried plantains, which were too starchy to my liking, though I did enjoy the silky Thai-chile chocolate panna cotta, whose consistency was closer to that of a pot au crème. Next time I'll probably just finish my meal with a glass of dragon-fruit juice. It tastes a bit like lychee and comes with the fruit's eyeball-like seeds settled in the bottom of the glass.
I prefer traditional eggs Benedict to Guillen's Southeast Asian version—Peking cake with sweet chicken sausage, bitter greens, poached eggs, and a lemongrass chile béarnaise sauce—but my impression may have been colored by a service mishap. Note to staff: If by chance, a few seconds after the dish has been presented, a poached egg decides to spontaneously slip off its perch and slide onto the tabletop, the polite thing to do is offer to make a new one, rather than watch your guests awkwardly return the egg to the plate. While many staffers did a nice job explaining unfamiliar terms and dishes, a few service basics were lacking. If the kitchen has switched the sautéed greens, the servers should identify them as Chinese broccoli, not the former baby bok choy. And they should know what type of whole fish the kitchen is grilling that day without having to ask...and also know that the Philippines weren't ever colonized by the French.
These are all relatively minor concerns, but I think that Guillen's food is a bright new addition to the local dining scene, and I just want to be sure the service does it justice. In the meantime, how about another round of coconuts?
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