A Hamburger Today
Boston: Tea-Smoked Ribs at Myers and Chang
"Meat candy" is a subjective term, but my earliest association with a dish that fits that description might have been Chinese spareribs. Chewy, sweet-salty, curiously red-dyed pork on its own natural stick, this retro Cantonese-American staple was probably my favorite part of a pu-pu platter when I was a kid, but for some reason—probably late-onset food snob-fueled self-consciousness—I no longer suggest ordering spare ribs when I'm in a Chinese restaurant.
Except when I eat at Myers and Chang. This isn't a traditional Chinese restaurant, by most people's standards. Besides the urban-chic, airy décor, the menu consists of lighter, fresher, mostly Taiwanese-style dishes that co-owner Joanne Chang (of Flour Bakery fame) learned to make from her family, the most popular of which is probably her Tea-Smoked Pork Spare Ribs ($14).
As executive chef Matthew Burros explained, making the dish is a four-day, four-step process. First he red-braises St. Louis-style ribs for at least three hours, which helps the meat break down and become tender. Next he briefly smokes the ribs with standard black tea, rice, and brown sugar; Burros says that just a 12 to 15-minute stint in the oven infuses the meat with subtle but significant smoke flavor. Then he marinates them for 24 to 36 hours in a mixture that includes dark soy sauce, ginger, garlic, and scallions, and, to-order, rubs them with brown sugar and coarsely-cracked Tellicherry black and Sichuan peppercorns* and quickly blasts them under the salamander.
The finished ribs aren't like a pu pu platter version. Instead of being chewy, they're so tender that the meat sheets off the bone with a gentle tug. Because of that, they don't have quite the burnt-end quality that most Chinese-style ribs have. (Note: Burros mentioned that developing a chewy rib for the restaurant is on his to-do list.) The flavors are also a bit more subtle and refined; the brown sugar (plus a little water in the pan) gives them a lightly lacquered, glazy sweetness that's tempered by the smoke, the star anise, and the citrusy, numbing quality of the Sichuan peppercorns. As Burrows remarked, it's definitely meat candy. I'd say it's just a different breed.
* Be sure to savor those coarse bits of peppercorn on top of the ribs. Burros explained that he and his staff take turns cracking the peppercorns with the back of a skillet—a process that takes hours and builds up uneven levels of arm strength.