It's impossible to forget a first encounter with Southeast Asian roadside barbecue. The first thing to register is the smell, sometimes from a distance: a mix of burning wood, lemon grass, slow-roasted pork, fish sauce and sweat. Even better is the first bite, with its cacophony of smoke, chilies, acid, mint, basil, cilantro, scallions and garlic. It's so bright and full of life, you wonder how you've lived without it.
Marjie's Grill, a new restaurant from Herbsaint veterans Marcus Jacobs and Caitlin Carney, was inspired by such an experience. The couple hatched the idea for their casual Broad Street spot after traveling to Thailand, Vietnam and Laos. They experimented with a pop-up before opening their brick-and-mortar in late 2016.
At the grill, Jacobs uses a method common in Santa Maria-style barbecue. The grill's iron gate adjusts to different levels over open coals, allowing him to change the cooking temperatures depending on the type of meat. Lamb, chicken and pork are slow-roasted to tender doneness, and seafood and vegetables get the flash treatment. Items closest to the coals — such as sweet potatoes that taste like candy — carry the strongest essence of the grill.
A salad of charred mushrooms gets a kick of acid from a fiery garlic vinaigrette, which carries the characteristic funk of fish sauce and just enough heat to counter the rich and smoky mushrooms. Sweet and spicy wok-fried shrimp are served heads-on, coated with chili peppers and scallions and swimming in a buttery citrus and beer sauce.
Vegetables vie for the spotlight and appear in dishes heavy with smoke and char and flavors that sparkle. Fried Des Allemands catfish strips are tossed with thick cracklings, but a mix of lettuces, mint and cilantro makes the dish a success. Slow-roasted, juicy, smoky chicken is served with sweet chili glaze, and a mix of fresh herbs, radishes and fried shallots provides a flavorful and fresh contrast to the meat. Grilled Brussels sprouts are sweet and zesty, mixed with crunchy pecans and mint.
Though the inspiration is Asian, the kitchen emphasizes local ingredients and shows off its fresh herbs and produce. Crispy wet-battered fried chicken is served with a dipping sauce made from local honey, as well as scorching chili paste.
The grill's effect is most powerful in charred, deeply smoky pork knuckles, a deliciously fatty and gelatinous mess of meat coated in cane syrup glaze. There seems to be a strong affection for all things porcine, but even for meat lovers, the infatuation with pork can come off as overkill. The crispy pork tail is delicious, but not for the faint of heart.
Dessert appears to be a work in progress. It's a safe bet your sweet tooth won't be leading you back here.
The story behind Marjie's Grill is similar to a number of chef-driven pop-ups that graduated to brick-and-mortar restaurants. But the concept and execution feel more grown up and more confident here. These are bold moves from a team who found food they love and know exactly what they're doing. For fellow travelers or anyone else with a bit of culinary wanderlust, there is no better place to scratch the itch.