Kel Zaguirre stands by his new concept: an homage to Vietnamese cuisine. Photograph by Chris Clemente
Food & Drink Restaurants

Locavore chef’s new barbecue joint is a faithful homage to Vietnamese cuisine

Chef Kel Zaguirre won’t be caught dead calling his flavorful offerings at VBQ authentic Vietnamese — but we’ll call it good food any day. It’s the samgyupsal alternative you didn’t think you needed. 
Jam Pascual | Sep 08 2019

The concept of authenticity is a tired one, made meaningless by people who use the word without really knowing what it means. The uninitiated eater can eat pho just once in Saigon and just as easily return to the US, order the same dish from a Vietnamese restaurant with Vietnamese owners, and decry it as not the real thing, as though the markers of a genuine culinary experience are defined by location, or how faithfully it mimics a specific recipe. But traditions are fluid, culture is dynamic, and the most real thing about any dish is how much heaven it makes between your teeth and on your tongue.

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Perhaps it was a safe bet, then, that Chef Kel Zaguirre renounces authenticity altogether. VBQ stands for Vietnamese Barbeque, but its chefs will swiftly swat away any charges that it offers bonafide Vietnamese cuisine. If anything, Chef Kel might consider himself a humble messenger. Repeat trips to Vietnam, and opportunities to absorb the country’s colorfulness, from its tourist trips to its hidden spots, from Ho Chih Minh to Saigon, helped him crystallize the idea for VBQ until it would come to form the establishment it is now. VBQ stands as one of the larger restaurants in the Poblacion area, with a huge entrance for all that open air barbecuing.

The open-air restaurant's size is perfect for barbecuing, and the resulting smoke.

Serpentine ventilation piping and propaganda posters decorating walls made from corrugated steel roofs give this joint an industrial feel.

If anything, VBQ gets away with the nationality descriptor in its name by challenging the Filipino audience’s limited preconceptions of what Vietnamese cuisine is. Operations Manager John Patrick Ortega laments the fact that all we know of Vietnamese food is pho and spring rolls. “It's so stereotypical diba? I mean, parang, kung sinabi mo Vietnamese, ‘Ah, sabaw. Ah, lumpia.’ We don't want that.”

The Obama noodles. 

So let’s remedy that by starting with a dipping condiment you don’t normally see. Muoi ot xanh is a sauce that is savory, slightly sweet, refreshing, and a little spicy all at once. A concoction made from green chilis, cilantro, and condensed milk, it is hard to imagine (you’ll just have to try for yourself) the way it imparts any meat or seafood it coats with both silkiness and kick. But it does, and VBQ’s barbeque medley allows you to experiment with muoi ot xanh’s powers with an eclectic mix of off-the-cuff cuts, including but not limited to: the criminally underrated oyster blade of beef, the regal fattiness of gindara, or black cod, and scallops dressed in lime and the god-tier garnish that is fried scallions. Pork belly and the juiciest chicken thigh are also part of the party. That whole set-up is elevated by the way VBQ adopts the Japanese way of barbeque-ing with smokeless charcoal, using niyoginstead of actual binchotan. Therein you’ll find a refined smokiness that puts your average samgyupsal joint to shame.

This pho's beefy broth is strong and clean.  

But let’s not get lost in elegance⁠—other VBQ fixings specialize in delivering a straight-up umami punch. The pork ribs and fried spring rolls remind you that there’s more to everyone’s favorite porcine indulgence than just bacon and ham. If you’re not willing to share, and we don’t blame you, then I urge you to suggest VBQ’s Obama Noodles, a bowl of bun cha served with nuoc cham and sausage made in house, topped with barbeque and served with lettuce on the side, named in honor of the meal the late Anthony Bourdain shared with a president better than the one currently gobbling up taco bowls in the White House. Pour that nuoc cham over the rice noodles and open yourself to an interplay of savory, refreshing, and spicy notes catching themselves in a feedback loop of flavor, making you want more.

Chefs Kevin and Patrick. Patrick is also operations manager. 

So no, it’s not authenticity Chef Kel is going for here. I think the proper term is “faithfulness.” VBQ takes pride in importing specific ingredients from Vietnam to get the flavors and fragrances that otherwise can’t be store-bought here. The black pepper is enticing and uplifting the way regular peppercorns just aren’t. Different kinds of rice paper—some made specifically for frying, for grilling, for noodles—are selected for their textural nuances. The coffee beans (which are apparently butter-roasted, by god) and different tea variants also come from Vietnam. You think regular TWG black tea could make their black sugar milk tea? That dessert in a cup could only pull off its perfect sweet and bitter balancing act if brewed with the Assam variant. The VBQ lemonade—a heady mix of jasmine tea, Sprite, guava, strawberry, hibiscus, and lemon—is a dizzyingly satisfying finish for a meal loaded with heat, that’s only possible when sourced from Vietnam’s terroir.

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What the usual barbecue feast looks like at VBQ. 

Scallops dressed in cilantro and fried scallions, cooking over a smokeless grill.

Fried spring rolls. 

Pork ribs.

The pho, served shabu-shabu style. 

Sauces are a big part of the VBQ experience. 

The papaya salad in a rice cracker cocoon. 

The house iced tea and (right) their Vietnamese coffee.

Propaganda posters fill the walls.

Exposed ventilation pipes give this joint an industrial feel. 

There was one lofty idea that come up over the course of my conversation with Chef Kevin, which is the idea of catering to the Filipino palette. I’ve heard chefs say this before when introducing something new to the local market, and I never get it. I personally don’t believe in compromising one’s culture for someone else’s tastebuds, and the idea of adjusting a cuisine to an audience’s preference assumes in them a kind of narrow-mindedness. But I think Chef Kel, the way he did with Locavore, keeps the Filipino tongue in mind by chasing the high virtue of “malinamnam.” You just know it when you taste it.

“It’s using the best ingredients whenever possible,” Chef Kel says, summarizing VBQ’s philosophy. Well, perfect. That’s how it should be, for anything.

VBQ is located at P. Guanzon Street, Poblacion, Makati.


Photographs by Chris Clemente