Some winning streaks can not be stopped. The new Papi Chulo restaurant in Manly continues Dan Hong’s hitmaking record with Merivale (Ms G’s, El Loco, Mr Wong) and the executive chef is joined here by two brilliant co-conspirators and head chefs, Patrick Friesen (who has been running Ms.G’s for the last two years) and Christopher Hogarth (who launched both outposts of El Loco). Together, they’ve created an excellent menu that takes on the slow and smoky tempo of American barbecue, while weaponising the power of Asian ingredients to add fire and contrast to cuisines from different borders. It’s original, fun, a little audacious and full of bullseye-hitting thrills. Case in point: the last time I boarded a ferry to Manly was 14 years ago; then I found myself hitting the wharf twice in two days, solely to dine at Papi Chulo just after it opened. It’s that good.
The central nerve of Papi Chulo is dedicated to the American style of barbecue – where flavours are built from many hours and smoke, and is a universe away from the quick time signature of meat sizzling in Australian backyards over summer. The restaurant’s got the serious hardware to make it happen – fortified by a Brazilian rotisserie and parilla, and two smokers made in Sydney – and diners are appropriately equipped if they dare to take on the Smoked Pork Ribs with Papi’s BBQ Sauce ($34 for half rack, $49 for full slab) or the Papi Chulo BBQ Platter ($86), which is so overloaded with wagyu brisket, pickles, soft bread and triple-barrel variations on Homer Simpson’s favourite “magical animal” (ribs, chopped pork and pork belly) that it can feed four people. Try these mess-fests and you’ll actually be handed a “Tall Papi syndrome” bib to cope with what you’re attempting.
There’s no bib-wearing dress code necessary for the Smoked Maple Black Pepper Pork Belly ($29), which Dan and Will cleanly and happily consumed. The sweetness, fiery pep and char tap into personal territory for head chef Patrick Friesen, who comes from Canada. “My family always would crack heaps of black pepper onto our bacon while it was cooking and finished it with maple syrup,” he says. “We only eat the streaky bacon back home, so the pork belly that we smoke is recreating that flavour for me.”
While joint credit for Papi Chulo’s menu goes to the restaurant’s three chefs, some dishes come with individual signatures. The Smoked Pork Belly Banh Mi with Sriracha Mayo ($18) has Dan Hong’s influence, while the Grilled Southern Calamari with Sorrel, Sour Cream, Crispy Potato, Dill ($21) derives its flavours from Friesen’s Mennonite background. The Empanadas ($12) feature raclette from Tasmania, where Chris Hogarth is from, and also unlocks ideas from the Latin American cuisine he was creating at El Loco. Definitely order this dish: these salt-flaked puffs are swollen hot with a nucleus of melted cheese and wild greens; served with the sweet kick of tomato jam, they are totally brilliant.
Papi Chulo bills itself as an American-inspired smokehouse and grill, but in creating the dishes, the chefs couldn’t quite break up with the Asian roots of their previous restaurants. (El Loco, after all, has a zesty Vietnamese streak; and Mr Wong and Ms G’s rely heavily and smartly on the condiment box and flavour profile of the East.) “I love Asian food. I tell people that I am half-Chinese all the time,” jokes Friesen. “In writing our recipes, sometimes we were playing a game of ‘hide the Asian’, because we wanted to do Western food, but with the intense umami and tastiness of Asian food. Even our barbecue sauce has Korean chilli powder in it.” This unashamed plot to sneak in Eastern ingredients is hard to battle against when it works so exceedingly well at Papi Chulo.
The Summer Melon Salad ($14) gets an ultra-lively charge from the chilli lime dressing, while a creamy landmass of buffalo mozzarella is brilliantly teamed with the blast-off effect of spicy, sweet ssamjang in the Salad of Grilled Summer Vegetables ($21). Disproving the idea that salads mainly exist to tackle guilt rather than flavour, Dan Hong’s excellent (Not a) Chopped Salad ($16) remixes a dish from Ms.G’s. Here it wonderfully layers contrasts: the crunch of fried corn, slices of squash and zucchini, fresh herbs and a flavoursome mix of ultra-savoury mushrooms you might normally spot in a stir fry. So, even if barbecue is headliner here, you can still eat awesomely well as a vegetarian at Papi Chulo. (And it’s not just about salad either; the empanadas, Croquettes with Mushroom and Heidi Gruyere and Grilled Corn on the Cob with Smoked Cheese and Lime are ace, too.)
At Papi Chulo, the condiments alone are great – to the point that I found myself harbouring all the leftover dishes of sauces and jams (even after their main accompaniments had been long eaten), not wanting the wait staff to prematurely clear them away. These were too good to give up and turned out to be fine dipping practice for the Curly Fries ($9) – also another worthwhile item to order.
Notable, too, are the playful cocktails (like the “almost healthy” coconut-and-mint Cravado or the prawn-garnished Bloody Maria, which adds the throat-burn of mescal to the Bloody Mary formula), and the ocean-side charm of the location. Just sitting there, sunstruck and flirting with the sea breeze while you enjoy an excellent meal is a lone joy. The interiors also have a holiday-evoking charm, too. Instead of going for a stereotypically dude-heavy barbecue theme, Papi Chulo has a carefree and relaxed atmosphere, thanks to the huge beach-revealing windows, comfy wicker furniture, cute nautical-themed touches (like a boat-shaped mirror) and the open feel.
Oh and declare open season on the desserts – they are all excellent and worth ordering. The streusel-topped Passionfruit and Mango Sundae ($14) tastes like a fancy Weiss bar (in the best way possible); the Warm Chocolate Chip Cookie ($14), as abetted by vanilla malt ice-cream, macadamia brittle and butterscotch sauce, would qualify as the ideal nightcap, and the Tres Leches Cake ($14) takes the traditional three-milk cake and teams it with berries and peaches that have had a light charry kiss from the grill.
Papi Chulo is named after the kind of guy who is unmistakably cool and appealing. It seems apt that the restaurant lives up to this rep, too.