The Real Thing

Things do, it turns out, go better with Coke

A few months ago, my sister-in-law sent my husband a sampler pack from the BBQ Sauce of the Month club. Most people would have received this gift with a "Hey, look! A box full of barbecue sauce! Whaddya know 'bout that?" But we are not most people. In our house, this precious cargo was met with the kind of whooping, high-fiving, and victory dancing usually reserved for major bank errors (in your favor) or the use of all seven tiles during a game of Scrabble.

You see, when it comes to making dinner, we are nothing if not -- how shall I put this? -- lazy. Our laziness, however, is matched with a desire for variety. And nothing combines the least amount of prep time with the most amount of taste sensations than grilled meat slathered in an assortment of sauces.

The colorful array of bottles offered at least a week's worth of options, ranging from the brick orange, nose hair-singeing Maguire's Irish Barbecue Sauce to the dark maroon depths of the unassuming Smack Yo Mama Awesome Bad to the Bone sauce.

Primed by this gift -- as well as by a rare fan letter containing a mystifying coda regarding marinades made from bottom-of-the-bottle condiment remains -- I found myself at Andalu (3198 16th St., 621-2211, www.andalusf.com), hesitating barely a second before announcing my intention to order the Coca-Cola-braised spareribs.

Now, I would never underestimate the brilliant minds at Coca-Cola, but somehow I don't think even the most visionary marketing department intended "Things go better with Coke" to extend as far as meat marinade. (Then again, I never imagined people would go for deep-fried Twinkies.) Still, I trusted Andalu. Any genius who could come up with the revelation that is polenta fries or the bite-size wonder of ahi tartar tacos couldn't possibly lead me into the bad-taste zone (wherein lie such failed creative pairings as salmon with blueberry sauce).

Chef Marcella Lew, who took the reins earlier this year from founding chef Ben de Vries, has given the small-plate menu a more Asiatic bent, mixing such aforementioned Andalu staples with things like gyoza-style duck confit dumplings and halibut paillard in ginger-soy-hot grapeseed oil. The fan base has not only remained loyal, but the place also seems to be more popular than ever -- remarkable given the fickle Mission District dining scene. Two reasons have to be the waitstaff's meticulous pacing and the restaurant's moderate prices. The other factor must be Lew's inventive touch.

I smelled the ribs before I saw them: short, dark, and wafting a smoky-sweet aroma that hearkened to the sticky barbecue pork you might find in a Chinese takeout restaurant. I picked up a rib with my fingers and inadvertently pulled off a moist chunk. The meat was so tender, so succulent, that it literally melted in my mouth. I searched my taste buds for traces of soft drink, but came up with only a vaguely caramel bottom note -- salty and slightly syrupy, but in a good way. A really, really good, lick-your-fingers, get-your-hands-away-from-my-plate way.

"I'm not sure where I got the inspiration," says Lew. "I read tons of magazines and books, and I've seen hams cooked with Coke for Easter. There are definitely some similarities between Chinese barbecue pork and this dish."

The recipe, it turns out, is fairly simple: Sear the ribs with salt and pepper; braise them in the oven for two hours with soda, chicken stock, and demiglace; and then reduce the marinade to make the sauce.

Things do, it turns out, go better with Coke.

 
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