On Guam, barbecue is more than just a method of cooking—it’s a way of life. On any given day of the week, hundreds of barbeque grills are fired up across the island. Webbers, smokers, even the traditional Guam tunke’ made out of prized old 55-gallon drums serve as island ovens.
Indeed, barbecue is in our blood. It can even be argued that it was invented on Guam, presumably after the ancient Chamorus got tired of eating kelaguen. There’s something about cooking food over a fire, and even as it is the world’s oldest way to cook food, it never gets old.
Whether a backyard barbecuer or a professional chef, everyone seems to have a signature marinade. Sweet, savory, tangy, spicy—the flavors of grilling on Guam offer something for every palette. Even the simple flavors of the traditional local marinade—soy sauce, vinegar, black pepper, onions, and garlic—can impress the most sophisticated taste buds. Seafood, chicken, and vegetables can take on a new life when kissed by smoke from the grill, because every barbeque fanatic knows that something magical happens when you take the heat out of the kitchen and put it under your favorite foods.
But even if everyone does it, the people of Guam and visitors to our beautiful island just can’t get enough of our tasty barbeque dishes. Go to any night market and you can see lines that stretch as far as the eyes can see, as locals and tourists wait for juicy shish kabobs, famous Chamoru tinala katne’ (dried meat), and the go-to grilled favorites of chicken and ribs.
So when the Guam Visitors Bureau started the BBQ Block Party five years ago, it was a no-brainer that this GVB signature event would be as hot as the grills it features. “The BBQ Block Party is a great way for local residents to share the Hafa Adai spirit,” GVB President and CEO Nathan Denight said. “It also gives us a chance to showcase to the world Guam’s unique barbecue culture and talented grill masters.”
The family event is free to the public, and turnout for the BBQ Block Party just this July was record setting. Thousands of visitors and locals stormed Pleasure Island in Tumon to get a taste of what the event had to offer. Festive island music played from the stage, as people made their way around the dozens of vendor booths offering every kind of barbecue imaginable.
Every facet of BBQ was well represented, from dishes like Capitol Kitchen’s smoked marlin salad and In And Out’s Tinala Katne’ to Lynn’s BBQ Stix of chicken and juicy pork—vendors hustled to accommodate hungry customers. A boy walked by, one hand in his father’s, the other holding a giant barbecued turkey leg. Smoke from over 50 grills wafted through the air.
It can get competitive when grills were being fired up next to each other—it’s common for Guam grillers to brag about having the best BBQ—and that’s not even when there’s money up for grabs. So imagine how competitive it can get when the island’s top restaurants and chefs go tong-to-tong in the Micronesian Chef’s Associations’ BBQ Block Party BBQ competition.
With teams from Outrigger, Dusit Thani, Hyatt, Asu Smokehouse, Guam Barbecue Company, and Meskla Restaurant, the battle for the 2017 Champion Grill Master title would no doubt go down in history as one for the ages.
Although over $4,000 in cash and prizes was at stake, the real prize would be the bragging rights that go along with winning top spot in the Pork, Chicken, and Beef categories. “Every year, it gets bigger and better,” Meskla Chef Peter Duenas said. “The comradery and passion of the trade is easily seen and felt while we were preparing for our submissions. In the end, we are all winners for our efforts and hard work.”
While one may not envy the task at hand for judges of the competition—picking a winner from Guam’s best BBQ-ers is extremely difficult—there’s no doubt these distinguished individuals get their mouthful of great BBQ in the process.
“I always try to put myself in the judge’s shoes when I’m preparing for a competition,” Duenas said. “When I do compete, I believe skill has a lot to do with it, but I’d rather be lucky!”
Having come from a trip to Osaka, Japan the night before the contest, Duenas said the flavors of the yakitori plates he consumed while on that trip inspired him as he prepared for the competition, making up most of his marinade recipes for the three categories on the fly. “The chicken was soy-ginger marinated,” he revealed. “The ribs were topped with a mango BBQ sauce, and the brisket was smoked and glazed with a zesty BBQ sauce.”
In the end, Chef Duenas and the Meskla team were able to sweep the competition, winning the Triple Crown of BBQ in all three categories on their way to being named the 2017 Champion Grill Master.
Winning one category is a major victory, but winning all three categories is no easy feat. “The competition is always good,” Duenas said. “All the teams come strong and are in it to win it.”
Guam Barbecue Company, Team Dokngos, Team Dusit Smiles, and Asu Smokehouse also placed in the competition, which produced savory meats eagerly sampled by BBQ Block Party attendees and judges alike. But during the victory ceremony, a bittersweet moment came when Asu Smokehouse’s Sonny Orsini, although weakened by his fight with cancer, took the stage with Team Asu.
Less than a month later, Orsini, the former senator known for his award-winning, slow-cooked melt-in-your-mouth BBQ brisket, would pass away. Although no longer with us, he will live on in the hearts of his family and his brothers in BBQ.
“I always enjoy Asu style brisket,” Duenas said. “Their BBQ sauce has a unique flavor…like a fusion of Guam and the mainland. When Asu opened, my first thought was, ‘It’s about time someone offered that style of BBQ on Guam.’ Sonny will be greatly missed.”
It can get competitive when grills were being fired up next to each other—it’s common for Guam grillers to brag about having the best BBQ—and that’s not even when there’s money up for grabs.