The numbered "combos" are barbecue platters of grilled meats. Combo #1 offers two barbecued meats and a scoop of kelaguen, Combo #2 has two meats, no kelaguen, and Combo #3 has one meat. The choice of grilled proteins includes chicken, pork ribs, sliced beef, or vertically sliced short ribs (cut in the Korean manner).
Our favorite of these meats was the barbecued chicken, tender chunks of thigh with a light soy-based glaze and a jolt of hot pepper in the marinade and/or "mopping sauce." (The barbecue dishes are "secret recipes.") The red meats taste more like teriyaki -- sweeter than the Japanese versions, less sweet than the Hawaiian. Even better than the barbecue items, to my taste, are the stews. There's one called "pot roast," but don't expect anything like your mom's version (unless she's Chamorro). The menu describes it as pork "simmered in soy sauce, vinegar, onions, and garlic." That led me to expect something like Filipino adobo. Wrong again. Tender chunks of pork come in a thick, dark, sweet sauce that defies analysis; the flavors are so blended you can't take them apart. If you're in the mood for something spicy, try kadon pika, stewed chicken leg quarters. The menu description substitutes lemon juice for the pot roast's vinegar, with red pepper added -- but the sauce is lighter, with a touch of coconut milk, and it's hot-hot-hot. Estafao manok is similar, but without the hot pepper.
Anywhere in the Pacific, a "bowl" means a bowl of rice with a topping. Here, the toppings include your choice of chicken, beef, kelaguen, or a generous portion of that Pacific Island favorite, Spam (to which you can add an optional egg). When it's on special, you get half a can of Spam on top for under $4 -- a good deal, if you love Spam.
There are no desserts, perhaps since most of Guam's tropical fruits can't be imported here (insects, etc.). You probably won't notice the lack, because the entrée portions are gigantic and the flavors are hot, sweet, and sharp enough to satisfy your hunger for sensation. Moreover, the bill is so low that in good conscience I should have handed over this discovery to the Tin Fork. But it's my special island -- I found it first.
About Guam and its Cuisine
Nicknamed "The Gateway to Micronesia," Guam is the largest and southernmost of the Mariana Islands chain, located two-thirds of the way between Hawaii and the Philippines. The island is about three times the size of Washington, DC, with a population of approximately 166,000.
Guam (derived from a word that means "we have it") was settled between 3000 and 1500 B.C. by the Chamorros, tall and sturdy Indo-Malayan people speaking a language related to Indonesian. The odd stone constructions on Islander Grill's menu and in its decor are Latte stones, the pillars of ancient Chamorro houses, and the symbol and signature of the island. Ancient Chamorros and their possessions were customarily buried beneath them, and any vandals or archeologists who mess with these sacred stones may find themselves facing angry taotaomoa -- spirits of the ancestors.
Chamorros lived by fishing and communal farming and were experts in basketry and canoe-building. (Their single-sail fishing canoe is called a proa, that favorite word of crossword puzzle-writers.) The foodstuffs the Chamorros found on or brought to Guam included wild boar, fruit bats (a local favorite, now severely endangered), coconuts, tropical fruits (papayas, guavas, bananas, soursop, star apples, etc.), breadfruit, starchy roots similar to taro, and sweet potatoes, plus all the fish in the South Pacific. In place of an after-dinner cognac, they fermented sap from young coconut palms or chewed betel nuts (called pugua) wrapped in a pepper leaf with a little powdered lime. In South Pacific (the book, musical, and movie), the crimson stain that betel nuts impart to users' teeth and saliva gave "Bloody Mary" her nickname. (The U.S. government has outlawed pugua -- but the stuff grows on trees!)
Much of today's Guamanian cuisine derives from outside influences. In the late 17th Century, Spain conquered Guam, finding it an ideal mid-Pacific provisioning stop for its ships' travels between Manila and Mexico. The Spaniards forcibly converted the Chamorros to Catholicism, massacring thousands of them in the process. Yet the Spanish also contributed domesticated pigs, chickens, perhaps rice, and (from its Mexican possessions) corn, hot peppers, and possibly achiote. As a consequence of the Spanish-American War, the island was ceded to the United States (which behaved more gently). During World War II, the Japanese seized the island; a brutal occupation included concentration camps and beheadings. The U.S. regained Guam via an aerial bombardment that destroyed the capital city of Agana (now Hag'tña, following Chamorro dialect) and killed thousands of Chamorros as well as Japanese. Currently, only about 40 percent of Guam's population is Chamorro or part Chamorro. Immigrants and their descendants from Japan, the Philippines, Hawaii, and mainland America fill out most of the remainder of the population. All have contributed to the Guamanian cooking pot.
Still, Guam has maintained its Chamorro roots -- perhaps because the islanders had a secret. The peaceful, communal Chamorro culture was matrilineal and matriarchal, with its folkways and culture passed on through the female line. None of Guam's occupiers realized the crucial role of women in maintaining the island's way of life and thought. By now, American influence may have eroded the special position of women -- but at least both sexes still share the cooking!