The Fire Grill (Portuguese-style) BBQ is certainly not much to look at. The old Magic Dragon space on Broadway—a Panda Express–style restaurant that always seemed to be staffed by one lonely-looking man behind a steam table—was barely modified at all in the change of management, ethnicities, and geographic derivation. Certain elements are recycled—a Chinese character on a Magic Dragon "order here" sign has been pasted over with an ink-jet-printed Portuguese flag—and most of the few new touches to the space are handmade signs with misspellings, like "Restrooms for costumers only" and "We now have shreaded pork and chicken sandwiches." But you shouldn't go to the Fire Grill to look at things—you should go there to eat a lot of really good, cheap food.
Look, the truth is we're all just sitting around waiting to get laid off. You know you shouldn't be eating out; you should be squirreling your money away in a nice, uncrashable mattress. But sometimes you want to have your food served to you, and you always want it to be good. I first went to Fire Grill for lunch and had the special, a steak sandwich with fries ($4 special, normally $7.50). I was most impressed by the sauce, a tangy deep-red barbecue sauce slathered all over the meat. The steak itself was fine, a little chewy and probably not worth much over the special price. The fries, though clearly of the prefrozen variety, were deep-fried to just the right doneness. And those fries were perfect for dipping: Every table in the surprisingly roomy restaurant has bottles of both the delicious, zesty barbecue sauce and a hot sauce that brings the spicy heat without overwhelming or causing tears.
More visits clarified things. The steak and beef dishes are roundly lacking due to the poor quality of meat. Good steak is much more expensive than chicken or pork, after all, and you can only do so much to cover up the low quality of cheap beef. But everything else at the Fire Grill is amazing. The chicken-breast dinner ($9, $15.50 for two people) is a bargain: a whole tender breast of chicken marinated in a salty, garlicky broth. Combine with the sides—the saffron rice is just the right kind of sticky and fluffy, and a cute little pot of savory black beans just begs for a little shot of that hot sauce—and you've got yourself today's dinner and tomorrow's lunch, easy.
And the pork is always satisfying. The pork meat with clams and fries ($8.50, $15 for two) is an amazing, juicy mess. Giant, succulent cubes of juicy pork and a handful of open-shell clams are covered in sauce and served with a mound of fries: If you can eat the whole thing in one sitting, you deserve some kind of medal. It's the richest couple of meals you can get on Broadway for under 10 bucks.
If, for whatever reason, you're not in the mood for barbecue sauce, the chicken breast in garlic sauce ($8.50, $14.50 for two people) is three tender boneless fillets of chicken soaked in a lemony-sour garlic sauce that's thick enough to stick to the meat but not too flavorful to overpower the simple pleasures of a well-cooked piece of chicken. Or, you can forego the sauce entirely: The pork shish kebabs ($7.50 for half order with two sides, $13.50 for full order) don't come slathered, and that's for the best. You can taste the hardwood charcoal in every bite; the edges of the pork are black with delicious char.
This isn't the sort of place to impress a first date. A sign, currently covered by a Kmart-style Christmas decoration, reads something like "Eat here/Get gas," and I'm pretty sure the front door, which barely slides open when you tug on it, is some kind of fire hazard—I've seen people yank desperately at it, only to give a resigned shrug and then walk away dejectedly. But if you're with a bunch of comfortable old friends and laying the foundation for a night of drinking out on Capitol Hill, there's scarcely a better place for carnivores to gather.
After you've been a few times, and you've made some cash by selling plasma, you might want to get a little fancy. The clams casino ($13) is a super-rich appetizer that could completely sap your will to eat dinner if you try splitting it with fewer than four people: thick, fatty strips of bacon adorn tiny clams, stuffed with rice and soaked in butter. And for dessert, the serradura ($3.50) is basically layers of crumbled ginger cookies interspersed with layers of sweet, heavy whipped cream. Luckily it comes in a plastic cup with a cover since you'll have to save it to eat later.
Elements of the new economy are everywhere in Fire Grill: Most menus come with a business card stapled to them, advertising a cleaning service, and there are a stack of black-and-white flyers on the counter promoting sales at a salon and boutique down the street. In the old days of the dot-com boom, that kind of cross-marketing would have been referred to as "synergy," and it would've been much flashier. Nowadays, it's just one small, struggling business helping another bare-bones startup trying to keep its head above water. Recessions strip away the showbiz pretense like that and leave you with only the things that are simple and beautiful and true. Fire Grill BBQ is one of those things.