Thursday, July 31, 2014

That Weekend I Went on a Food Quest to Find the Best Lechon in Cebu

It should be written somewhere that I cannot do this, that I cannot simply jet off to Cebu one weekend, and spend the entirety of it eating nothing but that glorious, sinful, rich, and fatty thing for which the Philippines' second capital is known: lechon.

But I did. And I enjoyed every single minute of it.

Philippines: Cebu 2014
On to find the best lechon in Cebu! Did I find it? I'll never tell. Yes, I did.

Truth be told, before this, I was not a very big fan of lechon (or whole-roasted suckling pig for those uninitiated in Filipino cuisine). Growing up, I attended many a celebration and family gathering featuring lechon. Somehow, I was always impartial to the 'big chunks of meat in rich sauces' kind of dishes. Dishes like caldereta (beef in tomato-liver sauce), morcon (pork roll), or kare-kare (beef in peanut sauce).

Lechon will be hard to ignore, however, as in the Philippines, or in any big gathering of Filipinos anywhere for that matter, the lechon is always there, front and center. It's a Filipino thing.

But let's not engage in culture and history here. A more pressing matter is at hand. A food quest of porky proportions. And if you happen by this blog more than a few times, you'd know my fondness for food quests. Quests, I am both embarrassed and proud to say, I regularly assign myself. Like that time I scoured the streets of Saigon to find Anthony Bourdain's Lunch Lady, or that time I went off-the-beaten path (like really off-the-beaten path) just to have a true-blue kampung style meal in Kuala Lumpur.

This weekend's quest though? Find the best lechon in Cebu!

It sounds simple, but is it really? Just the phrase 'best lechon in Cebu' might ignite some lively discussion, even heated debates. For now, at least, what is safest to assume is popularity. Popularity in that if you ask which restaurant serves the best lechon in Cebu, you will probably hear one of the three restaurants below.

So let's get started.

1. CnT

Philippines: Cebu 2014
The lechon looked freshly roasted on the pit. Beautiful.

I was at the multicab terminal in SM City Cebu on my way to my hostel when I spotted that big sign. Three letters: CnT. So off I went to the other side of the street but stopped at my tracks when I reached the building. It was quiet and there were no people there. Just a parking lot. Then, I saw a steel ramp on one side. I climbed the ramp and slowly, I heard the repetitive thud of a big knife on a chopping board, and people's voices, barking orders from behind a counter.

As soon as I reached the landing, I saw it. Behind the glass panels. Glistening in the fluorescent lights. The skin, the layer of fat, the oily meat. I had arrived in pork heaven.

Philippines: Cebu 2014
That thing when raindrops are shot dramatically from behind glass windows. Only I do mine with lechon grease.

So I get a number for the queue, wait my turn (line moved quickly enough), and ordered a plate-full of lechon meat and a generous helping of skin.

The freshly cooked skin was perfectly brittle, almost like candy and exactly like Baguio-style peanut brittle. It broke into little pieces as I took a bite, after which that distinctively salty, porky flavor filled my mouth, only 10 times more intense than I expected. (I know!)

Then, I got to the meat. It was tender, but not overly tender. Just the right kind of chewy. As I expected, it was dressed in various herbs and spices I would not in my wildest dreams figure out. Spring onions, maybe. Lots of garlic, sure. A tad salty at first bite, but I understood how it would not need any more sauce or condiment. It was perfect just as it was. Absolutely perfect.

Philippines: Cebu 2014
The skin so brittle, the meat so tender, and both so intensely porky

2. Zubuchon

Philippines: Cebu 2014
The chicharon-like skin and the juicy meat. Yes, please.

On to the next joint to find the best lechon in Cebu and I was meeting an old friend now based in the city (and her adorable baby daughter). We were meeting in what is perhaps the most reputed lechon restaurant in Cebu.

Reputed why? Well, because according to this 2010 post from Pinoy travel blogging legend Ivan Henares, Market Manila served Zubuchon-style lechon when Anthony Bourdain filmed the Cebu leg of his No Reservations Philippines episode. And if you saw the episode, too, you'd know that he pronounced this lechon the "best pig ever." Tall pronouncement.

Right off the bat, I saw something different form Zubuchon-style lechon. The skin was not brittle, more like crispy, like chicharon is crispy. It had beautiful bubbles on its surface from the intense heat. And the taste? I'd say cleaner in that the spices were not overwhelming, but darker in that it was a notch further in the cooking process (not burnt, but stopped short of it).

The meat? Cleaner as well. A lot cleaner. Which is why with the lechon, you are served with a condiment of soy sauce, vinegar, and chili. That or Mang Tomas, if the wait staff realizes that you are from Manila, where the meat gravy reigns supreme in all things lechon condiments.

Philippines: Cebu 2014
Lechon sinigang. Tangy broth with that distinct lechon flavor. What?

Along with the lechon, we ordered lechon sinigang (meat and vegetables in a clear and light sour broth). The sinigang, while already good in itself, had that added salty-herby lechon flavor, which can be a bit jarring, but hey, you did order a lechon sinigang. What would you expect?

All in all, dishes were delicious. I'd love to try more of their lechon-based dishes next time. And you can bet there'll be a next time.

3. Rico's Lechon

Philippines: Cebu 2014
Proper lechon meal that.

Of the three lechon restaurants I took note of before arriving in Cebu, this was the restaurant which intrigued me the most. Two people I knew (both from the Visayas, by the way) swore by it. (One of them is this Negrense: Rica's Rucksack.) So before I left the city that Sunday, I did a quick Google search for the nearest branch of Rico's Lechon and found myself getting in before the lunch rush.

I get served a plate full of lechon skin and meat. Now I was not sure if it was because the plate of lechon was prepared beforehand, that it sat there waiting to be served to a customer for an hour, two hours, a few minutes maybe, but it had gone a bit cold form the restaurant's air-conditioning. Unfortunately, that meant the skin became more than a little chewy, at times rubbery. And the meat? The flavorful grease around it was on its way to becoming lard, which was a little off-putting.

Philippines: Cebu 2014
Sadly, probably because it sat in air-conditioning a tad too long, Rico's Lechon was nothing to write home about.

Don't get me wrong. The flavor was there, and it tasted great, like how proper lechon should taste. But I felt like it could have tasted a lot better had it been served fresh from the pit. So you know what? Rico's Lechon was at a disadvantage here. I'll hold off passing judgment on it this time. (Really, I'm just giving myself excuses to return to Cebu.)


Based on the foregoing (which is really just me gorging myself on nothing but lechon one fatty weekend), I'd say the best lechon in Cebu is that which is served by CnT.

Let me say that again. My best lechon in Cebu? CnT

Philippines: Cebu 2014
Well, hello there, lover.

CnT hit all the right spots in terms of the skin's candy-like brittleness, the meat's tenderness and tasty dressing of herbs and spices, and the intense pork flavor on both. It helped that the atmosphere at the restaurant, with the chopping and carving behind glass counters and the barking of orders, was the right kind of exhilarating, too.

So there you have it. One lechon-filled weekend. Would I do it again? Probably. Hey, in a few years, having this much salt and fat in such a short span of time might no longer be the best move, health-wise. So in conclusion, #yolo.

Recommended Dessert: La Marea's brownie cup with vanilla ice cream. Soft, warm brownie with a generous helping of cold vanilla ice cream and candy sprinkles on top. I will not in a million years find out how I went on living more than twenty years of my life without it.

Philippines: Cebu 2014
Where have you been all my life, La Marea?

Your turn. Which restaurant serves the best lechon in Cebu? The best lechon anywhere ever?

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