I’ve decided to establish which restaurant/caterer offers the best lechon in Cebu City, and by extension the best lechon in the Philippines.
It’s an ominous assignment: choose a country, then pick its beloved national dish; proceed to travel to the birthplace of said dish; then try as many versions of the meal as you possibly can in order to list them, from your favourite to your least preferred.
There will be an unavoidable wave of hate mail to come from the people who live in the chosen city. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Catch 22. Danger, no matter what.
But I wear my wounds like trophies.
So here we go.
I’ve visited and tasted 6 different restaurants and their respective signature dish, all within 48 h, just for you, dear readers. (I know, I haven’t included House of lechon. There’s only so much fatty pork a man’s stomach can handle.) Here are the findings, from least favourite to absolute best.
One note before we begin: I understand that lechon is subject to many different variables. How long ago was it cooked? Which muscle of the pig did you get? Was it cooked whole, or is it “boneless lechon” (Filipino porchetta)? But for the sake of writing this list, and since my body is now and forever made of 2% pork fat, I’ve decided to list them after only one tasting. I know, it’s not fair. Guess what: life isn’t fair.
6. Cebu’s Original Lechon Belly – My least favourite lechon in Cebu
Dish tasted: Boneless spicy lechon belly
Too salty, too much garlic, the skin isn’t crisp, and the palm vinegar served with it is cheap and tastes of alcohol. Enough said, I guess!
Cebu’s Original Lechon Belly
The Maxwell Hotel, N Escario St, Cebu City, 6000 Cebu, Philippines
Dish tasted: Whatever they gave me
Listen, it’s not their fault… but we showed up late at this one branch in Cebu City. They’d ran out of food. (What sort of restaurant runs out of food?) They’d sent an employee, on his scooter, to a different branch, to go pick up meat. It’s a “family restaurant” which means that we didn’t even have the luxury to sip on a beer while we waited. When the food finally showed up at our table, it was bland, dry and the skin was chewy, probably because of the steam in the Styrofoam box in which it was transported.
V Rama Ave, Cebu City, Cebu, Philippines
Dish tasted: Boneless spicy
From #4 on, everything I tasted was great. This includes Ayer’s.
It said “spicy”, but honestly, the seasoning was toned down compared to many of the meats I tried. This means that the natural taste of the pork really shone through. This can be seen as a positive or a negative: the natural swine-y barnyard flavours of the animal were quite present in the meat. Ayer’s, however, was the champion of crisp skin. It was so crunchy I had to be careful not to hurt my palate with shards!
6000 General Maxilom Ave, Cebu City, 6000 Cebu, Philippines
3. Alejo’s – Best lechon in Cebu
Dish tasted: traditional whole-hog (I think we got some pork butt)
This little take-out catering stand might not be the most appealing – the windows of the display case are covered in grease, so is the man using the giant clever to chop the food, and the walls of the stand sure need a good scrub – but the food is worth it. Alejo’s pork was the most moist (moistest is a weird word) of all tasted. Of course this meant that the skin suffered and wasn’t as crisp as other places, but when the meat is that good…
132 Katipunan St, Cebu City, 6000 Cebu, Philippines
2. Kuzina Guadalupe at Sugbo Mercado – Best lechon in Cebu
Dish tasted: regular boneless lechon
The never-ending lines at Kuzina Guadalupe, the large stand in the middle of Sugbo Mercado, are usually for their roasted chicken, which is indeed delicious. However the same can be said about their boneless lechon. It’s an all-rounder: great seasoning, moist and tender, awesome skin. Do it!
Kuzina Guadalupe at Sugbo Mercado
Garden Bloc, Inez Villa St, Apas, Cebu City, 6000 Cebu, Philippines
1. Zubuchon – The best lechon in Cebu
Dish tasted: Small platter of classic roast pig
My friend Kim, the poor young man whose waist line has been forever ruined by my terrible plan of eating lechon non-stop for 2 days, is going to be quite upset with my selection. “It’s not traditional”, he’ll say. “It’s not how you do lechon, it’s comparing apples to oranges”, he’ll probably point out. He might also use filthy language, which I cannot print here. But I don’t care.
READ MORE: THE EXOTIC STREET FOOD OF THE PHILIPPINES
Zubuchon’s pork dishes are… it’s hard to describe. The meat has probably been cooked separately from the skin, which means that both can be at their best: moist, tender and juicy on the one hand; crisp and crackling on the other.
Then there’s the judicious use of pork broth to enhance both the flavour and the moistness (I still don’t like that word) of the meat. And the dipping sauce, which is similar to a Vietnamese Nước chấm, offers enough acidity to cut through all the fat.
All in all, Anthony Bourdain was right when he said, about Zubuchon’s owner’s food: “Best pig ever”. I concur: it’s one of the best pieces of meat I’ve ever put in my mouth.