People in the Philippines really do worship the Trinity. No, not that one – the Trinity of Sweet, Salty and Fatty. And there is no greater expression of this in Filipino culture than Lechon Baboy (roast Pig). Another favourite is Lechon Manok (roast chicken) though everyone will assume roast pork if you just say lechon. Originally introduced during the Spanish colonial period (1521-1898) it has become a requirement for any special occasion. If you don’t haveenough lechon to feed your guests it is quite an embarrassment.
And what was once reserved for special occasions is now available every day. Slow roasted pig can be found all over the world but few places offer it so ubiquitously. If the Philippines is most renown for its spit roasted pig, then Cebu is the epicentre. In Cebu City, the second largest city in the Philippines, there are dozens of great lechon places. Like the great barbecue tradition in America, the pit masters (or lechoneros) who tend to the pigs are quite skilled and they are take great pride in their craft.
Nowadays most spits are mechanically turned but it is critical that the coals or flames are managed carefully to ensure even cooking, meaning that the flesh is cooked all the way through while avoiding any burn spots on the coveted skin. We can strongly recommend all of the places in this article – and one to avoid.
There are certain expectations when you dig into a plate of lechon. First, that the skin will be crispy and that they provide a generous serving. This can be tricky since there is a limited amount of skin compared to the amount of pork. Two, that the pork will be moist, tender and full of flavour. There should not be any dry stringy parts and no way to mistake a bite of it for chicken – it should smack you in the face with pork goodness.
Simple. Let’s get started!
The original Zubuchon is in Cebu City, still at 1 Mango Place. There are now a few around the city and a fancy new restaurant in Manila where the lechon is cooked on-site (see picture at top). In Cebu the lechon is cooked off-site and delivered to its various locations. This is the place that Anthony Bourdain called “The best pig ever!” You can choose different cuts, different sauces and different presentation styles.
The skin is unmistakably unique due to the way they prick the skin and continuously douse it with coconut water, and below the crunchy bubbled shell is an airy layer of fat. The traditional cuts are still moist and tender while the pork belly is almost too fatty, and we prefer the sizzling plate for presentation as it keeps it warmer longer. We are not ones to argue with the late great Anthony Bourdain and it’s clear that this is one painstakingly crafted lechon. And the results speak for themselves.
House of Lechon
There’s a nice outpost near the mall which always seems crowded. And for good reason. The spicy lechon here is one of the best. In fact, this was the Manc’s favorite. The lechon is cooked off-site but the cutting and portioning is done at a window where you can watch them work. The meat is moist, flavourful and tender but the sauce really elevates it. It is a delicious blend that introduces a few more notes into the Trinity; adding sour and spicy components to an already delicious base. The cracked skin is more traditional here with a translucent brown colour with just a thin layer of fat beneath it. This is worth a visit (or two) when you come to Cebu City.
Rico’s is the favourite for many locals and justifiably so. It churns out the standard definition perfect lechon every time. The skin is thin and glassy and so delicate it might shatter if you drop it on the table. The location in Mactan is right across the street from a Zubuchon outpost and while Rico’s is packed, folks seem to trickle in and out from the competitor. If we had one nit to pick it’s that some of the pieces of meat were a bit over salted. Be warned that they can sell out of the spicy version quite quickly so get there early if this is on your list.
Ayer’s is another local favourite and we can see why. It is a traditionally prepared lechon that hits all the notes you’d expect. We actually tried this one at the airport and didn’t expect much but it was an amazing way to remember Cebu. Clearly, cooking the lechon off-site supports multiple locations better and the quality of meat sent to the airport is just as good as the other locations. Like Rico’s it’s a more traditional approach with glassy skin and subtly flavoured meat. We were tempted to take a few kilos with us on the plane!
Located in the Ayala Mall, a giant mall that locals flock to at all times of the day, this was the one disappointment. While they do portion the lechon behind a glass window speckled with bits of pork, the skin is loose and soggy and the meat is mushy and salty. Maybe it’s the way the lechon is transported but it’s strange to see a pig so disrespected in the Land of Lechon. And since the House of Lechon is just a ten minute walk away it’s worth heading over there for your fix instead.
Most places will serve by the kilo which can be confusing if you’ve never ordered that way before. Generally a quarter kilo is enough for two to share without feeling full. For a full dinner portion you’ll probably want to get a quarter kilo per person.