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What: Lechon (“leh-chon”)—or, to be specific, lechon Cebu— is a young pig stuffed with a secret mix of herbs and spices (usually including star anise, spring onions, lemongrass), skewered on a bamboo pole and roasted whole over hot coals. While the word lechon is definitely Spanish, we suspect that the whole-roast-pig idea actually came from the Chinese, who were trading with the Philippine islands long before the Spanish arrived and named the archipelago after their King, Philip II. Other former Spanish colonies might roast pigs too, but nobody gets the combo of tender-juicy-crunchy-tasty quite the way Cebuanos do. The hallmark? It doesn’t need sauce! Lechon Cebu is so mouth-wateringly delicious that all you really need with it is rice—lots of it.
Good to know: Previously considered the centerpiece of every Christmas, birthday, and fiesta celebration, lechon Cebu can now be ordered at restaurants or bought by the kilo at stands around the city. Of course, not all lechon is created equal, and while locals will debate which brand is the best, they will all agree that lechon must be served warm, with the skin cracklingly crunchy and the meat moist and tender.
Where: Zubuchon (032-2395697; One Mango Ave. Bldg., Gen. Maxilom Ave., map) skyrocketed to popularity in 2009 after Anthony Bourdain declared, “Of all the whole roasted pigs I’ve had all over the world, the slow-roasted lechon I had on Cebu was the best.” He was referring specifically to the roast pig served by the owner of Zubuchon, who was tasked with introducing Cebuano cuisine to the TV-viewing masses. We missed the program but heard the raves, so scheduled a pilgrimage here, the main Zubuchon branch in Cebu City—a small, clean restaurant, its contemporary interiors a stark contrast to its native-style Filipino-Cebuano menu.
When: Daily, 10am-11pm
Order: Zubuchon prides itself on creating artisanal dishes and drinks based on traditional Filipino food. Serving sizes are also typically Filipino— that is, big enough to share. The smallest order for Zubuchon’s lechon comes as a half kilo on a plate (Php 280). Traditionally stuffed with green onions, lemongrass, peppercorns, sea salt, and garlic, the lechon here also has a pleasing hint of rosemary. It’s quite salty, with deep, herby flavors—an intensity that’s kindly balanced by plain white rice and a tart iba shake (“ee-ba”, also called kamias, or bilimbi in English; it is a highly acidic tropical fruit found in Southeast Asia and India). The vinegar-dressed seaweed platter is good here too, and provides a nice textural and flavor contrast to the salty, tender meat.
Alternatively: For an experience not shown on TV, head over to CNT lechon (Jose L. Briones St., off Juan Luna Ave. Ext., map) across from the SM City Cebu shopping mall. CNT was Cebu’s default lechon provider before Zubuchon hogged the limelight (no pun intended), and for many locals, CNT lechon is still it. It serves finger-licking roast-pig goodness in cramped but clean quarters; just brace yourself for a long queue. Or you might avoid the weekend restaurant crowds altogether and drive out to Larawan beach in Talisay City (some 30-45 minutes south of Cebu City proper), stopping at any of the lechon stands on your way for picnic fare.
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