“So where do you want to go for lunch?” my friend, Annie, asked as she picked me up at the hotel having just arrived from Manila. “Zubuchon!” I gleefully exclaimed. I had enjoyed the packaged lechon Julie brought home as pasalubong a few months back but there’s nothing like freshly-roasted lechon with its reddish crisp skin glistening with oil. Proclaimed by Anthony Bourdain as “the best pig ever,” I was raring to try it fresh right there at its home in Cebu. Besides, everyone who knew that I was headed to Cebu for a week for work, would exclaim, “Zubuchon!” like it was a mantra of some sort to bless me for my voyage lest I be struck down like Magellan. So it seemed just fitting that on touch-down, I would head to Zubuchon.
“What’s good to eat here?” Annie asked her signage supplier who happened to be lunching there too as we took a table in the cramped restaurant that could barely hold 20 people. “Hmmm…. lechon?” he answered. “Order the monggo,” he added. We ordered 1/4 lechon, monggo with lechon, and two cups of rice. The monggo was delicious as it was cooked with coconut milk (I was to find out in the following days that this was the Cebuano way of preparing it) making it creamy and it came with bits and pieces of what else, lechon. The piece-de-resistance was just as it should be — meat that was tender to the bite and skin crisp with just a thick layer of fat underneath. It was tasty but it kinda taste, well… clean.. like the meat had been scrubbed-off its pigginess. It had none of the too-meaty taste that most lechons have. Or maybe because I was eating in modernist surroundings with white chairs and glistening metal-topped tables with black apron-ed and capped staff rather than eatery-looking places that seemed more synonymous with lechon. Don’t you ever notice how lechon tastes kinda different if you’re having it in a hotel such as part of the buffet of Circles at Shangri-la? It kinda doesn’t taste as lechon as it should be? It’s like eating fishballs from a plate with a fork in the comfort of your home even if you bought it from the vendor just outside.
A week later, we were at the CNT restaurant just across SM at the north reclamation area. Not even the fear of a tsunami from another earthquake could deter us from lunching at this Cebu institution. Long before Zubuchon came into being, people deplaning from Cebu would have little white boxes of CNT lechon as pasalubong. It was the Cebuano version of Krispy Kreme pasalubong from the US back in those days when the donuts were like manna from heaven partaken only by those who had the privilege of having viajero friends and relatives kind enough to hand-carry them.
The smell of roasted pig assaulted us as we made our way across the spacious eatery to grab a table by the open windows. Being a Sunday, the place was packed with locals waiting for their numbers to be called for their order of lechon. We ordered 1.5k, some puso (rice in small woven pouches) and two orders of chopsuey for our group of five. Chicklet, a Bisaya from Davao and who had been Cebu-based for the last five years had mentioned that the locals didn’t really take to Zubuchon as it had none of the trademark saltiness of Cebu lechon. Biting into the lechon, I realized that was what accounted for the clean taste of Zubuchon. It was not salty. It was definitely not bland. It was delicious, in fact. But it was just not salty. CNT was just what Cebu lechon had to be —- salty and really flavorful with all the stuff they put inside the pig as it roasts. The meat was tender though not as that as Zubuchon.
So which really is the better pig? When I think of Chinese roast suckling pig, I taste salty-sweet. When I think of Spanish cochinillo, I taste herbs. When I think of Balinese babi guling, I taste spices. When I think of Cebu lechon, I taste salt, onions, and tanglad. So I choose CNT. I like its saltiness and earthy flavor. It’s the taste of the Cebu countryside. Zubuchon, to me, tastes too clean like it was meant for delicate taste budes. The brother of another friend, tells his sister to bring home the Cebuano lechon that’s not authentic, referring to Zubuchon. His sister says that he doesn’t like Cebu lechon’s taste that’s why he likes the simple flavors of Zubuchon. To each his own. then.
While awaiting my flight at the terminal, I see a Zubuchon stand dispensing frozen lechon. Now, anything that has been cooked then frozen has definitely been compromised, if not in flavor, then in texture. But a fresh and warm lechon in the plane cabin might bee too much for the olfactory senses of some. So Fara and I buy a kilo each. As we sit, we look at a freshly-cooked lechon in styrofoam trays covered in cling-wrap. “I want some,” Fara says. Our boarding announcement comes just in the nick of time.