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As far as Pinoy food culture is concerned, lechon needs no introduction. But when somebody deviates and comes up with something that interestingly tastes just as good—if not better—then everyone is bound to pay attention.
In the case of Cebuano and food lover Joel Binamira, it wasn’t just any other reader on his food blog, www.marketmanila.com, where he documented his personal lechon experiments; it was food connoisseur and chef Anthony Bourdain, who called Binamira after reading his blog’s “Lechon Chronicles” section and asked him to cook lechon for a Philippine episode of the show No Reservations.
By this time, Binamira has already named his own version the Accuchon à la Marketman, which had crisp, chicharon-like skin, a deviation from the traditional smooth, shiny skin of Pinoy lechon. This is achieved by pin-pricking the pig before roasting, which gives it the look of pork crackling when cooked. Binamira came up with this version after a series of experiments in his house in Cebu City, where he would purchase backyard-raised pigs and hire lechoneros weekly.
Apart from the skin, there is another that sets Binamira’s version apart from the others: “I would like to do lechon without MSG,” he says matter-of-factly. Instead, the pigs are generously stuffed with natural herbs and spices such as thyme, rosemary, lemon, and lemongrass.
And as far as Bourdain was concerned, Binamira had served him the “best pig…ever.”
From Accuchon à la Marketman to Zubuchon
“This was never intended as a commercial venture,” Binamira says, recalling how he had to reiterate to people that his lechon wasn’t commercially available after demands soared following the airing of the No Reservations episode. Although he arguably knows his food, Binamira always points out that his professional background has always been in finance, and that he cooks simply for the love of it.
But “[it] was a time when we were selling properties, and I promised my staff that no one will lose their jobs,” Binamira says when asked how the idea to make the lechon commercially available came up.
In late 2009, Binamira finally introduced Zubuchon—then just a small stall—at Cebu’s Banilad Town Center. There were two lechons brought in the first day, and they were sold out in two minutes.
“From there, it just grew on its own,” he says.
After a year and a half, Binamira opened Zubuchon’s first branch at Mango Ave. in Cebu City. Zubuchon currently has seven branches in Cebu City and Mactan, all coming in clean, bright, and modern interiors—a novel concept as far as traditional Cebu lechon houses are concerned.
According to Binamira, Zubuchon aims to serve what he feels is an underserved portion of the market: those who want to eat lechon, but not in the usual per-kilo portions. This explains its restaurant setup, where diners literally have a place to comfortably sit down and eat their lechon.
But Zubuchon is serving not just the pin-pricked lechon to its patrons, which are a balance of tourists and locals. Also on offer are traditional home-cooked meals with lechon infused in them, including, among others: monggo with lechon—which I find very rich and tasty; squid stuffed with lechon sisig; dinuguan done with pork belly and lechon sans the innards—another outstanding iteration of a traditional Pinoy dish; as well as slow-cooked adobo, cooked in clay pots over coal. I am also partial to their artisanal biko, which, in the many times it was served on visits several months apart, was consistently divine.
In offering these dishes, Binamira says they procure their ingredients directly from local—and often small—suppliers in Cebu. This includes the milk that goes into their leche flan, which comes from a small cooperative in Cebu’s highlands. The kamias in their Kamias Shake—which provides a refreshing contrast to the fat of the lechon—is sourced from local homes.
“Anyone who has more than two kamias trees in their backyard here in Cebu knows us,” he says.
“Is it more cumbersome and expensive? Yes. Does it make me feel better? Yes,” he adds, referring to the company’s decision to stick to local, fresh produce for their food. This also effectively puts them at a higher price point than most lechon houses in Cebu, but it’s an approach that justifies itself quite easily, especially to those who appreciate what Binamira says is ‘food done honestly.’