A historic district in Quezon City recalls a long delicious history made famous by roast pork
Anthony Bourdain declared the Filipino lechon as the “best pork dish ever”, and many towns in the country have made it the centerpiece of their religious fiestas. But La Loma in Quezon City, with its reputation as a historic place, maintains its claim as Lechon Capital of the Philippines, that it was a place made famous by this iconic delicacy.
Today, the annual La Loma Lechon Festival (celebrated every third Sunday of May) reaffirms that belief, essentially a summer thanksgiving festival that pays tribute to its patron saint, the Our Lady of Salvation (Nuestra Señora de Salvacion). While its claims of the oldest lechon festival in the country may be contested by other towns like Balayan, Borongan, Cebu and Iloilo, there is no question that the pork dish has ultimately defined La Loma’s tasty reputation.
Before it was known as Lechon Capital, La Loma was literally a vast rolling hill of rice fields, hence it was named Paang Bundok or “foot of the mountain”, the current name of the barangay where La Loma belongs.
It was also known as the home to the oldest existing public cemetery in Manila, the Campo Santo de La Loma, built in 1884 with an area of 54 hectares. Some its famous ‘interns’ include revolutionaries Felipe and Marcela Agoncillo; Supreme Court justices Cayetano Arellano, Victorino Mapa and Ignacio Villamor; Girls Scouts of the Philippines founder and World War II heroine Josefa Llanes Escoda; and Centro Escolar University founder Librada Avelino.
La Loma was also the battlefield of the Philippine-American War during the turn of the 20th century. General Antonio Luna’s aide-de-camp, Jose Torres Bugallon, who helped organize the first Philippine Army, died during the defense of the area against the American forces and was posthumously declared Hero of the Battle of La Loma.
In 1903, Don Tomas Guison built what is probably the biggest and the oldest existing cockpit arena in the Philippines in the area, along Calavite Street. To this day, cockfights bring the arena to life during Sundays and holidays, and indirectly, it has fathered what would be La Loma’s most lucrative industry: the Lechon.
According to Ping Ping Native Lechon’s owner William Manugar Chua, the cockpit was a place to celebrate life, as sabong or cockfighting remains a favorite pastime of Filipinos.
“In the 1950s, after the war, La Loma Cockpit was the place where you can be seen if you were a veteran sabongero,” he explains. Sabong or cockfight was the preferred game of betting, and victorious gamefowl owners and bettors who celebrate their winnings usually ended up eating and drinking after a long day at the cockpit.
Tomas De Los Reyes, whose name would be synonymous to the famous dish, was one of those enterprising visionaries who saw the potential of the lechon. A meat vendor who sources pigs from as far as Quezon and Isabela, he would sell his meat in the neighboring markets of Blumentritt and Divisoria. Coincidentally and auspiciously, his house was strategically located in front of the La Loma Cockpit Arena.
“Pagkatapos ng sabong, matalo o manalo, dumidiretso sila sa harap ng bahay ng biyenan ko (After the cockfight, win or lose, they proceed to my father-in-law’s house),” Cora Delos Reyes narrates. “Iyong mga natalo, ipapaluto iyong namatay nilang panabong para gawing pulutan. Pero kapag nanalo sila, gusto nila ng mas magarbo gaya ng inihaw na baboy (Losers asked him to cook the dead fowl as finger food. But for winners, of course they wanted something more extravagant, like roast pork).”
His lechon became so famous it went beyond its reputation as dish of choice by purveyors of the cockpit.
It was in 1954 that Mang Tomas became the very first lechonero (pig roaster) of La Loma and jumpstarted the lechon industry by opening the first lechon restaurant in La Loma. He became so famous he was dubbed the “Colonel Sanders” of the lechon industry.
“All of a sudden, the lechon was no longer just a dish for sabongeros,” Chua declares. “People from all walks of life started to come to La Loma to sample the lechon.”
One famous anecdote was that in 1955, President Ramon Magsaysay came to Mang Tomas’s carinderia-style eatery unannounced, rolled up his sleeves and ate lechon with his bare hands, dipping it into the dark sweet liver sauce that would later be equally iconic and named in his honor, the Sarsa ni Mang Tomas.
By the 1960s, other lechoneros would follow suit – William Chua (who is now barangay captain of Paang Bundok) and his brothers started Ping Ping’s Native Lechon (named after their only sister); Serafin and Antonina Cesario opened Mila’s Lechon (named after their daughter); the Ferreros clan with Monchie’s, Ryan’s and Lito’s.
In the 1990s, the lechoneros of Paang Bundok formed their own group, the La Loma Lechoneros Association.
“The goal of the association is to safeguard the quality of the lechon being produced,” Chua explains.
In the year 2000, Monchie Ferreros (who was president of the association at that time) started the very first Parada ng Mga Lechon. Then Mayor Feliciano Belmonte, Jr. supported the initiative and declared La Loma the official Lechon Capital of the Philippines.
The Quezon City government is equally supportive of the initiatives of the lechoneros’ group. Mayor Herbert Bautista has instructed to classify La Loma as a major tourist destination. Despite the challenges, plans to have a centralized slaughterhouse for improved sanitation and increased tourist arrivals are underway.
This is supported by the District 1 councilors of Quezon City where La Loma belongs. Councilor Onyx Crisologo envisions the La Loma Lechon district to be
“clean, pleasing to the eyes [and] tourist-friendly, where visitors can appreciate its heritage and enjoy its food. If there is a bus full of tourists, we have to be prepared to walk them around, to give them a view of how our lechon is prepared. It will give them the impression that aside from being good cooks, the people of Quezon City are enterprising as well.”
District 1 Representative Vincent ‘Bingbong’ Crisologo likewise agrees with the tourism aspect, suggesting that La Loma “can be turned into something like Paris, where people can enjoy lechon dinners al-fresco style. Restaurants can bring their tables outside, then there will be entertainment and activities. We can start one Sunday each month, then let us see from there. People will flock to La Loma because of this.”
With continued improvements in infrastructure and support from the Quezon City local government, the La Loma Lechoneros Association Inc. said these would help increase sales. According to its president Mr. Chua, lechon sales are presently estimated to be around 200 on ordinary days, with brisker sales during holidays, especially during Christmas and New Year, where more than a thousand whole lechon were sold last year.
Now on its 17th year, the La Loma Lechon Festival has paved the way for the lechon to go beyond its usual role as the piece de resistance in any Filipino feast. The lechoneros dress up the lechon, named after famous personalities (Manny Pork-quiao or Piggy Wurtzbach easily come to mind), and parade it in the streets of Retiro and Calavite, capped with a boodle fight for guests.
“It was lechon that has become a source of respectable livelihood for us here in La Loma,” Chua says. “It is our source of pride that many Filipino celebrations would not be complete without the lechon.”
With that said, let us all pinch into the lechon’s crispy skin, bite into its soft juicy fragrant meat, and let its oil graze your lips and cheeks. Life is a celebration, after all, and the taste of lechon reigns supreme in the hearts and tummies of Filipinos.