Mang Tomas gave lechon (and its sauce) its privileged place in Pinoy culinary hierarchy
No lechon lover will be able to claim mastery and connoisseurship of this premier Filipino dish without mentioning the name of Mang Tomas, who in 1951, conceived a great business idea that has become La Loma’s legacy industry.
“It was Mang Tomas who started it all,” acknowledges William Manugar S. Chua, barangay chairman of Paang Bundok where the lechon capital is situated. Chua himself is a lechonero, who along with his siblings started Ping Ping’s Lechon, named after their only sister.
But who was Mang Tomas, beyond the lechon and its equally famous dipping sauce?
Mang Tomas is Tomas Delos Reyes, a provincial lad who started out as a meat vendor in the neighborhood. According to pop culture blogger and researcher Dennis Villegas, he was born in Alcantara, Romblon but came to post-World War II Manila, after a friend convinced him of possible employment opportunities. From errand boy to butcher to retailer, Mang Tomas lived and exuded meat, day in and day out.
However, he helped himself by acquiring a meat stall right in front of his house, where nearby, the La Loma Cockpit Arena was filled with cockfighting enthusiasts. Victors of the sport, be it gamefowl owner or lucky bettor, would drop by his meat shop to buy slabs of pork that they would cook and eat as pulutan (bar food or bar chow) to accompany a merry drinking spree. Losers, according to Chua, would contend themselves with tinola from the tinalong manok, the poor, vanquished, lifeless pansabong (gamecock).
But a gem of an idea came to Tomas, who wanted to earn extra. He roasted an entire pig, and sold them by slabs, convincing his patrons that it saved them time and effort from grilling the pork themselves. They bought into it, and soon enough, his home cum eatery became a place to visit for those who want to sample his famous lechon.
In fact, his biggest endorser was the very popular President Ramon Magsaysay who came unannounced to his restaurant in 1955. According to stories, he rolled up his barong sleeves and ate gung-ho style, picking the meat from the lechon with his bare hands and dipping it into the lechon sauce that Tomas made himself from all the leftover pork liver. Magsaysay must have been smitten by the lechon that he ordered lechon every time there was an occasion in Malacañang.
Passing the ‘Bacon’
When the years have caught up with Mang Tomas, he passed on the business to his son Jaime or Jimmy, who learned the tricks of the trade from his father. Jimmy expanded the restaurant to include dishes made from the leftover parts of the roasted pig, like chicharon bulaklak and dinuguan.
However, Mang Tomas’ liver sauce became as well-known as its porky tandem. Once given for free whenever one buys lechon from their store, people asked if they can buy it by the bottle and use for cooking. Named after him, Sarsa ni Mang Tomas, would later be bought by a large restaurant group, who later sold it to a large condiments conglomerate.
Mang Tomas’ daughter-in-law, Corazon ‘Cora’ N. Delos Reyes now in her 60s, currently runs the lechon enterprise with her children, Ariel and Eva. Eva De Vera reveals that while the bottled lechon sauce still bears his grandfather’s famous name, they don’t receive royalties from it.
“Ganon pa man, gumagawa pa rin kami ng sarsa ng litson, na kapag natikman mo ay masasabi mong ito ang original (Despite these, we still make our trademark lechon sauce; once you taste it, you will say it is the original),”
Aling Cora shows wood-laminated pictures and news clippings showing Mang Tomas during the 50s and the 60s, burly and every inch a victorious man. One article even names him the “Colonel Sanders of Lechon”.
“Salamat sa biyenan ko, nakilala ang La Loma. Maraming pamilya rito ang binuhay ng paglilitson (Thanks to my father-in-law, La Loma is recognized [as lechon capital]. Many families here lived from roasting pigs),” she proudly declares.
One might notice that the names of the 15 or so lechon stores in La Loma are in the possessive form (Mila’s, Monchie’s, Bulakeñas, Nelia’s, Caloy and Tikang’s, etc.), an indication that each has a claim to the large market of lechon buyers. Nevertheless, it was one man’s legacy that made it all possible – Mang Tomas Delos Reyes, a first among equals.