In order to serve whole pig lechon—a Filipino party staple—first the crispy skin has to be separated from the meat. (Kristen Murakoshi)
KQED's BBQ in the Bay is a series of stories exploring the Bay Area's multicultural barbecue scene. New installments will post every day from June 28–July 1.
here’s a fiesta happening at the Winslow Center in Concord to celebrate a young bio science major’s graduation from UC Irvine. Upstairs, in the decorated banquet hall, Marilu Pho welcomes guests to her daughter Taylor’s graduation party while Polynesian dancers hurriedly get dressed before their performance begins. “Sorry, the boba people aren’t here yet,” Pho apologizes, detailing all the food she ordered. In addition to the boba station, there’s also a taco bar and a company on hand to make Filipino-style paella.
But the star of the spread—and of any Filipino party—is the crackly, golden-skinned roast pig known as lechon. Spanish colonizers in the 1600s chose that name to describe the suckling pigs they saw native Filipinos slowly roasting whole over coals. But people in the Philippines have been serving some version of lechon to mark special occasions since well before that, starting when their Austronesian ancestors settled in the islands and brought domesticated pigs and other animals.
For their daughter’s graduation party, the Pho family has ordered their lechon from Concord’s Oriental Food Market, a Filipino grocer and catering company, whose owners cooked the 60-pound pig in an industrial-sized roaster just a few hours before the party. It makes for a beautiful centerpiece: perfectly golden-brown skin on all sides, steaming in places where the meat is falling away from the bone, from its snout and perma-grin to the end of its piggy tail.
With large gatherings suspended for more than two years because of COVID-19, this particular pig seems even more celebratory than usual. I ask Marilu, “Why the lechon?” After all, the rest of the party’s multicultural spread is as modern as it is diverse.
She says simply, “Because it’s tradition, you know?”
For Filipino Americans like me, lechon isn’t only a tradition passed down by our parents and grandparents; it’s also a point of pride. I come from a region in the Philippines called Pampanga, which the late chef Anthony Bourdain praised for having the best food in the entire country. “Pampanga first, Philippines second?” he asked his host the first time his show No Reservations filmed an episode in Manila. In other words, we Kampampangans know our food. But for Filipinos, our love of lechon transcends even regional loyalties. Like it did with our ancestors, this allegiance traveled with us to America to remind us of home, no matter how far we actually were from our loved ones. There is no fiesta worth having without our lechon—it’s our national dish, alongside adobo and lumpia.
In that same episode of No Reservations, Bourdain travels to Cebu—the birthplace of lechon—and declares it “the best pig ever,” thus cementing his legacy as the Philippines’ favorite American chef. It meant something for him to say that: Bourdain had traveled the world 10 times over; he’d eaten the most delicious things in the most iconic food cities. But he’d decided that lechon was the best. And of course, he was right.
The Taste of Childhood
Back to the party: It’s Ed Pho’s first time breaking down the lechon, but he’s done his research. Everyone stands around to watch him pull one whole side of the crunchy skin away from the succulent meat, which is still hot from being taken off the spit less than an hour before. For early-arriving guests, it’s a rare opportunity to see this process; usually, the pig seems to just arrive already divided and ready to eat. While he works at the pig with a pair of big kitchen shears, Ed regales us with his knowledge of lechon. His ethnic background is Vietnamese, but he married into Marilu’s big Filipino family.
“In Cebu, they stuff it with lots of herbs and lemongrass,” he says, “but this one is done Manila-style.” The Manila style relies less on stuffing the pig with tamarind and lemongrass and more on classic preparation: garlic salt, bay leaves, fresh-cracked pepper. But it’s all about the lechon sauce. As he nears the bottom of the pig, he pulls off a tender morsel for me to taste. “This is the best part,” he says excitedly, gesturing toward the plates for me to do the honors of the first official bite.
I take the piece in reverence and spoon over some homemade lechon sauce—a sweet, liver-based gravy that Oriental Food Market chef Alex Gaerlan had sent along with the pig. I sandwich the meat between two pieces of crackling and take a loud, obnoxiously crispy bite.
It tastes like childhood to me. When I was a kid, a whole lechon was reserved only for weddings and golden anniversaries. I remember being eye-level to many of these lechons at family parties, macabrely willing myself into a staring contest while I wondered whose family dog would get to enjoy an ear, maybe even a leftover hind quarter. And as a Philippine-born, American-raised citizen, as I got older, I started to realize that the tradition of serving lechon at family parties seemed to be happening less and less often. Maybe it’s the health-consciousness of Filipino Americans who are adopting more plant-based diets, or the fact that we no longer live barangay-style, in clans of large extended families.
The last lechon I remember eating was one I chose myself in the backyard of my grandparents’ home in Concepcion, Tarlac, when I was 15 years old. I chose the fattest of two pigs in the sty and sprayed it off with the hose. The next morning, I was awakened by the squealing pig being taken to the slaughter. When it returned a few hours later in the bottom of my cousin’s tricycle, it was already flayed and ready to be roasted.
When that lechon was presented at the fiesta for my Lolo and Lola’s 50th anniversary, the guilt of swine assassination made way to furtive acceptance: We are Filipinos. We roast and eat pig. This Is What We Do.
Where, then, do Bay Area Filipino Americans go when they need a whole pig for a party? In the Concord area, the answer is clear: Oriental Food Market.
A few hours before the Pho family’s graduation fiesta, co-owner Sherrie Gaerlan welcomes patrons to the shop while keeping an eye on her husband Alex as he roasts the lechon in the back. The front of the store is Sherrie’s domain. It’s where she sells small tubs of garlic peanuts, rents out Filipino DVDs and even helps customers purchase the “cheapest air fares to Philippines,” according to the yellow sign emblazoned over the front window. There are two clocks on the wall showing the time difference between the Philippines and California and a stack of business cards with both her and her husband’s names on the front.
“It was my idea to buy this business,” Gaerlan says, recalling her decision to take over the grocery store that had served Concord’s Fil-Am community since 1983. She remembers eying the gem of a location on her way to work as a subrogation specialist at the car insurance company AAA down the street. Eventually, Alex also left his job as a contractor for FedEx and began cooking in the back to help out.
According to Sherrie, the persistence required for her position as a subrogation specialist—to go after at-fault drivers’ insurance companies to recoup costs for accident victims—gave her the resolve to eventually take over Oriental Food Market. “If I put this same amount of work in my own business,” she remembers thinking back then, “I may be able to go somewhere, so that’s what encouraged me to look for a business to run.”
“When we took the business over, Oriental Food Market, they kept the name. I was never really a fan of that name,” the Gaerlans’ eldest child, Graham, says, laughing. “It’s been around, it was a staple in the community for a long time. It was really all over the place. But they figured it out.”
When the family immigrated from the Philippines in 1991, Graham remembers being home after school with his younger sister and waiting all day for his parents to come home. Still, he grappled with why his mom would purchase such a fixer-upper of a business during his senior year of high school. “I didn’t really understand the passion for starting a business that had so many different avenues. You’re talking about a sari-sari store,” he says, using the Tagalog term for a neighborhood convenience store. “It can also be catering and cooked food.”
Judging from the wide array of services Sherrie offers at the front of the store, OFM still provides a touchpoint for many Filipinos longing for home. Graham, who credits his own work ethic to watching his parents grind, likens their boldness and "entrepreneur spirit” to the sacrificial decisions many immigrants make leaving their motherland.
“When we were in the Philippines, my mom would often tell me that when she was pregnant with me, she would go around and sell pre-packed sandwiches at the bank she worked at. This is her, 21 years old, hustling. My mom has always been that way.”
Competing With Giants
In the end, the roast pigs are what saved the business.
Alex lifts the finished lechon out of the industrial roaster he bought over a decade ago. He rests the pig inside of three coconut milk boxes lined with banana leaves. This particular specimen is 10 pounds heavier than most of the pigs he roasts, and he likes it that way. When Alex taught himself how to cook Filipino food and, later, lechon, he looked for a high-quality supplier that took care of the animals from feed to slaughter. He found it in Oakland-based company PacAgri Foods. He wanted to rid the Filipino catering world of skinny tableside lechons.
It was this passion for quality that allowed OFM to survive in the catering world, where Alex took the basics he learned growing up in the Philippines and applied it to their new venture. “My mom is from Pampanga but she grew up in Manila already. Usually Kapampangans, they love to cook, right? You know, my mom doesn’t know how to cook.”
Still, Alex’s self-taught repertoire was good enough to compete with the “giants” who moved into Concord in 2009: Seafood City and Ranch 99. These large-chain Asian mega-supermarkets swallowed up nearly every Filipino and small Asian grocer in the area. Back then, Sherrie hadn’t yet figured out what might save her business, with the “giants” not just competing with their vast inventory and cheaper prices, but also poaching customers who wanted the other services that OFM provided, like passport renewal and sending remittances home. Sherrie and Alex didn’t know it then, but the lechon catering services that they introduced around that time were what would keep their little store going for another decade plus.
It’s that same adaptability and ingenuity that has sustained the market through a tragic two years of COVID-related business closures in the restaurant industry. “The catering stopped, because no one wants to do any other parties because of COVID,” Sherrie explains. “But what made us survive was all these apps: DoorDash, UberEats and Postmates. We never closed.”
Even as many of their neighbors were forced to close their doors, she recalls, the steady stream of online orders kept Oriental Food Market afloat: “So I told my husband, ‘See how the Good Lord helped us? When one door closes, three doors open.’ I’m almost crying now, to remember those times, ‘cause it’s not easy, you know?”
For now, even as the Filipino parties have started up again, Alex can only handle two orders of lechon a weekend. He’s having trouble finding help, like every restaurant has after the pandemic. But his lechon business is still known for being the best in the area. For now, it’s also one of the only fully operational sites that’s still roasting whole pigs. While Sherrie used to do all of the cooking at home, now she won’t even step into the back kitchen—Alex’s domain—because knowing their roles well is what helped this mom-and-pop survive two decades.
“Even when he cooks sinigang, he puts good gulay,” Sherrie says of her husband’s kitchen skills. “It’s not like nalanta, or already old. He doesn’t want to compromise on the ingredients because he said, ‘I can be a good cook, but it may not turn out good if I put not-so-good ingredients.’”
You can still find Sherrie in her domain—the front of the shop—as she focuses on her clientele that she’s remained close with. She knows that with Seafood City and Ranch 99, the employees just work there. They don’t really care about each and every customer that walks in the door. “I used to be a matchmaker here, I used to be ‘Sister Sherrie’ ’cause people would come and just pour their hearts out. Where can you get that? That a person would trust their innermost problems, and then tell you and then get their worries [out], and you provide them your advice. But that’s just me,” she laughs. “That’s how I do business, the personal touch. There’s a story behind each bite.”
All the Gusto
Back at the graduation party, the lechon tasting gives way to more offerings of food and drink—more ways for the host to show they care about their guests like a true Filipino. Though the food is a bridge back home for many of us balikbayans, it’s the sincere hospitality and warmth for everyone at the party that makes us family, even if we are not.
“Have you eaten yet?” the elders ask, and you must always pretend you have not. No matter how full you are, how stuffed to the brim with party food you become, you must not turn down a piece of the prized lechon because you never know when a party like this will come again—if we are even allowed to gather like this again.
So you take a plate, you take a bite, and you savor it the way it’s meant to be appreciated—with panache and all the gusto of your ancestors’ spirit. Just don’t forget the sauce.
Rocky Rivera is a journalist, emcee, author and activist from San Francisco. She has four musical projects out, three of those with her label Beatrock Music. She released her first book last year, entitled Snakeskin: Essays by Rocky Rivera.
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