In Cebu, a habal ride got interesting. In fluent Filipino, the driver talked about his life as a cook for 13 years in Novaliches. What made him leave was the gruelling conditions in the kitchen, particularly frying frozen food in hot oil, which when done on a daily basis could paralyze an arm. His almost got paralyzed – chronic numbness was creeping up his arm – so he swore he’s never going back to Novaliches, nor is he leaving Cebu anytime soon. “This is where my family is.” By January, all habal drivers will get licenses – the scheme is rolled out in Cebu as a pilot – and he’s excited about having a decent uniform.
I only had three hours to roam around, and there are no trains in the city. Grab’s “surges” are also insufferable in Cebu during rush hour. The bus routes proved too complicated to be explained by a local bystander I asked: in perfect English, she advised me to take a cab instead. Filipino isn’t spoken in Cebu, and at one point I felt that anxiety of being lost in a foreign place, as if I were in Bangkok or Hanoi, where I had nervously checked Google Maps every five minutes for my coordinates.
After a quick stop at Good Cup Coffee (where they roast their coffee beans in-house) as recommended by a Cebuana friend, I hailed a cab to House of Lechon, this time suggested by a Cebu-based acquaintance from work.
I asked the waitress at House of Lechon, who greeted me with the customary “How many seats, sir?” if they sell lechon that’s packaged for flights. They don’t. The three- to four-hour shelf life meant the lechon would rot on my lap during my bus ride home. I initially planned to bring home lechon for my son, who’s very passionate about it, from brands that aren’t in Manila, chiefly as a testament that I did visit Cebu, and also because Zubuchon and Rico’s, two famed lechon restaurants from Cebu, are a stone’s throw from where I currently work in Taguig.
Its interiors had lots of bamboo accents on a palette of aqua and white sand, giving off the illusion that I was dining solo by the shore. In reality, the House of Lechon branch I was in is smack in the middle of the bustling city of Cebu, with malls and hotels nearby. The clientele is a mix of local and foreign. Both a Pinoy couple and a gaggle of rowdy youngsters ordered beer with their lechon. Next to me is a Korean couple: the man ordered green mango shake. The woman he’s with – who’s about to doze off – ordered cold water. For professional reasons (I’m in Cebu for work) I skipped the beer and ordered the same: ice-cold, thirst-quenching service water.
In ten minutes lechon arrived, along with a mini kaldero for rice and a plate of kinilaw na puso ng saging, banana blossoms cooked in vinegar, for contrast. The meat is juicy, mildly flavored with the umami of its drippings, I assume, and ridiculously tender – a light tug with a fork makes the meat fall off the bone. The chunks of pork fat melts in the mouth. I initially wanted to skirt around the crunchy lechon skin – each shard lacquered and glittery. But of course I gave in! The dipping sauce that comes with the lechon, however, is another matter: it’s unbelievably salty. A microdose of it is inedible, to say the least. I can only think of melted salt crystals – the ones you see encrusting the tip of a bottle of patis – to describe how it tastes.
I filled in the habal driver with my three-hour adventure. I could have toured you around, he said: I could have brought you to the finest chorizo and danggit vendors, to stalls where rows of dried mangoes can be bought by the dozen… His monologue flew by my head, as my discomfort grew while clutching that flimsy handle one is left to hold on to as a passenger, an angkas. (At the start of the trip my fingers were fidgeting, so it took me while to clasp the helmet strap on my chin. Later on I confessed that it’s only my second time to ride a habal.)
By the time we were close to our destination, I broached the topic of his profit in driving habal, as I am wont to do in my small talk with taxi drivers in the metro. He told me that he only drives on the side, just to keep him from sitting down while at home: he’s a digital marketer at night, selling a bunch of real estate on Facebook. What are the odds? I told him: I’m a digital marketer myself.
House of Lechon
Address: Acacia St, Cebu City
Price range: 200-300 for 1-2 people.
Both locals and cab drivers know the branch we’ve been to, which is near Ayala Center Cebu. Dining solo is a disadvantage since they don’t serve convenient “rice meals”: you have to order their smallest serving of lechon (1/4 kilo – very good for sharing) and a separate order of rice. We urge everyone to skip the extremely salty dipping sauce and make your own sauce by mixing whatever condiments they have: mixing vinegar, soy sauce and chilies to your taste should definitely do you good.
The Good Cup Coffee Company
Address: F. Ramos St, Cebu City
Operation hours: 7AM to 7PM
When we asked directions from a local, we were told that there are two Robinson’s Malls in Cebu, and that this cafe is within the Fuente area. Mention “Fuente” to a cab driver and he would drop you off a ten-minute walk away from this coffee shop. They sell good coffee, cold brew, and desserts. It’s a good place to do quick emails: they have electrical outlets; however, the acoustics is horrible, and they close at 7PM.