Among all the towering skyscrapers and bustling evening street life we headed to a mall. Of course we did. Malls have replaced plazas, parks and the picturesque waterfront as the gathering place of choice for urban-dwelling Filipinos (but that is another topic altogether). But shopping wasn't on the agenda that night, rather they were taking me to the hip, crowded Mesa restaurant in the admittedly stunning Greenbelt 5 mall (yes it is the fifth mall in the same location-- and yes, the other four are still open).
Even the lights looked good enough to eat
Mesa describes itself as a modern Filipino restaurant (actually technically they use "moderne" but I'll stick with the "e"-less version) and the interior was indeed sleek and minimalist. But then I sat down and opened the extensive menu randomly to this page:
This gorgeous and gleaming young swine centerfold was all I needed to see to know that I would like this nouveau cuisine. (I realize that in the Philippines it is not all that exciting or unusual to see lechón but for us Filipinos and half-Filipinos living in decidedly non-Filipino places like Denver, each pig-on-a-stick sighting triggers more photos than sunset on Manila Bay or posing with Rizal at Luneta Park--combined.)
"You want that?" My cousin astutely inquired, seeing my jittery hands and shit-faced grin as I stared at the picture of "Crispchon"--that is, lechón that instead of being roasted is deep fried to a crisp. He proceeded to order that and so much more, in what would be a disgustingly decadent spread of Filipino flavor.
I just about peed on myself (for joy) when our 17-year-old (at most) server quickly re-appeared with the freshly deep fried hind quarter of a suckling pig. He placed it on a small butcher's block and began to chop it into bite-sized chunks. Its still-steaming meat and hot glistening skin was making me more than a little rabid. Then, suddenly, another server came out and grabbed the whole leg bone and disappeared back into the kitchen.
"Nooooo!" I whispered to myself. From my seat at the wrong end of a six-person booth I was helpless to stop him. I was also physically unable to speed up our young butcher who after chopping for what seemed like hours, was now rolling up pieces of the meat with crackly pig skin, cucumbers, cilantro and leeks into small pandan crepes--basically a fresh lumpia wrapper.
I appreciated the effort and the style of our table side demo but lechón is best when eaten piping hot. So it was with some sadness that I watched the steam dissipate from the sliced meat. And where the hell was that pig leg?
Then I became distracted by the simultaneous arrival all of our food. First to hit the table was a huge plate of grilled meats: skewered and marinated pork, fatty ribs, mussels and plump prawns. And while it was all quite good, my mind was still on that quartered pig.
The next dish I sampled was a creative plate of deep fried tilapia. The fillet was cubed and fried separately from the body so as to be light and crunchy like popcorn--but still wonderfully moist. But the best pieces were on the body itself (the head and cheeks to be specific) which was also fried and presented in a way that looked as if the two fish were still swimming circles in the ocean around each other (as they probably were the day before).
More plates: baby octopus, stir-fried vegetables, a delicate seafood soup and an incredible green mango dish served with diced tomato and onion, garnished with Bagoong Alamang, or Filipino shrimp paste.
Finally our boy-server plopped down our platter of rolled-up lechón in the center of our table.
Although only luke-warm my first bite was entirely satisfying. The skin was still crisp (it was deep fried after all) and the meat was tender like a young pig's flesh should be. The vegetables added another layer of crispy texture but also cut the fatty, fried meat nicely. Three sauces adorned the platter, but I needed none other than the traditional pork liver lechon sauce. Again, it could have been hotter (temperature-wise) and it would have been better, but it was still the best thing I have eaten in a long, long time.
And then I noticed someone had snuck the leg bone back onto our table-- now chopped into hand-sized chunks and stacked rather haphazardly (in contrast to our carefully prepared lechon rolls) on a single small plate. When they were passed my way I gnawed at several crunchy, meaty, fatty pieces and even sucked on the foot itself in homage to my dear wife (she loves her some pig feet) who, unable to come, was at that moment probably just starting to stir in bed to the crescendo-ing cries of two one-year-old babies.
Crying babies? Or fried pig leg? Tough choice.
It was, as I said, an enormous meal-- just the type of indulgence required for a reunion of three cousins (and their families) living on three different continents. I don't get enough Filipino food anymore to distinguish the good from the great, as just the dishes themselves, the flavors even-- rich liver sauce, crisp pork skin, fishy shrimp paste, acidic green mango, fresh seafood-- are enough to get my taste buds giddy and keep me food-happy for weeks, if not months, afterwards. So I'm sure some purists have criticized Mesa, and no, everything was not executed perfectly well, but in the end this is the type of experience-- sharing good food with dear family-- that reinvigorate my passion for all food. And with that inspiration I am back in Denver and looking for my next great meal.