Cafe Reviews

Cafe Review: Under-the-Radar Filipino Cooking Is Thriving in Phoenix

Longsilog plate at Deez Buns.
Longsilog plate at Deez Buns. Chris Malloy
At town fiestas in their native Pampanga, a Philippine province, now-husband-and-wife Ramon Go and Grace De Ausen-Go learned how to cook traditional foods. Most of all, they learned how to cook lechon — a whole spit-roasted pig. They served it at the Filipino food counter in Lam's Market they ran starting in 2007. After it closed in 2013, they'd only served lechon for friends and family or through catering orders.

In March, when Go and De Ausen-Go opened Lutong Bahay in Glendale, lechon wasn't on the menu, either. But then the pandemic hit.

“We started off with one pig on a Sunday,” De Ausen-Go says. “But Filipinos are lechon lovers. The demand went up, and they said, ‘Why aren’t you serving it on Saturdays?’ So we started cooking two lechons on Saturday, two on Sunday. Last Sunday, we cooked three.”

“Lutong Bahay” translates to “home cooking.” For its owners from Pampanga, that means dishes and accents of the region. At Lutong, you can find sisig, adobo, halo-halo, pancit, pandesal, and other Filipino staples. You can also find Chinese dishes, drawing from Go’s heritage.

But the main event, De Ausen-Go proudly says, is that weekend lechon special.

click to enlarge Lutong Bahay’s halo halo special. - CHARLES BARTH
Lutong Bahay’s halo halo special.
Charles Barth
Lutong Bahay sells lechon for $12 a pound on Saturdays and Sundays beginning at 11 a.m. An order comes with steaming meat, swaths of crisp skin, and a dipping sauce of gravy sharpened with ground liver, vinegar, and sugar. It draws a buzzing crowd; you can only pre-order if you call three days ahead and get a whole pig, which costs north of $300.

Shortly after penning your name and number of desired pounds on a slip of paper, your lechon comes. Right then, the skin is at maximum crispness. The pork, hunks mostly uneven and far bigger than bite-size, carries the faint perfume of lemongrass. Some bites are saltier, depending on where seasoning has been applied. All are chewy but tender. The skin crackles like fried food. The dipping sauce provides deeply flattering notes of sweetness polished nicely by the irony and tart additions.

It’s an unmissable special. But if you do miss it, you can order a day ahead during the week and get cebuchon, similar but made from just pork belly. Lutong uses whole pigs on weekends.

During and before the pandemic, several other impressive Filipino food specials and pop-ups have taken flight in metro Phoenix. We have a number of established brick-and-mortar Filipino restaurants, many in the west Valley, including Halo-Halo Kitchen and Casa Filipina Bake Shop. But more limited offerings are well worth seeking.

click to enlarge Brian Webb portioning lechon baboy in Hot Noodles, Cold Sake. - CHRIS MALLOY
Brian Webb portioning lechon baboy in Hot Noodles, Cold Sake.
Chris Malloy
In Mesa, Brian and Margita Webb have been cooking under the moniker Phx Lechon Roasters. A few years ago, they ran the Filipino food truck Hey Joe!, and afterward Brian spent time at Hot Noodles, Cold Sake (where he dropped a sisig special and held one frenziedly popular lechon dinner). This year, they had hoped to sell at events as Phx Lechon Roasters, with a focus on lechon. Now, events are kaput, so the Webbs sell out of the Local First Arizona Community Kitchen on Main Street, though just for a brief window on Saturdays.

Social media erased their plans to sit out the pandemic. Brian caught this spring’s contagious urge to bake, posted some pictures of homemade ube pandesal — stuffed bread dyed purple with the yam — and was flooded with purchasing inquiries. So he and Margita decided to sell pandesal, lumpia, and whole kamayan meals.

click to enlarge Homemade ube cheesecake from Phx Lechon Roasters. - CHRIS MALLOY
Homemade ube cheesecake from Phx Lechon Roasters.
Chris Malloy
“Kamayan translates to ‘Eat with your hands,’” Webb says, and he gives you the materials to do just that. You spread banana leaves (which he includes in the bag) over a table. Then lechon manok (lechon-style chicken), rice, and other preparations are heaped on, and finally devoured.

Recently, the kamayan takeaway bag included crisp-yet-succulent pork ribs braised in adobo, lightly breaded, and deep fried. The charcoal-roasted lechon manok is hot, juicy, and touched by lemongrass and garlic. Its condiments — achara (papaya-ginger slaw) and sawsawan (coconut vinegar, soy sauce, and calamansi) — reflect the rich meat from fresh new angles. Purple ube pandesal, cored with molten cheese and ube jam, are soft and rootily sweet, making for one of the more eye-opening breads in town.

The food of John Cornelio, who runs the 1-year-old stand Toduken at the Uptown Farmers’ Market, has taken a creative turn during the pandemic. See: a hearty cornbread fused with Filipino flavors and the idea of elote, meaning paved with kewpie mayo mixed with fish sauce and calamansi, dusted with his own Tajin blend, and topped with cotija.

click to enlarge Toduken at Uptown Farmers Market. - CHRIS MALLOY
Toduken at Uptown Farmers Market.
Chris Malloy
Cornelio is known for his toduken, charcoal-grilled skewers he brushes with banana ketchup. In the days of COVID, he sells these pre-grilled. His non-skewered specials have been evolving. A dessert special of banana-ube pudding, unbelievably delicious for how simple it is, has earned regular buyers and semi-permanence on the short menu.

Cornelio has also released an impressive stew that hybridizes Southwestern-style green chile and sinigang, a tamarind soup. He keeps a notebook of remix ideas. Soon, he plans to roll out tortang talong, an eggplant omelet but riffed into more of a European-style frittata.

Things have also shifted for Kevin Rosales, who runs the popup Good Fortune Kitchen. He still cooks traditional Filipino food for private clients. But Deez Buns, the broadly Asian sandwich shop he runs with Justin Park, has taken a new lane.

The Tempe spot still slings buns. There are a few cool Filipino options lurking on the menu. The PBLT brings grilled pork belly marinated in banana ketchup, garlic, vinegar, and sugar onto a steam bun with Western-style shredded lettuce and tomato. The bun teeters with stacked pork belly, thick and juicy and charred to outer crispness.

Deez Buns serves longsilog, sausages rippling with spice and umami, under fried egg and papaya salad and over a deep bed of rice. Thin rolls of lumpia pop with Korean street corn: shredded mozzarella, yellow corn, mayo, and sugar. The platter is soulful and satisfying. The rolls are spare but rich with corn, understated, piping hot with stretchy cheese clinging to the inner walls of the crisp tubes.

More recently, Deez Buns has started to pop up in the Roosevelt Row bar Killer Whale Sex Club. There, Rosales and Park have introduced, among other dishes, a few rotating Filipino meals you can’t find at their Tempe mothership, like sisig and pork belly adobo fried rice.

“We brought more staple foods into Killer Whale,” Roasles says. “We’re serving our food as late as 12 a.m. or 2 a.m., depending on how the energy goes.”

The energy behind these temporary or permanent kitchens is warm and positive, a different vibe in the pandemic age. It’s cooking suited to takeaway, home dishes and riffs and special occasion eats worth a cross-town trek. Diners who seek these limited windows will glimpse a promising nook of our food scene.

Lutong Bahay
920 North 43rd Avenue, #14, Glendale
Hours: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Wednesday to Sunday
Cebu-style lechon $12/pound

Phx Lechon Roasters
c/o Local First Arizona Community Kitchen
659 East Main Street, Mesa
Hours: Takeout by appointment
Kaman dinner $50/three to four people
Ube pandesal $12/half dozen

Deez Buns
1158 West Washington Street, #105, Tempe
Hours: 10:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Thursday to Saturday
Longsilog plate $12
Corn Lumpia $5
Note: Killer Whale Sex Club specials vary

c/o Uptown Farmers’ Market
5757 North Central Avenue
Hours: 7 to 11 a.m., Saturdays
Note: Menu (released Wednesdays) prices vary weekly. Reserve orders in advance via Instagram direct message or [email protected]
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Chris Malloy, former food editor and current food critic at Phoenix New Times, has written for various local and national outlets. He has scrubbed pots in a restaurant kitchen, earned graduate credit for a class about cheese, harvested garlic in Le Marche, and rolled pastas like cappellacci stuffed with chicken liver. He writes reviews but also narrative stories on the food world's margins.
Contact: Chris Malloy