On the Menu: Alan's Grill's Crispy Pisngi ng Baboy
The Restaurant: Alan's Grill, Cubao Expo, Cubao, Quezon City
The Dish: Crispy Pisngi ng Baboy, Php 130 per order.
Alan's Grill was never really part of the scene that Cubao X became known for. While the restaurant hangs as much art on its walls as any of the other establishments in this artsy little collective, it never drew the young and hip crowd that flocked to Mogwai and Futurebar.
The menu quickly explains why Alan's Grill stands apart from those establishments. It isn't really trying to do anything that Gerry's or Dencio's hasn't already been doing for decades. It's all very straightforward Filipino food: the kind of fried, or grilled, or sizzling dishes that are meant to go with buckets of beer. It's hardly the kind of food that attracts the DSLR-wielding foodies that wander into the former Marikina Shoe Expo.
Of course, Mogwai and Futurebar are no longer in Cubao X, while Alan's is still standing. There's probably some lesson to be learned there somewhere.
Like many restaurants of its ilk, there are too many items on the Alan's Grill menu. This invariably leads to people just going for the dishes they're already familiar with: the sisig, the kare-kare, crispy pata and the like. And this is all fine, but the menu offers up quite a few gems for the more curious palate.
There is one item on the menu in particular that deserves the foodie's attention: the crispy pisngi ng baboy. It is, quite simply, one of the best pork dishes available today.
Pardon the hyperbole, but this is a dish that really warrants enthusiasm. It's brilliant in its simplicity, its properties embedded in its name. It's pork cheek fried to a crispy golden brown, served with a chili-garlic-soy dipping sauce.
Pork cheek is one of those amazing cuts of meat that don't really get their due. Even here in the Philippines, where we regularly have it as a part of sisig, people might balk at the very idea of eating a pig's cheek. But pork cheek is remarkable, the cut bursting with flavorful collagen, which also keeps the relatively lean meat moist and tender.
Most recipes for cheek meat tend to involve braising the meat as part of some sort of stew. Cooked in this way, the pork cheeks develop lots of flavor, and serve as an unusually tender protein to what is invariably a hearty dish. And this is a perfectly fine way to prepare the meat, but Alan's approach is far simpler, and seems to yield even more impressive results.
Frying the pork cheeks yields disproportionately good results. The first bite gives you the crunch of chicharon. The second reveals a deep, savory pork flavor that recalls bacon. Further chewing unleashes the collagen, which melts in the mouth, coating the palate with a richness that feels entirely too decadent for a single piece of meat.
There is a dipping sauce, but it hardly needs it. The meat manages to stay plenty moist in spite of its dried-out appearance. If you do dip, though, you'll find that even the strong salt of the soy and the heat of the chili only alter the flavor profile a little bit. The sauce adds a different dimension, but it does not supersede the main emphasis of the dish: porkiness.
That extreme porkiness is the exact reason this dish is so worth trying. There are no tricks to it. The meat hasn't been chopped up beyond recognition. It hasn't been breaded, or covered in a sauce. It hasn't been cured, or smoked, or basted. When eating this dish, you are confronted by the pork. You are faced with a pure distillation of pork flavor: the ineffable unctuousness, the savory finish. It is pork nirvana.
In the age of the Internet, bacon is king. It's downright worshipped for its porky properties. But for my money, even the best bacon can't compare in pure pork expression to Alan's crispy pisngi ng baboy. In the end, bacon is still a product of a series of processes that actually take away some of its more porcine qualities. This dish, on the other hand, is just the pork, and nothing but the pork. So help us, God.