I get recommendations for barbecue joints to visit about as frequently as I give them, which is daily. Few are immediately compelling, and an even smaller number have me changing my travel plans for the week. But while I was picking out new eyeglasses a couple months back, my optometrist’s office manager asked if I’d heard of a little place that served lechon, a whole-pig preparation method common in the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and other areas once colonized by Spain. Lechon is a rarity in Texas, but there on her phone was the photo evidence of a place called ORC Filipino Asian/American BBQ, a weekend-only spot north of Dallas in Collin County, near the shores of Lake Lavon. There were images of whole pigs on bamboo spits rotating over a fire. The joint was taking a hiatus the upcoming weekend, but the following Saturday, I knew what I was having for lunch. Or at least I thought I knew.
The lechon is usually ready at 11:30 a.m. I arrived ninety minutes later to find two bronze pig heads resting on a metal grate above the cool ashes in the firepit. The rest of their bodies had all been served. The exhausted proprietor, Allen Cook, who seemed stunned by how quickly he’d just gone through two whole pigs, offered to serve me the cheek meat. His wife Josephine, who goes by Jho, took a break from grilling skewers to ring me up. I took a seat at one of the picnic tables and sampled the meager serving. It was promising, and I planned a return.
Back home, I did some research, and found that the reason for my poor timing had a lot to do with a video from YouTuber Mikey Chen. He’s a food and lifestyle vlogger with over one million subscribers, and he posted a video from ORC (which now has over half a million views) days before my visit. A visit from the local ABC affiliate and an article in the Dallas Morning News followed. The word was out on ORC. The Cooks were inundated for weeks. I waited for some of the excitement to die down to try again, and placed a preorder (accepted on Thursday for Saturday’s lechon, or on Friday for Sunday’s) for the two-pound maximum. My son and I left the house on a bright Saturday morning in plenty of time for the hour’s journey to ORC. Then I got a flat on the highway that took a couple hours to fix. It seemed destiny was keeping us from lechon, but we persevered.
Two hours late to ORC, I approached the chopping block for the lechon. A pad of paper with the names of everyone who had placed a preorder sat on a side table, and I spotted my name, which hadn’t been crossed out. The pork was plentiful that day. Allen said he had increased the size of the pigs he was cooking from around thirty pounds to sixty, and he cooked three in anticipation of a busy Saturday. I watched as Allen chopped various pieces of meat and pigskin, and placed them in a Styrofoam container. Lechon finally in hand, I stood in a short but very slow line.
There are three food stations at ORC. The first is for lechon, and the last is the charcoal grill on which Jho prepares skewers of pork, chicken, squid, bananas, and whole mackerel. The center section is where nearly a dozen large bowls of Filipino dishes are displayed for purchase. Every dish is cooked in a large pot over a wood fire. (The Cooks don’t use gas burners for anything.) Customers for all three sections wait in a single line to get their food and pay, which took me around thirty minutes. Cash is preferred, but you can use a credit card as long as the iPhone where it’s swiped is getting a good signal. I handed over two twenties for the two pounds of pit-cooked pig. In hindsight, I should have waited in line to pay before taking possession of the lechon, so it would still be plenty hot when I sat down to eat.
All was forgiven when my son and I dug into the meat cut. A thin dipping sauce, which Jho describes as a vinaigrette with herbs, garlic, onion, and peppers, comes alongside the bite-size chunks of lechon. (There’s also a gravy available by request, but I didn’t get a chance to try it.) The vinaigrette heightens the flavor of the pork and provides some moisture for the leaner portions. My favorite bites were from the rib section. That meat sits directly against the many herbs and seasonings stuffed into the pig, and those flavors really seep in. Some portions of the skin required vigorous chewing, while the belly portion was well browned and crisp. It was fun to experience the different favors and textures from one bite to the next.
For Allen, cooking lechon is a skill that’s relatively new. He grew up in Washington state outside of Olympia and is of Japanese ancestry. After joining the Marines, he was stationed in San Diego. That’s where he met Jho, who hails from the town of Abuyog in the Leyte province of the Philippines. They married, and moved to Dallas thirteen years ago for Allen’s career in aviation, the field he still works in during the week. I asked him where he learned to cook lechon. “I learned it from my wife,” he said. “I taught him also the proper way of seasoning, and how to turn the pig with the proper motion,” Jho adds. The proper motion is a combination of swinging the pig back and forth and rotating it completely.
There are many styles of lechon, Allen explained, and they differ in the seasonings used. All of those styles, though, consist of a whole, skin-on pig stuffed with seasonings and cooked on a spit directly over wood coals. The style produced at ORC is from Jho’s hometown. Her father took Allen to the market there so he could taste all of the herbs, spices, and the lechon, and better replicate it in Texas. It took Allen about a year to get the hang of cooking lechon, and the couple opened ORC at the Old Rooster Creek flea market in 2017. The lechon was a once-a-month special at first, but customers kept asking for more. The Cooks now make it every Saturday and Sunday.
The preparation for Saturday’s service begins on Friday evening. The Cooks’ seven-year-old daughter helps chop herbs and vegetables, all of which are grown by Jho in a garden directly behind their food stall. At midnight, Allen begins stuffing the pigs, and attaching them onto long sections of bamboo. The bamboo provides some flavor to the pig, and it doesn’t transfer the heat of the fire, so he can turn the bamboo rod with his bare hands. From the time the pig is placed over the fire, it takes about six hours to cook, so that’s lot of hand-turning.
The laborious process is worth it to the Cooks. It’s the only place in Texas I’ve seen wood-cooked lechon served in a restaurant setting, and the Cooks also don’t know of another one. “We just wanted to bring a little bit of the Philippines and introduce it to people here in Texas,” Jho said. I feel fortunate that I could get a proper introduction to lechon less than an hour from home thanks to the Cooks.
10424 County Road 1099, Princeton
Hours: Friday 10:30–3, Saturday and Sunday 10:30–7
Pitmasters: Allen and Josephine Cook
Method: Wood fire
Year opened: 2017