The entire city of Manila was in the midst of a tropical storm the day of our visit to Rados Lechonan sa Simon, a small, but busy tumbongan stowed in one of the alleyways of barangay Tondo. This eatery, we were told, is one of Manila Mayor Isko Moreno’s favorite hangouts.
As we wandered around looking for this hole in the wall, soliciting information from every Manileño in sight—from tricycle drivers to a woman clipping her freshly washed clothes on a clothesline; from a blonde bystander to a sari-sari store vendor; from a kid playing in the rain to an old man sitting peacefully outside his home—we were not only educated on the makings of a tumbong(or what it actually is) but also it felt like we got to know the new Manila Mayor even more.
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Somewhere in Tondo
Recto, the last station of the Manila Light Rail Transit, Line 2 (LRT-2), is one of the easiest jump off points to get to the destination. On regular days, the massive intersection is bustling with cars, jeepneys, motorcycles, tricycles of all sorts yelling out their special services (like a solo trip to Baclaran Church), people selling all kinds of fruits, traffic enforcers calling out errant vehicles. On rainy days such as this, the streets contain all that plus ankle-deep flood.
We take a jeep with a signboard that says Tayuman. Once in Tayuman, we were told it’s best to take another jeep that will take us to Pritil, a barangay whose biggest landmark, according to people on the street, is a branch of the grocery chain Pure Gold. From Pure Gold, an assertive barker would approach anyone who looks like they’re looking for any sort of transportation.
The barker tells us the only way to get to Pritil is through a tricycle. There’s a line of tricycles, he says, waiting in the middle of what looks like a mini-highway. When we get there, we take the first tricycle in the queue. A few minutes into the ride, we find out that Manong Lito, the driver, a white-haired, 55-year-old man, has been living in Tondo since he was in grade three.
We tell Manong Lito we are doing a story on the Mayor’s favorite tumbongan, and asked if he had ever encountered the politician. “Ay, oo! Paborito niya ang tumbong,” he says. What is a tumbong, anyway? we ask. He is uncertain, but he thinks it’s part of a pig’s buttocks.
It’s now around three in the afternoon, and the rain weakens into a drizzle. The trike makes a few more turns into a few more streets, most of which are only wide enough for one tricycle to pass through.
Manong Lito asks around for directions to make sure we are on the right track. In this area, when someone stops to ask questions, everyone around listens. It’s like hearing a chorus of excitement every time Manong Lito mentions the mayor and his favorite tumbongan. “A, doon ’yon!” —plus a few other information they give on impulse: “Lagi siya doon,” or “Di ba, pumunta siya ata no’ng kailan ba ’yon?” or “Naglalakad ’yan dito.”All of them speak as if he’s a longtime next-door neighbor.
We ride for a few more minutes, until we’re near a gathering of people buying or selling merienda from a small cart with a rainbow-colored umbrella for a roof. “Mabait ’yon si Mayor, binoto ko ’yon,” Manong Lito says, before launching into a battery of praises amidst the sound of his roaring engine. He tells us of a time when Mayor Isko was still a councilor—the man’s first political position—and he would make time to talk with the tricycle drivers just to ask them how they’re doing. Then there was this other time when Mayor Isko would treat them to mid-day snacks of softdrinks and bread. “Pag tumakbong presidente ’yon, iboboto ko.”
Finally, we get to our destination. Manong Lito pointed to a direction of a passageway, where at the entrance, a shirtless man is sleeping on a long table. We ask Manong Lito to wait for us, he gladly obliged.
What’s in a bowl?
The tapered alley, along Ugbo Street, welcomes us with cement and other materials for an ongoing building construction. A worker holding a shovel asks us where we’re going. We tell him we are looking for Mayor Isko’s favorite tumbongan. He points to the direction of a small eatery just beside the renovation work.
It’s actually a house made of concrete, with long tables that can sit around 16 to 18 people and Monobloc chairs almost blocking its front door. On the façade, a menu with less than ten items, hangs. A step across it, one finds another long table which can sit five.
Moments later, a gregarious, medium-built man with a cigarette between his fingers, exits the house. “Ano ’yon, ate?” he asks with a curbing inflection. We tell him our purpose. He says we’re in the right place.
His name is JR Cabral, a Tondo-born, 34-year-old guy. He says his uncle made this place into the“sikat na sikat” tumbongan that it is now. His mother, who lives with him and his other sibling in the house behind the eatery, put up this place sometime in the 80s but gave it to her brother, Conrado Bautista, now around 63 years old, when she could not longer handle it. At the time, it was the only tumbongan in the area, he says. Now, the streets adjacent already has a long line of tumbongan, each keeping a special, secret recipe.
Rados, from Conrado, began managing the place in 1994, and it has since grown into a favorite stop for people who want to go on a food trip, people who are looking for recovery food, or people who simply crave tumbong.
What is tumbong? The dish is made out of pigs’ intestines—call it pork isaw with a twist. Rados has a secret way of cleaning and marinating the intestines that gives the delicacy its flavor. They boil the intestines for around two hours, or until they’re clean. After this, they are boiled again in a broth—the recipe of which will never be revealed, says JR. To this, onion leeks are added, along with fried garlic, and salt. It’s best paired with fried rice, says JR. Mayor Isko, he says, frequently eats his tumbong with two cups of rice.
JR’s earliest memory of the mayor visiting their place is in the 1990s. Mayor Isko invited actress and former senatorial candidate Alma Moreno to visit the place with him. He was last seen here a few weeks before the May elections.
“Tahimik lang siya pag kumakain,” JR describes his mayor, whom he voted for in the May elections. Mayor Isko has bodyguards with him most of the time, and they eat with him at that table by the wall. “Sumasabay siya sa mga tao. Pumipila nga ’yan dito talaga,” JR shares. Rados is quiet now as they have yet to set up the tables and chairs, but it's usually packed at night. The store opens at 5:30 in the afternoon and sometimes, by 10 p.m., they’ve run out of tumbongs. Rados is open every day. Isko, often in white polo shirt and jeans, would come at around eight or nine in the evening, chat for a while with his longtime acquaintances, and often picks up the tab for the meals of his fellow customers.
Parking within the vicinity is impossible, says JR, so the Tondo-born politician has to park on a nearby street, along Velasquez, and walk toward the tumbongan. “Sanay naman kasi talaga siya dito, siyempre,” he explains. Often, someone would stop him on his tracks for a photo, which Isko never says no to. “Before siya umuwi, binibilhan niya pamilya niya ng pagkain,” JR says.
Like many Tondo locals, JR is frustrated by his town’s negative reputation which is far from how he knows it. “Tondo ang tunay na masaya. Punta kayo dito sa gabi. Madami lang tao, bata, nagtatakbuhan, mga grupo-grupo naghahanap ng makakainan, pero masaya. Hindi lahat sa Tondo magulo.”
Like JR, his mayor seems to want nothing more than to change people’s views of Tondo, and Manila at large, as a dirty and dangerous place. He has spearheaded an aggressive cleanup drive all over the city, clearing roads of illegally parked vehicles and vendors, most notably in the districts of Quiapo and Ermita, and the commercial center Divisoria. He announced his team’s plans to create what they call a “tourism circuit,” which links all the culture and heritage sites within Manila. Last July 17, the mayor had a meeting with British Ambassador to the Philippines Daniel Pruce to talk about a possible partnership for an urban planning project.
Of the mayor’s efforts, JR says, “Ang laki talaga nang ginhawa, lalo doon sa Divisoria.” But, unlike our tricycle driver Manong Lito, who seems ready to cast his ballot in the next Presidential Elections, JR would rather let the mayor’s promises unfold first. “Hindi ko pa alam diyan sa president-president,” he says about the clamor on social media. “Tingnan muna natin, ilang linggo pa lang, e.”
Their family is lucky, JR says, that the tumbongan is doing splendidly. So splendidly that it supports JR and his family; and Mang Rado’s three kids and three grandchildren. The construction beside them is actually for the eatery’s expansion, because they can no longer accommodate their customers, many of whom are not from Tondo but from faraway areas such as Bulacan and even Pangasinan.
But JR knows his neighbors are still waiting for fate to turn in their favor. His wish for the rest of the people of Tondois to have a chance at a better life, just like he had. “Sana mabigyan din ng work ang iba,” he says. “Para hindi na rin mapunta sa ilegal at hindi na rin gumawa ng masama. Pag gano’n, totoong lilinis talaga ang Tondo.”
We leave before sunset. JR says that since construction started this month, they had to open late, at around 7 p.m. But he has to get the broth and the lechon ready as early as now.
We take the ride back with Manong Lito to the line of tricycles along the highway. Although he and JR don’t share the same enthusiasm for the mayor, they do share the same vision of having a better Tondo than the one they grew up with.
Manong Lito has children, and he wishes for them to go to good schools. For him, the mayor, former garbage collector, is hope incarnate. “Ano lang ba ang Tondo, ’tapos naging mayor siya. Malay mo,” he tells us.
But he has another immediate concern: his livelihood. “Illegal kaming mga drivers doon.” Their current tricycle terminal in the middle of the highway is an obstruction to traffic and pedestrians. With the mayor’s cleanup activities, they might be dispersed anytime soon. But Mang Lito isn’t really worried; the mayor promised he would would come up with a legal agreement for him and his peers. “Sana matupad niya mga pangako niya,” Manong Lito says, as he gets in line at the terminal. Mayor Isko is one of them, they keep repeating, and he wouldn’t leave them behind.