Getting a Local Taste of Filipino History
Of the many cultures and cuisines that have contributed to the rich mix that is today’s southeast Louisiana, one of the least appreciated has to be Filipino. Despite a presence that goes back more than 200 years, the history is often overlooked and the savory foods underrepresented on the local restaurant scene.
A fabulous place to get a taste of Filipino cooking is Cebu Litson, in the heart of Algiers. But before we go there, let’s get a taste of local Filipino history.
The first immigrants from this southeast Asian nation of more than 7500 island arrived on Spanish ships in the late 18th century. Spain had colonized the islands by approximately 1571, and most of the Filipino sailors were indentured. When they saw the coastal bayous of Louisiana, many jumped ship, hid in the bayous, and used their fishing and shrimping skills to survive.
As their numbers grew, the Filipino refugees formed small settlements, building some of the first stilted houses in the state. Towns such as St. Malo and Manila Village exemplified the Filipino presence in the region, and the shrimp and fish they caught were an important component of seafood supply in the burgeoning New Orleans area.
Unfortunately, these coastal villages were extremely vulnerable to hurricanes, and over time, virtually all were abandoned. One remaining town with a substantial number of residents of Filipino descent is Lafitte – and now, its existence too is seriously threatened.
As coastal living became untenable, community members assimilated into the nearby parishes. Today, Louisianans of Filipino descent can be found across the entire southern coastal region, joined not infrequently by more recent immigrants who leave the islands to connect with their American relatives.
Which brings us into the Cebu Litson restaurant, proprietor Loy Madrigal, originally from the Philippine island of Cebu but a U.S. resident for several decades.
Upon first arriving in this country in 1994, Madrigal lived with family in Arkansas, before moving to Houston and then the Northshore area. He worked in fields as diverse as shipbuilding and law enforcement – he has been a Jefferson Parish constable for sixteen years – and actually returned to Cebu at one point, leading security operations for the provincial government.
Throughout it all, his heart was in Filipino food and cooking. Starting at age seven, he had been the designated grocery shopper for his Aunt Lita, who owned a restaurant in Cebu, learning about the ingredients as well as the tricks to finding the best suppliers.
That connection continues to inform Madrigal today: “When I need to know something, I still call Aunt Lita,” he said.
According to Madrigal, Filipino cooking is “inspired by a mix of Spanish and Chinese food. We use a lot of herbs, like lemon grass, green onion, garlic, ginger. Soy sauce is used a lot. And natural sea salt, which gives a different flavor than iodized salt.”
Madrigal imports many of his seasonings from the Philippines. “That helps workers back home,” he pointed out. “When I buy these products, it keeps them working.”
He emphasized that Filipino food is not fancy, but hearty and healthy. “I’m not a chef,” he said with a laugh. “I’m just a cook who likes to eat. When I’m in my kitchen, I’m at peace.”
This philosophy comes to life in Madrigal’s approach to his signature dish, pork litson (pronounced lishon and sometimes spelled lechon). This is whole pig, seasoned inside and out, and slow-cooked to perfection. “If I say it’s going to be ready at 12:00, you better come get it at 12:00, because it tastes best when it’s hot. Actually, it was really ready at 11:00, but I have to have my part first.”
Madrigal confessed that his wife is actually the “Queen of liston”. He does the seasoning, “but once it goes to the grill, it’s all hers. I’ve got the flavor locked, she’s got the cooking locked.”
Following the approach he learned from Aunt Lita, all the pigs are locally sourced and raised naturally. Similarly, he often gets up at 4:00 AM to get his fish directly from the fishermen out in New Orleans East.
Cebu Litson started as a pop-up where Madrigal primarily cooked for friends – and himself. “I missed the food from back home, and the best way to get it was to learn how to cook it,” he recalled. Word got around, and he began getting orders for his food. This led in early 2019 to upgrading to a food truck, with most of the money fronted by friends. However, grilling in a truck in Louisiana summers was too much heat for Madrigal, so he took the next step up to a permanent restaurant.
Today Cebu Litson is a full family affair, with his wife sharing the cooking duties and his mother filling a variety of roles. Customers come from Filipino communities as far away as Biloxi, Baton Rouge and even Pensacola. Locals (of all backgrounds) also delight in the savory, barbecue-reminiscent flavors of this still under-appreciated cuisine.
And Madrigal stays very connected with his Filipino roots, with the cooking and via the local Philippine-Louisiana Historical Society (www.filipinola.com). “We are very proud to be part of the Historical Society, because one of our goals is to share the Filipino history in New Orleans, the first Filipino settlement in the United Sates,” he stated. “It’s important for every Filipino in this country to know how we got here.”
It’s a good history for all Louisianans to know – and it goes very, very well with the aromas and flavors of Filipino food.
Cebu Litson is located at 928 Hendee Street in Algiers. While the restaurant is currently open Wednesday through Sunday, Madrigal recommended calling ahead for hours and to place orders; the number is 985-302-6801. There will be a Filipino Food Festival at the Southern Food & Beverage Museum on Saturday, April 23, from noon – 4 p.m.