What is the best thing I ever ate?

pochero-Marjos-Cebu

I am watching one cooking show after another on the Food Network and in between, this short feature of people simply describing the best thing they ever ate pops up. I love listening to what they say, each one waxing poetic about something different, all of them the same in that they describe the dish with a love and passion that is almost palpable. The camera makes love to the food, the audience (in this case, me, sitting on the sofa in our living room) is mesmerized, and gets pulled right into the romance. I so love looking at the way their favored dish is being prepared, but second only to how hungry I get listening to them describe it.

I ask myself the same question: what is the best thing I ever ate? It seemed easy enough, until I realize that I have no ready answer. I close my eyes and reach far back into my memories, willing something — anything — to rise to the surface. I make a deal with myself, to the effect that the first one I remember most probably was/is the best, or at the very least, one of the best.

All of a sudden, I am a college student again. Daddy has arrived from Ormoc to visit us in Cebu where my sister Caren and I are studying (Mommy always stayed behind to be with the boys, our two younger brothers Matt and Jules). We so looked forward to those almost-monthly visits — routinely we would do the grocery, filling our carts with toiletries and chips and milk and juice, chocolates, biscuits, hotdog and Spam.

Then we would go to White Gold or Gaisano downtown to choose fabric, which we would have made by the seamstress Manang Talina, who lived down the bend right outside the compound. And then there were the meals. I think the pleasure I get from eating out was nurtured by Daddy. As much as we appreciated having Manang Kessin and Yaya Hilda and Yaya Juling around to cook such delicious homemade meals for the family through the years, we always ate out during the weekend. And when Daddy visited us in Cebu, every day of his visit was a weekend.

One of the stops would always be Marjo’s near the Capitol. Oh, Marjo’s. It was as hole-in-the-wall as hole-in-the-wall gets. I knew they served other dishes that were also good, but I do not particularly remember any of them. The star of Marjo’s was their pochero.

Oh. Sweet. Heaven. It was always perfect. It was this big chunk of beef shank — bone with marrow, fat, meat, litid (tendon) gently boiled for hours until the meat is so tender it just falls off the bone if you so much as nudge it with your spoon or fork. In a bowl that is way too big to be considered just a single serving and a tad too little to be enough for three or four, it sits serenely, like a king, in clear broth so tasty (and somewhat greasy) you need little else than plain white rice — admittedly and decadently, heaps of it.

In most other restaurants, ordering appetizers is always a welcome option but in this place, you would want to save every bit of your appetite to savor every bit that you can of the star of them all. It is sublime and simple, the way this dish has been made. There is no great manner upon which it must be enjoyed to the hilt either; in fact, it seems all so natural and ordinary. The basic rules of enjoying good soup apply — you sip the broth steaming hot just right after the waiter puts it down on the table, which is just several steps away from the kitchen. You “ooh” and “aah” and smile at the sheer pleasure that is a good meal, in your heart blessing the cook and whoever came up with such perfection.

Then you reach that point when you know you must already start enjoying it with and on rice, so you spoon some more of the broth over the grains, take some meat (that has been quickly dipped in the happy mix that is simply patis and calamansi), after which you push that beautiful, perfect spoonful past your lips and into your mouth. Simply put, the pochero at Marjo’s was like this bad boy every young girl is told to stay away from but can’t.

It was the best thing I ever ate. And it had to be at that time of my life — when I was in my teens and fat and calories were nothing more than just words.

It had to be enjoyed at that place, that felt almost secret except that it was far from that because most everybody knew about it — small, equipped with just the basics, wooden tables covered in oilcloth that perpetually had a thin film of grease on it, ordinary chairs, printed curtains.

It always felt like stepping into the kitchen of some simple home, being nourished with a meal cooked with lots of love, and then stepping away from that space already counting the days till you can come back.

To this day, I have yet to come across pochero that good. I think about Marjo’s wistfully now, this very moment, knowing that when I come face to face with it again I will enjoy it still but in a way less wanton than I used to. See, the reality is that I should not be mindlessly eating copious amounts of bone marrow and fat as often as I want to. These are special treats, to be had only once in a while. Only teenagers can afford to do that.

I am thankful to have met Marjo’s pochero when I did. I hear the place has been sold already, and that thankfully the new owners were able to maintain the original recipe still. If so, I am glad they were able to do that. Some things change, but really, some things are so good they just have to stay the same.

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