Within the wide world of distinctly Filipino condiments is lechon sarsa: a sauce, often made with pork or chicken liver, vinegar, sugar, and other seasonings thickened, with breadcrumbs or other kinds of starch.
The most popular brand and a national icon, Mang Tomas’ darker brown, glossy appearance gets our mouths watering from the onset. Labelled as an “all-around sarsa”, it also delivers an all-around balanced flavor: sweet but with a hint of vinegary pungency and tang and a touch of black pepper, with the depth of liver (theirs uses pork liver) to round out the flavors. And with a relatively liquid, easy-to-pour consistency, it doesn’t take much effort to pry out of the bottle. This sauce is versatile enough that it breathes life to even the blandest of lechon, but also complements the tastes of stronger-flavored versions. Heck, try it plain—a member of our team admits to having a penchant for plain Mang Tomas with hot, fluffy rice.
Mama Sita’s version takes on a grayer hue and gives of a more robust, savory aroma. Thicker than Mang Tomas’, it gives a goopy appearance and a dollop holds its shape on the spoon. You get a much sweeter-tasting sauce with little tang or pungency for balance that it can feel cloying to consume solo, but it does the job when paired with salty grilled meat (as it’s meant to be consumed anyway). This brand’s strength lies in the distinct chicken liver aftertaste that’s deep and fatty-tasting, adding a silent but resounding richness to whatever you dip into it.
Known for their roast chicken and liempo, Andok’s also offers a bottled version of lechon sauce for retail. Theirs is thinner in consistency, even more so than Mang Tomas’, and carries a much zingier, vinegar-y aroma that makes us expect it to taste sour. But it turns out to be more heavily sweet, similar to Mama Sita’s, with a hint of vinegar’s pungency sans its acidic punch. It lacks any actual liver (rather, you find “hydrolized vegetable protein”—an ingredient said to be used to “enhance flavor”) which means there is no rich depth to capture the sweetness; in its place is a peculiar flavor which is mild and non-intrusive, but nevertheless odd. Combined with lack of much pepperiness, Andok’s overall strikes us as being one-note and sugary.
Mother’s Best’s version is comes in a midtone brown hue, similar to Andok’s, though a touch thicker, more visible flecks of pepper and a more unevenly-emulsified texture. The ingredient list reads almost exactly like Andok’s, too (with no liver and , save for the lack of “xanthan gum” that you find on the list of the latter. Though sweetness is still the flavor profile that predominates, along with a mild tang toward the end and the occasional bite of pepper that gives a good heat, its overall intensity is lower than in the other brands, making this a good sauce for less-salty meat.
Lasap’s version stands out not only with its vintage-looking packaging, but also with its much more savory aroma than the other brands. It’s the goopiest of all brands with an even more uneven texture and carries a grayish hue we’ll admit turns us off, but it also looks the most homemade to us—you can actually feel the finely-blitzed bits of liver every so often in the mix. The taste follows from the aroma, resembling a sweeter, slightly vinegar-y version of KFC’s gravy. It’s still sweet as you’d expect from lechon sarsa, but with a more salt-forward, meaty profile and tons of pepper—plus the depth of liver (the source animal is not specified in the ingredients) to support all other flavors—you get an overall well-balanced sauce would complement even fried chicken, and that doesn’t feel weird to eat by itself.
Though Mang Tomas has set the standard in providing the distinctive lechon sarsa taste and balance of flavors taste Filipinos have come to love, it’s also worth exploring the other brands for the unique characteristics they offer. For a sweeter, fattier sauce to pair with marinade-heavy liempo, try Mama Sita. Looking for something lighter? Grab a bottle of Andok’s or Mother’s Best. Not a fan of overly-sweet sarsa? Give Lasap’s version a chance. Rivalry aside, with the wide range of options today, we’re sure Mang Tomas himself would be proud.