The Jeepney Guy: Lechon and the Search for Crispy Skin

“Lechon is what we eat when we want to celebrate something. Weddings, birthdays, baptisms — it’s the official dish for Christmas in the Philippines. It’s a party on a plate!”

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Dennis Villafranca’s six years as The Jeepney Guy — serving a straight-up menu of self-professed atypical Filipino cuisine, including his famous boneless lechon — have been dedicated to sharing an energy that harkens to traditional fiestas by presenting a casual, approachable vibe. It’s a family and community-oriented experience that, for Dennis, is critical to the identity of his project because of how The Jeepney Guy got its start.

“In a previous life, I used to work in construction and furniture design. My last job was managing the store planning and design department of a major US retailer. I did that for ten years — until they sucked the life out of me. I just missed too many things with my kids and family. I was always at work. So I walked away from that. Now I cook [lechon] for a living, and my family can't get away from me.”

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Lechon is a unique, centuries-old eating experience that’s dear to Filipino-Americans, evoking memories of milestones and holidays filled with a warm sense of togetherness. For Dennis and his team, joining the rich tradition of roasting lechon meant paying respect to traditional methods and techniques — and tons of hard work to perfect what most consider to be the most essential and defining aspect of a plate of lechon.

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“That crispy skin kept getting away from me. It literally took me years to figure it out, and when I hit that “EUREKA!” moment, I knew I had something special. But the funny thing is, lechon wasn't even part of the plan when I decided to get into this business. I just knew I wanted to cook a lot of meat.”

He’s certainly doing just that, drawing crowds of diners who gawk at The Jeepney Guy’s massive rotisseries packed with rotating spits of pork, anxiously awaiting a plate of Dennis’ famous boneless lechon — roasted for hours and served up traditional with garlic rice and atchara (pickled papaya), or on a fresh roll with adobo au jus. And with Filipino food continuing to capture the culinary zeitgeist — especially on the West Coast — Dennis and his team take pride in their job as stewards of the national dish of the Philippines, even if their methods, techniques, and flavors differ from traditional preparations.

“Lechon is what we eat when we want to celebrate something. Weddings, birthdays, baptisms — it’s the official dish for Christmas in the Philippines. It’s a party on a plate!”

“I put love in every lechon. I still prep each and every boneless lechon that we sell, and we cook thousands of them every year. I’m not ready to hand that responsibility over yet. And my method is far from traditional. This is how I want the pork to taste, and we keep the recipe very simple. People ask me if it’s Cebu style, or they tell me to stick lemon grass or herbs inside the pig. But I just tell them that I want it to taste like pork. I like to think of it as ‘California style!’”

In this way, the scope of The Jeepney Guy represents an approach that mirrors the rising momentum surrounding the Filipino-American community. By applying ideas and principles built on personal experience as well as Filipino tradition, Dennis has created a dining destination that’s fun and easy to enjoy while also representing something much more weighty — the identity of a people, and their collective memories of growing up Filipino in America.

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“I’ve catered more Filipino First birthday parties than I can count. We like to change up traditional Filipino dishes a little bit, and Filipinos get a kick out of it. Lechon is that special dish that you only eat during special occasions. So when you come to us, it feels like an indulgence — like it’s a special meal that you shouldn’t be eating in a more casual setting. And for Filipino-Americans, it’s like you’re reconnecting with those memories of Filipino parties, or maybe even being in the Philippines.”