95 | The Critic

Filipino cui­sine is mi­grat­ing down­town from sub­ur­ban strip malls—and adding a few big-city flour­ishes

Toronto Life - - Contents - By mark pupo

New wave Filipino at Platito, Dolly’s and Lasa

If you’ve just dropped off the in­laws at Pear­son and need to calm your nerves, here’s some sound ad­vice: head east on Rex­dale Boule­vard and stop at Lola’s Kusina. It’s one of those fam­ily-run strip mall restau­rants that could be mis­taken for a club­house or a day­care if not for the hot-serve counter. Or­der bar­be­cue pork and gar­lic rice, chicken em­panadas in a but­tery crust, crispy slabs of deep-fried pork belly, and the brazo de mercedes— a roll cake filled with cus­tard and wrapped in meringue. It’s the kind of com­fort food that soothes any angst. It’s also the per­fect sum­ma­tion of what’s in­cred­i­ble yet dis­com­bob­u­lat­ing about Filipino cook­ing, which com­bines In­dian-style cur­ries, Chi­nese-style noo­dles and spring rolls, and Span­ish­style sausage, among other in­flu­ences. It’s a his­tory of col­o­niza­tion in a menu.

Toronto’s Filipino com­mu­nity—at an es­ti­mated 200,000-plus, one of the fastest-grow­ing groups in the GTA—is con­cen­trated at Bathurst and Wil­son, where there’s an an­nual Taste of Manila street party. This fall, Seafood City, a U.S.-based Filipino chain, will open a su­per­mar­ket at Mis­sis­sauga’s Heart­land Town Cen­tre, which will stock ev­ery­thing re­quired to make kare-kare stew at home. We’re also get­ting two Jol­libees, a fast-food chain from the Philip­pines, which has a cult fol­low­ing that lines up for the sig­na­ture fried chicken served with spaghetti in a sweet tomato sauce— not as crazy as it sounds. In the past year, Filipino food has emerged from the sub­ur­ban strip malls as sec­ond- and third-gen­er­a­tion Filipino-Cana­di­ans started open­ing down­town restau­rants spe­cial­iz­ing in straight-up home cook­ing. Th­ese places still feel like a dis­cov­ery—how those first new wave ra­men houses felt when they first ap­peared.

On the trendy side of the spec­trum is a tiny spot on the Bald­win Street strip called Platito, which has metal stools

At Platito (top right), chef Karlo Cu­nanan’s gi­nataan hipon (top left) com­bines shell-on shrimp with a creamy co­conut-milk-and-squash purée; the pur­ple waf­fles, served with the fried chicken (cen­tre), are coloured with ube. At Lasa, a lid­ded pot con­ceals the deeply aro­matic punch of the kare-kare stew (bot­tom left); pork skew­ers (bot­tom right) pick up flavour and colour on the grill thanks to a sweet 7Up glaze

around re­claimed wood ta­bles, a pop art mu­ral of a run­away jeep­ney (the Philip­pines’ ver­sion of UberPool), servers in high-waisted acid-washed jeans and avi­a­tors, and a fruity cock­tail list. On my vis­its, the crowd was evenly split be­tween young Filipino fam­i­lies and packs of U of T stu­dents knock­ing back stub­bies of San Miguel. The res­tau­rant is run by Derek Li­nay and Jonathan Mi­ra­sol with chef Karlo Cu­nanan, who last worked at Mo­mo­fuku Noo­dle Bar and trans­lates hearty Filipino stan­dards into small plates. The stand­outs are his gi­nataan hipon, a bowl of deep-fried shell-on shrimp, green beans and but­ter­nut squash in a co­conut-milk-and-squash purée that builds and builds with chili heat; and sous-vide chicken thighs bat­tered and deep fried, and served with waf­fles (bright pur­ple from ube, a Filipino yam) and maple syrup. He makes tra­di­tional pork skew­ers, sweet from a 7Up glaze and charred from the grill; and lumpia Shang­hai, spiced pork-stuffed spring rolls the size of cigars, driz­zled with sweet-and-sour chili sauce.

Dolly’s Mojito Bar and Panci­te­ria also serves a ter­rific ver­sion of lumpia Shang­hai, with ba­nana ketchup. The place is op­er­ated by Dave Sidhu, the im­pre­sario be­hind the hit-and-miss Playa Ca­bana restau­rants. Dolly’s is named af­ter Sidhu’s mom (and wor­thy of her name), and pancit—a Filipino style of egg nod­dle—is the epony­mous dish. As he of­ten does, Sidhu chose a not-ob­vi­ous neigh­bour­hood, a for­lorn stretch of Blo­ordale that’s be­ing ten­ta­tively in­fil­trated by gal­leries and record shops. Bar­tenders hand-crank sugar cane through a mill, the juice used to sweeten co­conut- and cala­mansi-jolted mo­ji­tos. My favourite dish is the pancit gi­nataan, its noo­dles steamed in ba­nana leaf then, at the ta­ble, care­fully low­ered into a hot pot of co­conut broth laced with turmeric and ta­marind—a slightly health­ier ver­sion of the north­ern Thai khao soi. There’s also a very tasty ta­marind-dressed slaw of ube and green pa­paya, as well as a de­li­ciously greasy fried rice with slices of chorizo-like lon­gan­isa. Sidhu kept tweak­ing his recipes over the spring, and the slow-cooked adobo chicken of my first visit, tangy and pep­pery, evolved into a fan­tas­tic plate of adobo-mar­i­nated deep-fried chicken, its salty spici­ness jus­ti­fy­ing another pitcher of mo­ji­tos.

New Filipino spots seem to be open­ing ev­ery week in Toronto right now. At Mar­ket 707, the clus­ter of mod­i­fied cargo con­tain­ers at Dun­das and Bathurst hous­ing street-food ven­dors, my go-to is Kanto by Tita Flips, where the menu ranges from lumpia Shang­hai to ar­roz calda (a Filipino con­gee) and, when the weather co-op­er­ates, ex­cel­lent bar­be­cue. The most hyped re­cent open­ing is Lake Inez, on Ger­rard East, which has as an am­bi­tious chef, Rob­bie Ho­jilla, who pre­vi­ously cooked for Cory Vi­tiello at the Har­bord Room. It has a great beer se­lec­tion but an overly fussy menu of in­con­sis­tently pre­pared shar­ing plates, like an un­der­cooked tagli­atelle in a miso-ta­marind sauce that’s both gritty and gloopy.

Not to be missed, al­beit stranded in mil­que­toast mid­town near St. Clair and Bathurst, is Lasa. Ev­ery­thing on the menu is ex­cel­lent, which shouldn’t come as a sur­prise since it’s run by Daniel Can­cino and Lester Sa­bi­lano, who are also in charge of the Queen West res­tau­rant Lamesa, one of the first in the city to in­tro­duce down­town din­ers to lumpia (up­dated with corned beef and Swiss cheese) and the eye-pop­ping pur­ple of an ube flan. At Lasa, they’re cook­ing more tra­di­tion­ally, build­ing lay­ers of flavour into pork ribs sim­mered in a broth of tomato and ta­marind, and grilled pork skew­ers with a more sub­tle, less sac­cha­rine ren­di­tion of the tra­di­tional 7Up glaze. I of­ten go for a brunch of silog—a plate of choose-your­pro­tein (get the fried milk­fish), gar­licfried rice, gar­den salad and two sun­ny­side-up eggs. And even at brunch, I’ll end with a bowl of halo-halo, one of the great­est-ever Filipino in­ven­tions, a wildly colour­ful dessert com­bin­ing ube ice cream, chunks of sweet leche flan, shaved ice and cubes of co­conut jel­lies, with evap­o­rated milk driz­zled over­top.

What brings me back to Lasa, more of­ten than not, is their ver­sion of kare-kare, a hy­brid of curry and sa­tay, usu­ally made with ox­tail, daikon, long beans, shrimp paste and peanuts. It comes served in a lit­tle pot with a lid, which re­leases a punch of gar­lic and peanut sauce when opened. Add some fer­mented shrimp paste and a squirt of cala­mansi. I al­ways ask for ex­tra rice to sop up ev­ery last drop.

Dolly’s Mojito Bar and Panci­te­ria (top) serves lumpia with ba­nana ketchup (cen­tre left), and pancit pusit with squid ink noo­dles, baby oc­to­pus and lon­gan­isa sausage (bot­tom); mo­ji­tos are sweet­ened with sugar cane hand­cranked through a mill (cen­tre right)

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