95 | The Critic
Filipino cuisine is migrating downtown from suburban strip malls—and adding a few big-city flourishes
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)