Rick McGinnis/Metro Toronto
Lilan Velasco, of Casa Manila
Address 879 York Mills Road
Hours Mon. to Sun., 11:30 a.m. - 8 p.m.
Capacity More than 100
Dinner for 2 w/tax & tip $25
*** 1/2 (out of five)
The first great hurdle Lilian Velasco Co and her husband Raymond found blocking their way when they were trying to open Casa Manila was getting their chef from the Philippines through the bureaucratic tangle of Canadian immigration. On a trip back home almost five years ago, Lilian was taken to a Manila restaurant by one of her in-laws, and realized how much she missed eating really superb restaurant food in Toronto.
“We wanted a restaurant that served real, authentic Filipino food,” she recalled. “Not just something by anyone who could cook.”
“Not the home-cooking type,” adds Raymond. “We wanted professional chefs.
She loves Filipino food ...”
“And the quality is not there,” Lilian insists.
“It’s just people running a business,” Raymond says.
Lilian talked to the chef at the Manila eatery about coming to Toronto to work for them. He agreed, but then they discovered that his English wasn’t good enough to pass the test. A loophole for restaurants was found, but by this time the couple were also trying to get another chef into the country, when they were told they needed a business permit — which they didn’t have, as they couldn’t open a restaurant without a chef.
“You look at it, it’s like the chicken and the egg,” Raymond says. “How can you have a restaurant without a chef? How can you have a chef without a restaurant?”
After four years, they finally opened Casa Manila, with both of their chefs in the kitchen, and found that they were going to have to educate the non-Filipino clientele from the offices and suburbs around their restaurant in the basics of this very multifaceted cuisine.
“Nobody knows what Filipino food is,” Lilian says. “That’s why we have to have the dish tags. We came up with an English translation but that’s not enough — people don’t know what it tastes like. We have to explain it to them — Filipino food is multicultural: There’s the Spanish influence, Chinese and then the curry from Malaysia. But one thing we discovered is that we don’t have anything really spicy — Filipinos don’t like really spicy food. So we had to put out the chili sauce over there on the table.”
For non-Filipinos, it’s probably best to start with something like the kalderata — a Spanish-influenced beef stew — or the lumpia, spring rolls of meat, chicken and vegetables cooked in peanuts — an influence from Malaysia and Thailand to the west — and the combinations of glass noodles and thicker, Chinese style noodles. And then, of course, there’s the pork — skewered and deep-fried, the skin turned to crispy cracklings, or roasted whole. The mix of sweet and sour is familiar from most any other Asian cuisine, but there’s a delicacy to the spicing, and the bracing kick of vinegar in dishes like the adobo chicken.
And then there’s halo-halo, the most popular dessert in the Philippines.
It’s a wild, colourful combination of flavoured gelatins in a variety of textures from silky to chewy, coconut, sweet beans, shaved ice and ice cream. It’s the visual equivalent of a the movie melodramas that are so popular in the Philippines, and only a bit more vividly hued, its near-overkill richness showcased by the Cos’ decision to put all the ingredients on the top, and not buried under the ice.
“My sister back home said, ‘Nowadays, halo-halo is served in a bowl,’” Lilian says. “And when we opened, I figured that we should put it all on top because it’s so colourful. We have to give it some presentation.”