The city’s Filipino food scene is flourishing – and restaurateur Lester Sabilano has had a front seat
When Lester Sabilano opened Lamesa in 2012, he could not believe that no one else did it first.
“At the time, there were no full-service Filipino restaurants in downtown Toronto,” he recalls. “I could not understand why with a population of 250,000 plus Filipinos in the GTA there was not at least one place to represent the kitchen.
“Now I look around and there are some wonderful ones. ”
It’s not like Filipino food did not exist in Toronto until then, he says, but it was not celebrated as “restaurant food.” There were and are plenty of places aimed at immigrants from the Philippines to grab well-known standards such as kare-kare, caldereta, pan de sal, longanisa, lumpia and lechon, often for large family gatherings. Many do catering and party dishes.
There is a large and growing Filipino community around Bathurst and Wilson, but only recently is it being talked about as a culinary destination — with an annual Taste of Manila festival drawing thousands to streets with a barbecue scent.
Sabilano at the time worked for Oliver & Bonacini at restaurants like Canoe and Jump and wondered why the food he grew up with never got the same level of service and atmosphere.
So he created it and took Filipino flavors – a palette of sweet, sour, vinegar and salty flavors influenced by Spanish, Chinese, American and native foods – and gave them a modern, contemporary spin.
“I wanted it to be a place Filipinos could come and enjoy, but also take their non-Filipino friends to introduce them to the kitchen and show them something else,” he says.
Over the past decade, a number of talented Filipino-Canadian chefs have come through the kitchen and put their own spin on the food, and now many of them are starting their own places.
Former GM Justin Bella owned the Philippine breakfast place BB’s Diner (it closed during the pandemic, but its Instagram suggests an upcoming rotisserie location) and now runs SariNOTSari, the new identity for the Store under the former Parts & Labor. Julian Ochangco is the chef at the popular fried chicken and burger spot Pepper’s. Mineral chef Dan Cancino came through Lamesa, as did former Gladstone chef Rudy Boquila and comedian Big Norm Alconcel.
In addition to excellent independent restaurants such as Islas and Kanto, there are also a thriving array of pop-up places that picked up during the pandemic. Pizza place Saints Island Pies started as a pop-up on Wallflower before taking over completely. Kusinera has grown, and morphing from Sara twice a month. Well-liked places like Bawang have come and gone.
It all connects to a Filipino-Canadian art scene in Toronto full of dancers, comedians, artists, directors and musicians. Sabilano is himself a visual artist, and his basketball mashup artwork adorns Lamesa’s walls, while his old clothing line The One (once modeled by a then new Drake at the instigation of his friend OVO Niko) is for sale.
He believes Filipino food and culture are still underrepresented but growing.
“Contrary to the fact that it’s a trend, I really feel like it’s popping up,” he says. “I am the first generation – my parents immigrated here. So I think what’s happening now is that the kitchen is taking over and the next generation is deciding how they want to present the food from their own perspective. ”
Amid rising rents by Queen West, Lamesa closed its original location in 2018 and moved full-time to St. Louis. Clair West in a restaurant room formerly run by Sabilano’s parents. During the pandemic, he spent more time in the kitchen with his father, Cirilino, and now he’s coming full circle back to the food he grew up with.
The current menu is closer to homestyle Filipino food, presented accessible with “rice bowl”, takes on caldereta and kare kare, silage plates filled with garlic rice, pickled papaya (atchara) and lumpia. There is also fried chicken. But the mood has not changed — it’s still a fun, lively and modern place that blows hip-hop with friends catching up and couples on date nights.
As more Filipino and non-Filipino Torontoians become familiar with the food, it leaps in all sorts of directions. And Sabilano predicts that it will eventually become a recognized staple like pizza or sushi.
“It’s only a matter of time before the kitchen gets into everyday conversations when people decide what they want for dinner,” Sabilano says. “That’s the next step.”
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