Toronto·SURESH DOSS

This Filipino restaurant celebrates delicious regional flavours with vegan options

Casa Manila is at 879 York Mills Road in North York.

Casa Manila is at 879 York Mills Road in North York

Beef Kare Kare at Casa Manila. (Suresh Doss/CBC)

Ismaila: There are many great Filipino restaurants in Toronto. How is Casa Manila different from other places you've tried over the years? 

Suresh: The GTA has one of the largest Filipino populations in Canada, with waves of immigration that go back more than 40 years. 

During my high school days in Scarborough, I was introduced to a range of Filipino food. But back then, those places would fall under this category of  "Turo Turo" in Filipino food culture. The Carindaria, or also known as Sari Sari —  convenience stores or grocery stores with a hot counter in the back.

You can walk in and buy cans of evaporated milk and dried noodles, and at the back there would be a selection of daily specials. But these were all fast grab-and-go places. I didn't sit down for a Filipino meal until much later.

This brings us to Casa Manila, which in my opinion, is one of the most strikingly-designed restaurant spaces in North York. 

Prawns in 7Up and spice at Casa Manila. (Suresh Doss/CBC)

This restaurant started as a Turo Turo as well, until the current owner, Mila Nabor-Quachon, came across the space 10 years ago. 

Ismaila: So how did Mila get into Filipino cooking? 

Suresh: Mila came to Canada as a 13-year-old from the Philippines. Her family settled in St. Thomas, Ontario. When she was 19, she entered a local beauty pageant because she says the prize was a trip back to the Philippines.  And she won!

 "This was the beginning of my discovery of Filipino, which in essence, discovery of self," said Mila. "I decided I'm going to stay and I'm going to, basically, discover my roots."

Mila Nabor-Quachon, the owner of Casa Manila. (Suresh Doss/CBC)

Ismaila: That's sounds amazing. So I'm guessing that experience leads her to open a restaurant?

Suresh: Yes. Mila spent a few years in the Philippines, then comes back and she actually ends up opening furniture stores that she ran for years.

When her husband passed away, she left the furniture industry altogether and took some time off. Years later, by chance, she came across Casa Manila as she was passing through North York and she noticed that it was up for sale. Mila had said she had this vision of opening a dine-in restaurant, kind of like the ones that she would frequent back home on her trips.

She wanted to showcase more regional cooking, and she wanted to do more vegetarian and vegan cooking. But she wanted everything to be cooked to order — that was very important for her.  

Vegan coconut ginger butternut squash, long beans and bell pepper at Casa Manila. (Suresh Doss/CBC)

"Filipino food is great," Mila said. "We're over seven thousand, one hundred islands. So, not only do we have the regional cooking, but we also have the cultural influences ... Spanish, American. Plus. Filipinos are very creative, and we like to put our own spin on the way we dance, the way of our music, and especially our food."

Ismaila: How would you describe the cooking at Casa Manila? 

Suresh: Vibrant. I know that sounds like a catch-all term, but even if you look at the plates at Casa Manila, there's a lot of colour and brightness to dishes here. They really stand out. Mila mentioned several times that she wanted her plates to look beautiful. But behind that colour you find a lot of à la minute cooking. The sauces, the protein and the vegetables are really cooked with care. 

Lechon Kawali - Crisp pork belly - at Casa Manila. (Suresh Doss/CBC)

I would suggest you try the beef Kare Kare, which is beef cooked in a peanut sauce and it's served with this beautifully braised eggplant and long beans and bok choy. The eggplant and the beef nicely soak up that nutty sauce and you have a wonderful crunch on the plate.

There's an adobo dish, which is classically with chicken, but here they substitute tofu and it's presented with beans and eggplant. There's also a really creamy coconut sauce to scoop that over rice. It's got all the luxurious elements that coconut brings, along with the aromatics that you get through every bite.

There is another dish, where prawns are cooked in a savoury house seasoning and 7Up. 

Vegan Kare Kare Tofu with eggplant and beans at Casa Manila. (Suresh Doss/CBC)

Ismaila: I've heard of a barbecue sauce that that includes root beer before, but prawns in 7Up?

Suresh: Yeah, I've seen this a few times in Manila. It's a common way of cooking shellfish — with some sort of sweet carbonated drink. It's usually complemented by the savoury, slightly spicy sauce. You get this dance of the savoury and the sweetness, which goes wonderfully well with shellfish when you have the the heads on.

Mila and her team are really trying to highlight regional classics, but there's a pretty expansive menu and there are plenty of vegetarian and vegan options. And of course, a dessert menu.

Ismaila: So what is for dessert? 

Suresh: This is a Filipino restaurant, so there's lecce flan on the menu, and ube cake made with purple yam. But since it's summer, you want to end with halo halo  This is the beloved Filipino dessert where you have no less than 12 ingredients or more stacked up like a float.

You have candy, fruits and sweet beans, purple yam, all their in-house ice creams. And you have loads of lecce flan that are scattered throughout. It's actually a way of trying all the desserts in one in one glass, and it's finished with some rice flakes on top. Sensorially and texturally, it is a roller coaster ride that I would say is designed for hot weather. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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