Scarborough strip mall spot offers crash course in Filipino food
Coffee In is at 2181 Lawrence Ave E., in Scarborough
A number of years ago, a high school friend and I were having a conversation about food from the Philippines.
Our Scarborough high school had a large Filipino population. But during our talk, it became obvious that my only real exposure to Pinoy cuisine was at a handful of restaurants.
Outside of commercial dishes like pork adobo (pork belly braised in vinegar and soy sauce), kare-kare (oxtail stew) and heaping bowls of halo-halo (shaved ice dessert with sweet beans, fruit and tapioca), I knew very little about homestyle Filipino food.
She suggested the proper introduction to homestyle cooking should start with a classic Filipino breakfast. She took me to a strip plaza on Lawrence Avenue East, home to a small clump of restaurants surrounded by a sprawl of car dealerships. That's where you'll find Coffee In, a family-run place that smells of garlic, herbs and spice.
Inside, the small restaurant is dressed like a cafeteria. There are maybe 10 tables, mostly occupied by Pinoy families. At 10 a.m., it was already lively and full of chatter.
Home to batchoy, a rare GTA find
Large bowls of noodle soups were placed in front of us with a towering mound of sliced pork and crackling. The wafts of garlic and spice intensified as we huddled over the feast and dove in.
This was my first introduction to batchoy, a Pinoy soup prevalent in places like Iloilo City on Panay Island and Bacolod on Negros Island. The soup is reminiscent of ramen but with the intensity cranked tenfold.
In a city with endless ramen and pho options, there's nothing quite like batchoy. The dish is rare to find — there are maybe three restaurants in the GTA that do it properly.
Many years and multiple bowls of batchoy later, I met Eric Taninas, who co-owns the restaurant with his wife Jean. The couple run the operation and take turns cooking. Both were born in the Philippines and met during a work stint in Singapore before moving to Canada in the 90s.
Neither have a background in professional cooking but both were heavily influenced by the kitchen culture of their families.
"We both started cooking when we were very young. We learned from our mothers and grandmothers. Both of us, the exact same way," she said.
Bringing Filipino food to Scarborough
The Taninas set their roots in Scarborough, near Birchmount Road and Lawrence Avenue East. When they first arrived, they said there was no good place to go for Filipino food. So they would stay home and cook their own.
When Eric Taninas saw Coffee In, the local strip mall coffee shop, was up for sale, they jumped at the opportunity.
"We said this was our calling, our chance to present our home cooking to Scarborough," he said.
The couple took over the operation in 2005, keeping the old name while crafting a menu of classic Filipino breakfast and lunch dishes. The restaurant largely stayed under the radar for many years but has built a higher profile in the Filipino community.
"There is a large population here in Scarborough and we have a following with people that want traditional foods from back home," he said.
There are a number of traditional menu items at Coffee In — fried milk fish served with garlic rice and a variety of meat and vegetable stews.
The crux of the restaurant is still its breakfast menu. Locals come in daily for "egg and rice" variations where garlic rice and fried egg are served with a choice of longanisa (Filipino-style sausages), tapa (cured beef) or bangus (fried milk fish).
Then there's the batchoy. "It's by far our favourite dish here," he said.
Taninas's island noodle soup dish has a simple composition. A bed of thick miki noodles is covered with thick cuts of slow cooked pork shoulder and pork crackling. It's then covered with a milky hued stock, an aromatic assemblage of onions, garlic and shrimp paste cooked down with beef, pork bones and marrow.
"It's deeply comforting," a fellow diner told me during a recent visit. "It instantly transports me back home."
Coffee In is at 2181 Lawrence Ave E., in Scarborough.
Suresh Doss's weekly food segment airs every Thursday on Metro Morning. Watch for video of his jaunts across the city on CBC Toronto's Facebook page.
Do you know a GTA restaurant that Doss should visit? Tweet us @metromorning or send us a message on Facebook. And if you try any of the places he features, we want to see photos!