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The city's Filipino food scene is blossoming – and restauranteur Lester Sabilano has had a front seat
When Lester Sabilano opened Lamesa in 2012, he couldn’t believe there was nobody else who did it first.
“At that time, there were no sit-down, full-service Filipino restaurants in downtown Toronto,” he remembers. “I couldn’t understand why, with a population of 250,000-plus Filipinos in the GTA, there wasn’t at least one spot to represent the cuisine.
“Now I look around and there are some amazing ones.”
It’s not like Filipino food didn’t exist in Toronto before then, he says, but it wasn’t celebrated as “restaurant food.” There were and are plenty of spots geared towards immigrants from the Philippines to grab familiar standards like kare-kare, caldereta, pan de sal, longanisa, lumpia and lechon, often for big family gatherings. Many do catering and party platters.
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 that draws thousands to BBQ-scented streets.
Sabilano was working for Oliver & Bonacini at the time, at restaurants like Canoe and Jump, and wondered why the food he grew up with was never given the same level of service and atmosphere.
So he created it, taking Filipino flavours – a pallet of sweet, sour, vinegary and savoury tastes with influences from Spanish, Chinese, American and Indigenous foods – and giving 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 cuisine and show them something different,” he says.
Over the last decade, a series 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 Filipino breakfast spot BB’s Diner (it closed during the pandemic, but its Instagram suggests an upcoming rotisserie spot) and now runs SariNOTSari, the new identity for the Shop under the former Parts & Labour. Julian Ochangco is the chef at 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 standalone restaurants like Islas and Kanto, there’s also a flourishing series of pop-up spots that picked up during the pandemic. Pizza place Saints Island Pies started as a pop-up at Wallflower before taking it over entirely. Kusinera has grown buzz, morphing from Sara twice a month. Well-liked spots like Bawang have come and gone.
It’s all connecting to a Filipino-Canadian arts scene in Toronto full of dancers, comedians, artists, directors and musicians. Sabilano is a visual artist himself, and his basketball mashup art pieces adorn the walls of Lamesa, while his old clothing line The One (once modelled by a then-emerging Drake at the behest of his friend OVO Niko) is for sale.
He thinks Filipino food and culture is still underrepresented, but is growing.
“In contrast of it being a trend, I really feel like it’s emerging,” he says. “I’m first generation – my parents immigrated here. So I think what’s happening now is the cuisine is taking hold and the next generation is deciding how they want to present the food from their own perspective.”
Amidst rising Queen West rents, Lamesa closed its original location in 2018 and moved full time to St. Clair West in a restaurant space formerly operated by Sabilano’s parents. During the pandemic, he’s found himself in the kitchen more 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 accessibly with “rice bowl” takes on caldereta and kare kare, silog plates filled with garlic rice, pickled papaya (atchara) and lumpia. There’s also fried chicken. But the vibe hasn’t changed – it’s still a fun, lively and modern spot blasting hip-hop with friends catching up and couples out on date nights.
As more Filipino and non-Filipino Torontonians get familiar with the food, it’s springing out into all sorts of directions. And Sabilano predicts it will eventually become a recognized staple like pizza or sushi.
“It’s only a matter of time before the cuisine makes its way into everyday conversations when people are deciding what they want to have for dinner,” Sabilano says. “That’s the next step.”