Name: Casa Manila
Where: Toronto, Ontario
Cuisine: Filipino/Asian Fusion
Affordability: $5.99 – $15.99
With the explosion of the Filipino population in the GTA area, you’d expect to find a Filipino restaurant on every corner of the city. This isn’t the case in Toronto. In fact, Filipino restaurants, meaning true-Filipino restaurants, are hard to come by. There are “turo-turo” places (point-point in English, literally, where you pick your food by pointing cafeteria style) but not restaurants with Servers. Many have tried opening and failed, and many remain to be seedy karaoke bars/restaurants in equally seedy areas of town that just do not appeal to the masses – Filipino-Canadians or otherwise. Even in Mississauga, coined with having the largest Filipino community in the GTA, Filipino restaurants are all too far in between. And Casa Manila is no exception.
Tucked away in a business neighbourhood north of Toronto, Casa Manila is situated on the corner of York Mills Road & Don Mills Road in a tiny unassuming plaza. It has had a major revamp since its simple “turn-turo” days with an overly decorated dining area that crosses between exotic fine dining and tacky. They had removed the karaoke machine which used to sit between two booths towards the back and dressed up the place with a warm paint job, curtains and better tables and chairs. The walls have decorations probably from the Philippines and the ceiling is over decorated with Christmas lanterns. Given it is the season and all, but frankly one on the ceiling is one too many and very distracting. It was like go big or go home, which to me seems like a tired attempt at focusing on what is important – the food.
The food has had a revamp as well. I should note that I had been to Casa Manila once before; before its transformation. The menu looked appetizing with professional high-gloss photos arranged well from appetizers to desserts. They really concentrated on bringing the non-Filipino customers to the restaurant and introducing them to Filipino food, which I commend them for. Many of the items on the menu were pictured along with the description of each item. The staff was very helpful in the food ordering process and very friendly. They talk to their patrons as if it is their first time (and probably is) to the restaurant explaining the different menu items detailing the ingredients used and how each is cooked. I’ve even heard a Server give a bit of history lesson and from which region the food has originated. That warm friendly Filipino hospitality is alive and well here even from Servers who were non-Filipino. Unlike many Asian restaurants where you are rushed and numbers are called out instead of the food. You will find no language barrier at Casa Manila.
I ordered Lechon Kawali & Garlic Fried Rice on this visit. Like I said, I had been here before and ordered a different dish, plus I was really craving Lechon Kawali. Lechon Kawali is pork belly deep fried to a crisp. If executed properly, it will be crispy on the outside but tender and moist on the inside. Many Filipino “turo-turo” sells Lechon Kawali as it is staple for Filipinos. We make them at home too on special occasions such as birthday parties and such. It is a perfect companion to a nice cold beer and usually how it is consumed in the Philippines. But I wanted it to be my “ulam” or main for the evening. I was looking forward to a nice crispy dish but instead what I got was hard bits of pork that were hard to chew. It was as if it was boiled, then frozen, then flash deforested and deep fried. Some would argue that there is a fine line between crispy and hard, but this was just hard. And wouldn’t it be funny if that was the case, boiled, frozen then fried. They claim that all their food is cooked fresh hence the wait. With wait times of more than 20 minutes for the food, one should hope it wasn’t frozen and defrosted.
The dip that accompanied the Lechon was equally disappointing. With lechon sauce bottled brands like Mang Tomas, there shouldn’t be any second guessing with the sauce. Filipino ketchup (Banana-based ketchup) is a good enough dip to accompany lechon, but traditionally, it is a liver-based dipping sauce flavoured with spices and sugar known as “sarsa“. The “sarsa” was very runny and lacked flavour as if watered down. The low-sodium effort was nice, but it totally erased the flavour of the dip and eventually the dish. I don’t think salt was used in prepping the pork belly at all. It was overall bland compared to a traditional Filipino dish would be.
The Garlic Fried Rice was also fairly bland and oily more than anything. I make garlic fried rice at home usually when friends and family requests it, but my version remains moist and flavourful without being salty. Theirs was on the dry side, like the rice had been left out a while where the moisture from the grain has evaporated. The garlic flavour was also towards the bland side almost missing from the dish called “garlic fried rice”.
I wouldn’t right off Casa Manila just yet though. They’ve had better dishes for the record in the past. With the decor updates maybe they just lost track of the quality in their food in the meantime. I hope they do find their gumption again as they did in their humble past. The food was good then and no one cared about the look of the restaurant. I will probably go back to Casa Manila again if I am craving Filipino food and in the area. But to make a special trip just for that will be very unlikely.