Casa Manila was a Filipino institution recommended to me by a Filipino coworker. We went there on a weeknight and enjoyed a wide variety of dishes with a multitude of incredible flavors. Finding fresh Tamarind in a dish is no easy feat in December, but Casa Manila managed to do just that, and introduced us to some incredible cuisine we will be back for many times. Mila sat down with us afterwards to share her story.
Sadi: How is business going these days?
Mila: Since inception we’ve been growing steadily. People are discovering Filipino food, we’re the third largest ethnic group here in Toronto, the fifth most spoken language. I got into it…a lot of it was national pride. With the amount of Filipinos that are here, why isn’t Filipino food taking its rightful place beside Thai, and Vietnamese and Korean? And if it was out there, I felt it wasn’t…cooked to order.
Sadi: What do you mean by that?
Mila: Well a lot of it is put into trays. They cook it in the morning, and then they put it in they put in the trays and then you scoop it out. It’s great if you’re going at like 11AM, but if you happen to go at 3, the vegetables are dead, the oil’s floating to the top…it’s not very appealing. I myself, about seven years ago, a friend of mine wanted to try Filipino food and my first reaction was take out. But she didn’t want to do dishes. So I called up my Aunt and asked her ‘Where do we go, where do we go!?’ and my Aunt gave me a place and I guess it was the best at that time, and I was really…not too proud of it. You could tell it wasn’t cooked to order. And that was really too bad. I was in the furniture business before, importing furniture from the Philippines. So I’ve had excellent Filipino food. So this place was here before, but it was sort of like a fast food center. So I bought it, along with my husband, six years ago because I wanted to give a cultural experience along with the food. I mean the Kamayan we offer is just an extension of that we offer here. Hand-to-mouth dining, you’ve heard the indigenous drums. But to answer your question, we’re doing well and I believe that Filipino food should be shared with people of other cultures. And I wanted to make the food much more pure without the MSG because a lot of Asian food has MSG because it’s a part of the spice pantry. So I wanted to find out what it was about Filipino food that made it not healthy. One of the things was salt, it was a salty food because being from the islands, and some of them are quite remote, refrigeration was not readily available everywhere so they used salt to preserve the food. The other one too is the fat, or the oil. We do our best, we enjoy the fat, the pork belly, but wherever we can trim we do.
Sadi: What’s the hardest part about all this?
Mila: As you start to grow more people come. And as more people come, it becomes more difficult. Reviews. You know some people are very nasty. And you don’t know if they’re unhappy, or competition. But you can’t please everyone at the end of the day. As long as we do our best, you can’t help the rest. It’s hard to find good help too. Some of our dishes take hours to cook. How do you take a dish that takes hours to cook, and get it out in 20 minutes? So in the beginning it was about the time it took, the service. The margins are really low. If you have too many people, you won’t make anything. It’s not like the margins in retail, furniture. That’s why the mortality rate or restaurants in Toronto are 90% for the first year. Even now, you’re still vulnerable into your fourth year.
Andrew: Did you have a favorite dish growing up, or experiences when you were younger with it?
Mila: Actually I didn’t like Filipino food growing up. I was brought to those fast food type places growing up but when I looked at it, when you’re a kid, you make decisions based on sight like ‘Ew I don’t want that.’ At the time, Chinese food was getting big, and what I liked about Chinese food was that it was freshly cooked. I didn’t know that. All I liked was that it looked better. Growing up I didn’t have an appreciation for Filipino food because my Mom didn’t cook Filipino food, didn’t really cook. She was a single Mom, she didn’t really cook. I didn’t really have the home cooking experience. I grew up in St. Thomas Ontario, which is near London. We were the colored people there. I wasn’t proud of being Filipino because when you’re the only one, you want to blend in. It was only when I bought my business when I was 23, the furniture business, I started to go back to the Philippines every year and I really started loving it.
Sadi: So how did you go from tasting it, to learning how to make all of the dishes?
Mila: So I moved out at fifteen. So I had to learn how to cook. So I cooked Italian, I cooked Chinese, I cooked everything, but not Filipino. But I knew how to cook. When I was 19, I had an opportunity to move back to the Philippines for three years and travel. My favorite pastime is eating, whether it’s fine dining or street food. So I traveled for three years straight instead of University and I was based out of the Philippines, and at the beginning, I observed. And then I tweaked based on my own tastes. And I figured I was a good test market because not only am I a Filipina, I was brought up here, so maybe I can satisfy both sides.
A: So when you’re not eating Filipino food, and if you’re eating out, what’s your favorite place to eat out?
M: I don’t have one particular favorite place, but I really like Joso’s on Davenport, a Mediterranean place, I like also Fabbrica, they have great Nouvelle Italian. I like Korean food. I really don’t have a favorite place though, I appreciate all types of food.
A: If it was your last day on Earth and you had one last meal to eat, what would be your very last meal?
M: I love seafood, so I think probably…well I’d have to have rice for sure. But I think I would have like Lobster and Steak. Have both. The steak has to be marinated, has to have a lot of garlic, and has to have a little bit of fat, charred on the outside, pink on the inside. I think if it was my last meal, I would want it to be pure, just garlic salt and pepper. And Filipino dessert, like Halo Halo. And of course the Kalamansi Mojito. What did you guys have here?
S: We had the tamarind pork belly…
M: Oh that’s an interesting story! When I said ‘no MSG’, all of the tamarind powders here have MSG powder here, so I was like ‘Why did I say that?’ And I couldn’t find anything without high MSG or salt so finally my husband was playing golf in the Philippines and we found a woman who was getting her tamarind powder fair trade, and we pick it up from the Philippines, I tried fresh, but it’s from Thailand so it has a different flavor. I tried paste, but it adds a brown, so now twice a year, we go and pick it up from the Philippines and bring it back as overweight luggage.
A: What’s the most popular dish in your restaurant?
M: I would say the Sisig. And also the Kare Kare (the peanut based dishes). And the pork jowls. That’s very popular with the Filipinos. As well as the Lechon Kawali (crispy pork belly), and Halo Halo of course too.
S: What’s the one dish here that you’re the most proud of? Or which one was the most difficult to create?
M: The Sinigang (Tamarind soup). That one took me years until my husband found the Tamarind. That was the most difficult because we couldn’t use anything here (in Canada). What I’m most proud of is being able to please the non-Filipinos though, but still please the Filipinos, where they’re not saying ‘Oh, no this is not really Filipino food’, they’re not saying that. I’d say I’m most proud of that. But I would have to say my Kalamansi mojito, is one I came up with, that’s very good.
A: Is there anything that you wish you could put on the menu but isn’t?
M: I wish I could give you the whole suckling pig! And make sure everyone gets the crispy skin. But there’s only so much skin on a baby suckling pig. But if you have a party you can order it here. We make it right outside. And our suckling pig isn’t baked. It’s over wood charcoal smoked with lemongrass and all these herbs, and bathe it in milk the night before. It’s quite out of this world. You know I’m pretty proud of developing the sauces. I developed the peanut sauce, the tomato garlic sauce, my Adobo, my coconut ginger. I’ve developed it so no one has to come in and be like ‘Hey this isn’t like the last time I had it.’ And my Halo Halo, my ice cream? The first time I had it I was like ‘This isn’t ice cream,’ I read the label and it was like palm oil…and other stuff. So I asked Marble Slab, I have a friend, can you make my ube? But mix it with taro? Can you make me Durian? Can you make me cheese and corn? The Filipinos really like that. So he made ten flavors for me. So that’s the ice cream we carry.
A: You’re one of the few people we’ve interviewed who have been on TV? What was that experience like?
M: That was amazing because they found us. We didn’t really seek it out. They said they found us through reviews and they said ‘We want to feature you!’ I cooked Adobo, Kare Kare, the Sisig fries. It was great, it got a lot of coverage. I was helped by BlogTo along the way. It was nice to be recognized by Filipino writers as well. I was travelling on Philippine Airlines and I opened up a magazine ‘Where to get a taste of home abroad’ and I looked and I saw two restaurants…Casa Manila, I go ‘What!? You’re kidding me, this is crazy!’ But you know what that’s what we believe in. My philosophy is ‘Nature to Nurture’. The less you mess with Mother Nature’s goodness, the better it is for you. We believe in energy, and love. I say to my cooks, ‘If you’re in a bad mood, don’t come in.’ When they’re cooking or prepping, and if they’re not happy, you’re going to taste it in the food.
S: How have you noticed the Filipino restaurant scene change over the last ten years?
M: I’d say reviews. The reviews have been a very big change in it. With Yelp, and TripAdvisor and Google, have changed things. Before, if you didn’t like the food, you just didn’t go back. And that would be it. And I just find that reviews are good, but on the other hand, but sometimes are written by people who just want to be heard. They want attention, so this is their chance to be a Food Blogger, it’s really a downer for restaurants. It has to be a labor of love. There’s easier ways to make money. When you try so hard, and then people write nasty things like ‘Im gonna tell my friends not to go there!’ A couple of times, I’ve responded saying ‘You know what, I’m sorry about your experience…we’d be happy to help…’ So ten years ago that wasn’t around. Now there’s a lot of competition too. There’s 7000 almost 8000 restaurants in Toronto. I think that’s a good thing. People are more adventurous. Toronto’s a food capital. Being a foodie has taken the place of going on holiday. You can have your mini-holiday in two hours. That’s why it was important for me to give you a little cultural ambiance. You might feel like you’re in the Philippines here. 95% of our décor here is from the Philippines. That’s what I love about Toronto, we accept that we all do things different here. We all have our ways of doing things. I have a favorite Pho place that I go to, and I don’t expect them to have like five-star décor or anything. But I like that. They’re never smiling. I think that’s part of the experience! We’re more accepting.
A: What was the best piece of advice that you got when you were starting out? Or something that you still remember to this day?
M: The advice was ‘Don’t do it. Don’t buy it!’ That was all of my family. All of my friends. ‘Don’t.’ That was the most common advice. I renewed the lease too when I could’ve walked away. But look, these people here are from North Carolina, we get reservations now from Amsterdam, from New Zealand, Hawaii. It really travels if you do a good job. The best advice though was ‘You can’t please everybody. No matter how you care, or how much you try.’ You can’t please everybody, just do it because you want to. I found that through prayer. I do a lot of consulting that way. I used to do Spiritual retreats. I was a Retreat Facilitator. I did m Master’s in Theology, one of my question’s to the Lord was ‘Lord, how can I possibly serve you and own a restaurant at the same time?’ And the advice I got was ‘Mila, it’s not what you do, it’s who you are. That’s how you serve Me.’ And I said ‘Wow.’ You don’t have to be a minister or a monk or a priest to follow God or love.
S: And if someone was going to open up a restaurant today, what would be the piece of advice you would give to them?
M: Do it for the passion. Like in any work, don’t do it for the money. Don’t do anything for the money. Do it because it’s what you love. If it’s a passion, if it’s something you love, you will be happy doing it. Don’t do this because you think you think you’re going to impress people, or you’re going to be popular, or you’re going to make a lot of money. Do it because it’s a deep desire in your heart. There are easier ways to make money, to be popular. Do it because you discerned it, you’ve thought about it, you’ve prayed on it, you’ve reflected on it, you’ve sat with it. And then it’s still, somehow, it still stands out.
S: I think that wraps it up. Thank you for your time!
A: Thank you very much, you were very generous with your time!
Casa Manila Restaurant
879 York Mills Rd.