Filipino Food In Toronto And How First-Generation Filipino Chefs Are Leading The Charge

By Marlon Cortina

Filipino food is growing in Toronto and its reach can be seen everywhere. You must have seen something ube at the latest fashionable bakery or the prominence of fast-food chain Jollibee.  First generation Filipino Canadians are leading the way, taking community cuisine into the mainstream culinary scene.  Just don’t call it a trend though. 

“This is an emergence of the cuisine, and it will continue to do so as the community becomes more established.  It’s not a trend.  It’s our food,” says Lester Sabilano, owner of Lamesa, the first Filipino restaurant offering full table service in Toronto.  

More places with chefs who are Filipino-Canadian are opening restaurants – and flourishing. Sabilano’s journey to Lamesa, started with his immigrant parents – owners of Barrio Fiesta, which, when it opened in the 1980s, provided that burgeoning Scarborough Filipino community a taste of home.  

“My parents were doing it for their community without much thought given to non-Filipinos,” Sabilano explains. “Now as the community is more established, it’s become more about sharing the cuisine with non-Filipinos.  It’s part of the evolution.”

Sabilano attended George Brown, and then a stint at Canoe, where the seed for Lamesa was planted. 

“I wondered why there wasn’t a Filipino restaurant downtown. At the time, there were 250,000 Filipinos in the GTA, the 4th largest visible minority in the city but there wasn’t even one restaurant where you could sit down. It just didn’t exist.”

So bring on Lamesa, which serves both traditional and Filipino-inspired cuisine. Dine-in service has returned after the pandemic, but they have maintained an expanded take-out menu.  Their fried chicken silog (Chinese style fired chicken served with garlic rice and fried egg) and the chicken adobo bowl, (chicken stewed in vinegar, soy sauce, garlic and pepper) both show the Lamesa style, flavour and presentation they have come to be known for.

“The thing about Filipino food is that it is so flavourful.  It’s because of its history and cultural influences that have gone to shaping its cuisine” Sabilano says.  “The Chinese and the Japanese have been there forever, to 400 years of Spanish colonization, and then 50 years of American occupation. The flavours are bold and there is a lot of contrast that requires a skilled and balanced hand to make Filipino food taste so good.”

Chef Marc Buenaventura shares a similar passion.  As chef/owner at Islas, Buenaventura grew up looking forward to famjams on the weekend, learning about Filipino food from his mom and aunts. After moving away, Buenaventura started to miss Filipino food and home cooking

“It definitely started my path as I didn’t know how to cook Filipino food, but I just craved it.”  

Buenaventura’s revelation came about 10 years ago travelling in the Philippines, and one day saw an article about Lamesa in the Toronto Star, which opened his eyes to a place that the younger generation could relate to. 

“That’s what started it, seeing that it could be done in Toronto,” he says.  And so, Islas was born, providing traditional Filipino fare for the past 5 years. Their kare-kare bagnet is a popular choice – a stew of eggplant, green beans and bokchoy in a rich and think peanut sauce accompanied with bagnet, a crispy fried pork belly.  Their sisig is also a winner – sizzling pork and chicken with onion, garlic and chili, spicy aioli and chicharron, all topped with an unctuous fried egg.

While Sabilano and Buenaventura’s passion for food is undeniable, they also share a common passion outside the restaurant: education.  

“Part of our mission, as first-generation Canadians, we are defining who we are as we establish roots in a new country and trying to share our stories.  Whether it’s through the website, (, or whether its talking to guests or sharing reels on TikTok, we are always trying to inform people as to what Filipino food is,” Sabilano says.

Buenaventura agrees.  Along with running a successful restaurant, he travels the GTA to high schools performing cooking demonstrations inspiring the second generation.  

“We got to tell the stories behind the food, what it is, where it comes from, and why we cook it the way we do.”  


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Other amazing traditional Filipino and Filipino inspired fare can be found at:

Lakay Kusina

Serving traditional Filipino food in north Scarborough, open for takeout and catering. Their pork BBQ skewers are a secret recipe and are tender and juicy with a wonderfully sweet, tangy flavour.


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Bao Mama

Started by two cousins in the pandemic, Bao Mama provides Filipino flavours using soft, pillowy bao buns as the vehicle. Try their Triple B – braised beef brisket asado and their Crispiest Pata – deep fried pork hock topped with a special sauce and tangy Asian slaw. Add a side of sinigang fries for the full experience.


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Casa Manila

One of the other OG restaurants in Toronto, Casa Manila serves authentic cuisine true to its historical roots.  Visit the original in North York or try the newly opened branch on the Danforth. End your meal there with an incredible Halo Halo – sweet, creamy and refreshing.


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With a pedigree of the chefs at BBs that include Lamesa, Lake Inez and others, BBs gives you tasty, balanced Filipino dishes with technique and finesse in the heart of Parkdale. They run a killer brunch on the weekends but also dinner and cocktails in the evenings. They make their own longinisa!! – A traditional Filipino style sausage, which is sweet and slightly spicy.


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Tito Parley’s

If you’ve never had a silvana before, Tito Parley’s is the place to start.  You’ll be the most popular person if you bring these to a party. Crunchy, nutty layers of meringue sandwich luxurious frozen French buttercream and coated with nuts. They have a location in Whitby but can be found in pop ups, markets and other places around the city. Try their sea salt yema (a filipino custard candy) with pecans and a sweet milky buttercream filling.

Saints Island Pies

Toronto’s first Filipino pizzeria serving one of a kind pies, Saints Island Pies is currently looking for a new brick and mortar, but you can pick up frozen pies at retailers around the city (like Aunties Supply and Good Behavior) or order direct to your home! The longinisa brings traditional filipino flavours but in pizza form.