One thing I love about this job is how easy it is to catch up with old friends. “Would you like to join me for a meal in Richmond?” is a question I can ask every single day, and because nearly everyone loves eating out, it’s an offer that’s taken up regularly.
Yesterday, my friend Saba joined me for lunch. I hadn’t him seen since we graduated from UVic, now a half decade ago. Gulp.
He put his art history degree to use by becoming a landscape architect, just as I put mine to use by, well……eating. Whatever, all that essay writing taught me much gooder grammer than I had before.
I decided we should try Cucina Manila, which is located just south of Brighouse Station. Upon walking in, we discovered it to be a casual, cafeteria-style restaurant, with two women behind the counter serving pick-your-own-combo lunches from more than a dozen options.
Their most popular lunch is the 2 dish + rice combo for $8.50, but because there were two of us, we decided to get rice and 3 dishes, and also couldn’t resist a tortang talong, which is an eggplant omelette.
As I’ve come to expect from Filipino restaurants, the service was incredibly friendly. The women indulged my endless questions, explained all the dishes, and even gave us a small, complimentary bowl of one of the stews I was curious about (more on that later).
I find my love and admiration for Filipino food grows each time I have it, and yesterday was no exception. I grew up in a food culture that removes any indication that an animal or fish used to be a whole, living being; there were no hoofs or heads present in the grocery stores I shop at. Therefore, I appreciate how Filipino cuisine unapologetically includes all the ‘nasty bits.’ A fish eye staring at you isn’t creepy – it’s delicious!
There are few things I love more than rice and saucy, stewed dishes, so I was a happy gal at Cucina Manila. We chose the kare kare, a stew with chicken liver and heart, and a stew with taro leaves. These dishes, plus the eggplant omelette, cost about $20, and was more than enough food for the two of us.
We sat down to eat, and as I was taking photos of the first dish, Saba pointed to the door behind me. I turned around, and saw a monk; he gave a woman a small calendar, bowed to her gently, and smiled. What a wonderful sight to start off our meal.
I loved every last saucy bite. My favourite was the ‘laing,’ which is made from dried taro leaves known as ‘gabi’ and coconut milk. It was thick with dark green, almost back, stewed leaves, and a bit sweet from the coconut. I would gladly eat a big bowl of rice and laing for lunch any day of the week.
The chicken liver and heart stew had so many chopped, indistinguishable ingredients, it was impossible to think “Oh, I am currently chewing on a chicken heart.” Instead, it was just a wickedly good bowl of tomato-based, tangy flavour.
At first, the eggplant confused me, because I couldn’t quite figure out how it was made. It looked like the whole thing that had been sandwiched between two heavy bricks and grilled, but there was no skin left on it, and when we cut into it was almost fluffy.
Thank goodness for Google, because now I know that it’s tortang tolang, a dish made by first grilling eggplants, then removing the skin and fanning out the flesh. They’re placed in an omelette mixture, and transferred to a pan to be fried. I love that the stems are kept on, making them look as though the omelette was harvested directly from a plant. It came with a tangy, sweet, and vinegary sauce; this dish is a must-try for eggplant-lovers.
The final dish we tried was a small bowl of stew given to us for free. It was the pork and blood stew, called dinuguan. It was so black it looked as though the broth was mixed with coal, rather than blood, and it tasted salty. There was a slight aftertaste at the end, but if I had eaten it without knowing what it was, I would never have jumped to a “definitely blood” conclusion. It wasn’t my favourite dish on the table, but I would certainly try it again.
Before we left, I bought a turon for dessert, which is basically a fried banana spring roll covered in sticky syrup. Actually, it might have been a plantain, because the filling was starchier and less sweet than I’d expect a banana to be.
Cucina Manila also has a shelf filled with imported snacks, which I imagine are quite a comfort to those who grew up in the Philippines and miss their childhood treats.
I was very happy with our lunch. Though I don’t have much of a Filipino food background to compare it with, the food was hot and the flavours were great. Add to that great conversation with a friend who knows more about Garry Oak ecosystem than anyone I’ve met, and I had myself one dandy afternoon! Thanks Saba – our next Richmond meal won’t have any blood. I promise.
Cash and debit accepted
A few vegetarian options available