Where Lake Inez chef Robbie Hojilla eats Filipino and Chinese food in Scarborough
Chef Robbie Hojilla prides himself on knowing his way around Scarborough. The Quezon City–born chef moved there when he was seven years old, and spent most of his younger years moving around the suburb. “We lived in so many different parts of Scarborough, this is my home,” he says.
After a string of office gigs, he followed his family’s advice and went to cooking school. Soon after, Hojilla got his first job, as garde manger at Centro in 2005. The restaurant was fertile stomping grounds for the city’s up-and-coming chefs, and Hojilla met a number of them that inspired him, including Frank Parhizgar (Frank’s Kitchen) and Bruce Woods (Woods).
After cooking at a number of Toronto restaurants (Ursa, Hudson Kitchen, Harbord Room), the 34-year-old has settled in the east end at Lake Inez, a pan-Asian spot owned by the team behind The Wren on the Danforth. When he’s not in the kitchen, Hojilla hits up his favourite spots for Chinese and Filipino food, often taking fellow cooks along with him. “If I can put a few dishes in front of these guys so they can try some foreign flavours, I’ve done my job as a mentor.”
2181A Lawrence Ave. E., Scarborough, 647-348-7282
“I’d say that this is my favourite Filipino restaurant uptown,” Hojilla says about the tiny diner. “Most Filipino restaurants stick to the classics, like kare kare or adobo dishes, but this place serves some of the more authentic local stuff.” Coffee In attracts a steady throng of regulars for its breakfast plates, like the bangsilog (fried rice served with milkfish and a fried egg) or the tapsilog (marinated beef).
Go-to item #1: Batchoy.
Tasting notes: Hojilla’s favourite dish is this noodle soup that’s famous in the coastal city of Bacalod. “In Bacalod, you’ll find a strip of noodle stalls where each one puts its own spin on batchoy.” It’s similar to ramen but has a more intensely flavoured stock, and it’s chock full of sliced pork shoulder, pork innards and miki noodles.
Go-to item #2: Pansit molo.
Tasting notes: Another of his favourites is this Filipino pork dumpling soup. It’s a bit more subdued than batchoy, made with chicken broth and delicate dumplings that are stuffed with pork and green onion.
Perfect Chinese Restaurant
4386 Sheppard Ave. E., Scarborough, 416-297-6100
“Obviously growing up in Scarborough, dim sum was very big deal and a regular occurrence,” Hojilla says. One of his go-tos was this 24-hour restaurant, which he visited after nights out on the town. He loves that the restaurant presents their dishes in carts: “This is a dying breed in Toronto—you don’t see a lot of dim sum carts anymore.”
Go-to item #1: Dim sum cart experience.
Tasting notes: From taro root dumplings to har gow and siu mai, Hojilla recommends that you visit Perfect Chinese with a big group and try everything. A steady cavalcade of dim sum carts roll around the room every few minutes, each loaded up with an assortment of steamed and fried dishes.
Hung Food Cooking Ltd.
23 Glen Watford Dr., Scarborough, 416-297-6023
“Back in the day, Dragon Centre Plaza was the place to be—it was always packed,” says Hojilla. “My uncle, who brought us to Canada, would take us here regularly for fried chicken and rice.” Hung Foods is located at the corner end of the plaza and is still very popular with the area’s school kids for its extensive menu and price point (everything is under $10).
Go-to item #1: Fried chicken and rice.
Tasting notes: A mountain of fried rice is hidden under thick strips of battered-and-fried chicken. “This could probably feed a family,” Hojilla says. “It did feed our family back then.”
23 Glen Watford Dr., Scarborough, 416-543-4610
Located in the same plaza as Hung Food is this Hojilla-recommended bakery. “After all that fried chicken, it’s nice to have something a little sweet and light to freshen up your palate,” he says.
Go-to item #1: Egg roll cookie.
Tasting notes: These addictive biscuit rolls are cooked like pancakes, rolled and left to cool. With a wafer-like crunch, they’re good eaten on their own or with a drizzle of Nutella.
Go-to item #2: Gai dan jai (egg puff).
Tasting notes: These spherical egg waffles are made a la minute. “The only thing missing is some ice cream,” Hojilla says.
2555 Victoria Park Ave., Scarborough, 416-492-9734, noodledelight.com
“My dad used to bring me and my sister and here all the time,” Hojilla says of the Scarborough staple. “We love noodles, and they have a bunch of variations here. Whether they’re wet or dry, they have it all—and they’re all good.”
Go-to item #1: Singapore noodles.
Tasting notes: This dry stir fry is Hojilla’s favourite thing on the menu. “It’s nostalgic,” he says. “I love the dry version because there’s a grittiness to it—you can taste the spice on each strand because it clings to them. Get it as spicy as you can.”
2085 Lawrence Ave. E., Scarborough, 416-751-7555
Locals frequent FV for imported goods from the Philippines, and for the hot counter where classic Filipino dishes are available for takeout. Hojilla swears by the house desserts.
Go-to item #1: Leche flan.
Tasting notes: This dessert made with a base of condensed milk is a Filipino take on the Spanish dessert. “It’s really well made here; it’s so buttery and smooth,” says Hojilla. “It almost feels like soft cheese.”
Go-to item #2: Bananacue.
Tasting notes: “It’s great a dessert because of the different textures,” Hojilla says of the caramelized banana skewers. “The outside is nicely bruléed, and the inside is warm and almost custard-like.”
Casa Manila Restaurants
879 York Mills Rd., North York, 416-443-9654, casamanila.ca
Hojilla loves to end his uptown visits with some dessert at Casa Manila. Hojilla recommends the restaurant for family dining and as an introduction to Filipino cuisine. “My favourite thing on the menu is the restaurant’s summertime sundae,” he says.
Go-to item #1: The Ultimate Halo-Halo.
Tasting notes: A multi-coloured stadium-sized chalice arrives at the table, much to Hojilla’s delight. “No place does halo-halo like this,” he says of the popular Filipino treat. The bowl is brimming with shaved ice, an assortment of chopped fruit, sweet beans, custard and purple taro ice cream. “I love it because it has so many different fruit flavours, and a medley of textures, too. It’s so refreshing.”