3570 Strandherd Dr., Unit 1, 613-843-0555, kafamilia.ca
Open: Tuesday to Sunday 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 4 to 10 p.m.
Prices: main courses $16 to $26
Access: No steps to front door, washrooms
Take it from me — if you’ve not had pork and pigs blood stew before, it can be difficult to discern if the dish has been well and authentically made.
That was my challenge following a dinner last week at Ka Familia, which opened in April, bringing what it calls “Filipino fusion” fare to a strip mall in Barrhaven.
The western suburb needs more diverse dining-out choices and Ka Familia, which is one of just a small handful of Ottawa businesses to offer Filipino food certainly qualifies.
But back to that stew. In the Philippines, it’s called dinuguan, and it can consist of not just pork meat but offal too, cooked in pig’s blood, vinegar and spices. In Barrhaven, Ka Familia’s dinuguan ($18), which was a dinner special during my two visits this month, had the evident, but not overpowering, minerally tang of its signature ingredient that bathed its meat and welcome pieces of crackling. However, the more daunting bits of the pig had been left out, and it seemed that the same was true with respect to sourness and heat, although some sliced chilis adorned the stew.
With that dish alone, Ka Familia ticks off the box for adventurous dining. So, too, does dinakdakan, this week’s special, a nose-to-tail dish par excellence that combines pig’s ears, snout and brain and more.
Don’t let these formidable dishes scare you off, though. While they may cater most of all to the Filipino expats I’ve seen at Ka Familia, other menu items struck me as quite subdued and approachable renditions and variations on the staple dishes from the homeland of chef and owner Dominador Rosete, who is opening his first restaurant in Canada.
If anything, I wondered if the new eatery was serving toned-down versions of Filipino dishes, either in the name of culinary fusion, or perhaps to make dishes more appealing to suburban diners who’ve never eaten in Manila. Generally, I would have welcomed more complexity to the flavours here.
Rosete’s daughter, Sophia, who manages Ka Familia’s dining room, told me this week that her family is from the north of the Philippines, and that the food there skews more to the sweet side than do the frequently more sour dishes of the south.
Of five appetizers that we tried, the ones that were clearly tops involved pork. Perhaps the best dish that we had at Ka Familia was its starter of stubby, bacon-wrapped longanisa sausages ($9) that sat on puddles of sweet-sour corn relish. The dish delivered big and contrasting flavours. Pork belly skewers ($9) were savoury-sweet indulgences and lumpia (deep-fried rolls made with ground pork, $9) were well-made and not oily.
Shrimp with mango slaw ($10) did let us down, though, with shrimp that very much lacked flavour and seasoning. Tuna tataki ($13) needed salt or acid or both to wake it up.
Pancit, the national noodle stir-fry of the Philippines, involved thick egg noodles, soy sauce, julienned vegetables, and if you’ve chosen best, crackling-enhanced pork rather than chicken or tofu ($16). Pancit also appeared as the starchy accompaniment beneath an alright piece of trout ($22) and smokey-sweet oven-baked ribs ($22) that were topped with an interesting mango salsa but would have been more enjoyable with a bit more spice and a little less chewiness.
Of two homey, simple dishes of stewed meat, we preferred the pork adobo ($18) over the tomatoe-y beef mechado ($17) because it was more tender and interesting.
Of the house-made desserts, a toasty and comforting coconut-y slab of glutinous rice sticky pudding ($5) was our favourite. “That recipe’s been in my family for hundreds of years,” Sophia Rosete told me. It made a better impression than the more standard cappuccino or dulce de leche-topped cakes ($7). A slice of cassava cake ($7) did the least for us, and had a tinge of a odd, funky flavour to it.
Located where the Mediterranean restaurant Casa de Gustos had been, Ka Familia seats about 60 at dark wood tables, some nestled in blue booths, underneath lights mounted in colanders. There’s patio space in front of the restaurant and a bar inside.
In a back corner of the dining room, there’s a pizza oven held over from the previous tenant, but it was out of commission when I visited. We were unable to sample any of the menu’s fusion-style pizzas, which tempted us with ingredients such as pork adobo, loganisa sausage, sun-dried mango and beef tapa. The last preparation cures its meat in soy and the juice of calamansi, a citrus fruit.
One of Ka Familia’s personable, forthright servers told us that the pizza oven might never be brought into service, as having one of the kitchen’s two staffers working outside of it would be too much of a stretch.
It will be a bit of a trick, I think, for this affordable and likeable family-run restaurant to find a groove that will appeal equally to Filipino expats, culinary tourists and less adventurous diners. But all three constituencies should wish Ka Familia well.