"Bisita means visitor, or guest," says chef/owner Roddy Seradilla, as we sit on his restaurant's patio talking all things Filipino.
He continues, "and growing up in a Filipino household -- all Filipinos will know this -- on the weekends when you are getting kicked out of bed by your parents at 9 a.m. because they are telling you that, 'we have bisita coming over.' Well, that meant you better get yourself cleaned up, get your room cleaned up, get this house tidied up, because we are going to be in the kitchen cooking."
"Because it could be two guests, or it could be 20, but the protocol was the same. We're having VIP's over -- they are coming to our house and we are going to offer them our best food, give them the best seats in the house, whatever we can do to make their visit the best."
"So that's what Bisita is all about."
Winnipeggers will know Roddy Seradilla and his wife/business partner Hélène as the peeps behind Pimp My Rice, the successful food truck that was one of the first "new school" food trucks on Winnipeg's scene. The flashy truck opened in the summer of 2012, developed a big fan base, was featured by The Food Network and was an award winner during ManyFest's Food Truck Wars. Currently, it's off the street for the summer while the couple focuses on the restaurant, but it will be back on the streets for 2017.
Before that, Seradilla was working on the Winnipeg bar scene for a long time, primarily at Bar Italia for 14 years, first as a bartender then later as a manager.
That customer service experience is readily evident when you talk to him, which he tries to do with every customer after they've eaten at Bisita. In fact, after our meal last night my wife was remarking that she wanted to keep talking to him (we'd been peppering him with questions about the dishes and the Filipino beer) as Seradilla is so approachable and witty.
And approachable is the word to use when describing Bisita too, as it really is the philosophy behind the place and the original idea behind Pimp My Rice -- that being to make Filipino food more accessible.
For the longest time Seradilla couldn't believe that Winnipeg -- with its massive Filipino population -- didn't have a Filipino food truck, while on the restaurant side of things, most of Filipino restaurants are in the "turo turo" style, which Seradilla says loosely translates to "pointing" -- in that you have to point to your dishes in a buffet-like setting.
"I still go to all these [turo turo] places; they are doing a great thing, so don't get me wrong," said Seradilla. "But it's mostly for a more closed audience. Most of the clientele is Filipino and it can be difficult to order if you don't know what you are doing."
So Pimp my Rice laid the groundwork for trying to make Filipino food more popular outside of the Filipino community, but it was only ever a seasonal business, and Roddy and Hélène knew that a brick and mortar spot was always going to be in the cards.
"People were always asking me [at Pimp My Rice], 'where is your restaurant?' Because when it's closed in the winter, we still want your food," said Seradilla.
"And so I found myself suggesting [Filipino] places in the city I like to go to, like Jeepney on Sargent, and Kalan on Arlington, because there is a big pile of fantastic Filipino restaurants in the city, but a lot of those places aren't centrally located and a lot of them close quite early."
The search for a prime location then started, and when they found 637 Corydon, which most recently was a ramen shop with a big kitchen, the Seradilla's knew they found their home.
"People are attracted to Corydon by nature; it's our main drag, our main strip" said Seradilla.
"So if they are going to come down to this multicultural menu of an area that has developed over the last ten years, well Filipino cuisine had to be part of it -- like how could it not?"
The menu at Bisita reads like a who's who of Filipino staples, with lumpia (spring rolls), several adobo dishes including his near-legendary adobo wings from Pimp My Rice, along with tons of pork and cuts of meat that are meant for low and slow stewing.
Seradilla is quick to note the recipes are not different than the ones his grandmothers, aunts and mom taught him, or what you'd find at a quality Filipino get-together on a weekend.
But, there is more emphasis on presentation -- something Seradilla jokes has been great to work on with his young cooks who are straight out of culinary school who "like to stack things," as opposed to the family style, one-pot meals, that they grew up eating.
As Seradilla says, "we take the classic dishes, and then we take the time to plate them nicely."
Last night we went to town on four dishes (along with a San Miguel and Red Horse or two, which are some very patio-friendly Filipino beers), and left so full and satisfied we barely could get out of our seats.
For starters we did the lumpia Shanghai ($8), tight little fried spring rolls filled with seasoned pork and vegetables. At Bisita they come topped with a smattering of Sriacha mayo and a sweet soy reduction. Like Lay's potato chips, I bet you can't eat just one.
Next was the adobo wings (1 lbs. for $11.50), which are crispy (having received a nice dusting in corn flour before frying along with a sprinkling of chicharon to finish) and tangy with that staple sweet/savoury/vinegary flavour. The wings are so good in fact that Vice's food website Munchies (more on this to come) has just featured them in their recipe section.
My personal favourite was the lechon kawali ($12), a 24-hour brined pork belly that is then boiled, then roasted, then deep fried. The result is that the meaty portion in the middle of the belly remains tender, juicy, and yet firm like a pork chop, while the surrounding fat puffs out to a super crispy texture much like a chicharon chip. This comes with the classic Filipino "all purpose sauce," which is traditionally made of palm sugar, garlic, pepper, vinegar and pig's liver, which I kid you not tastes like a play on Chinese plum sauce, albeit with a creamy texture.
We also had to take part in some oxtail, which comes in the kare kare ($17), a delicious stew composed of snake beans, eggplant, and bok choy in a silky, savoury peanut sauce. If you are unfamiliar with this dish (like I was), nothing about it would make you think it should work -- particularly the combination of eggplant and peanut sauce -- and yet it all comes together nicely.
The peanut sauce is not overly sweet nor too nutty, instead it acts more like coconut milk would in a Thai curry pulling all the flavours together to intermingle. The eggplant slices are still al dente, the braised oxtail is so soft, and the beans provide a bit of added crunch. Get it served the traditional way with a small accompaniment of shrimp paste so you can add some briny pungent notes to play off the creamy stew.
Bisita opened at the end of May, and it fits nicely into the recent Filipino food movement, of which Winnipeg is at the forefront in Canada.
Recently Viceland, the new TV channel by Vice, celebrated the Filipino food scene here in an episode of Dead Set on Life with celebrity chef Matty Matheson where The Filipino Journal‘s Ron Cantiveros plays host to Matheson (Seradilla makes an appearance, you can watch the episode here, but I'll warn you now that it contains bad language! It is by Vice after all).
You also have Allan and Amanda Pineda's Baon Manila Nights pop-up series, while Jeremy Senaris -- fresh off his runner up finish on Season Three of MasterChef Canada... which I suppose is slightly better than my fifth place on Season One... has recently been making waves with his own pop up dinners. And that's just a sampling, as I'm always being told about the talented young Filipino chefs working in kitchens throughout the city.
Thus far, Bisita has been busy -- and we all know that Winnipeg is always slower in the summer. Seradillas says there have been really positive responses from clients who are new to Filipino food, while his Filipino clients, who he says can be "the toughest critics, because these people have been eating this food their whole life," are really digging the vibe of the place,
"95 per cent [of my Filipino customers] say they feel like they've been taken back to the Philippines, that they say this place feels like their grandmother's house."
"It is all as authentic as it can get: from the shell curtains, to the traditional tinikling dancers up on the wall that everyone had growing up, to the wooden fork and spoon that is synonymous with every Filipino household," said Seradilla.
"The only thing I am missing is plastic on the couches, and plastic around the remote control."
Bisita is located at 637 Corydon Avenue, and is open for lunch and dinner, 11 a.m to 2 p.m., and 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. It has a 50-seat patio, while inside seats 70.
For reservations call 204.615.7423 and for more info check out their website.