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Coconut curry magic continues at family affair Sabai Thai

In 1984, if you were to tell Vilayphone Manivong when she first came to Winnipeg from Laos that one day she would be a chef and co-owner of a very successful Thai restaurant, she would not have believed you.

“When I moved to Canada I never liked cooking,” said the bubbly Vilayphone, as I interviewed her and her daughter Annie on how she ended up at Sabai Thai (1113 Corydon Avenue). “But 10 years ago I started to work at Magic Thailand (842 Logan Ave) in the kitchen, and that’s how I started to like Thai food.”

Puzzled by this jump in events, I asked her why she decided to work in a Thai kitchen? Especially with no experience at that.

“I guess money,” said Vilayphone. “At home I would cook, but because I had no choice. But when I got to Magic Thailand, I liked the money, not so much the cooking,” she jokes.

Between laughter I had to follow that up with a question on how she became good at cooking:

“Well, if you are going to do it, you have to give it your best,” said Vilayphone, who was still working her day job selling jewelry at Hilary Druxman (which was something she did for 10 years) when she started at Magic Thailand.

“I turned out better than I thought [at cooking]. After a two week test [at Magic Thailand] they were very impressed. Whatever they tell me to do I pick it up and make it better.”

Annie Manivong, Alex Manivong, Supasorn Sayavongsa and Vilayphone Manivong (from l-r, PCG)

Annie Manivong, Alex Manivong, Supasorn Sayavongsa and Vilayphone Manivong (from l-r, PCG)

I tell you, this woman is an absolute gem.

Vilayphone Manivong runs the kitchen at Sabai Thai along with her sister and co-owner Supasorn Sayavongsa, while Vilayphone’s daughter Annie Manivong manages the restaurant. Supasorn and Vilayphone are there all the time, open to close, while they shop every morning at various locations for all their produce and goods.

It’s a complete family affair. Vilayphone and Supasorn’s husbands both work at the restaurant at night (after working day jobs); Annie’s brother Alex works as a cook, and her sister Jennie also works the front of the house. Alex and Annie are both in university too, so sometimes Annie’s friends also work at the restaurant to help her out when she is making the schedule.

You can’t tell the story of Sabai Thai without talking about Magic Thailand, as they are so interconnected.

Sabai Thai first opened in 2007 as an offshoot of sorts from Magic Thailand, with many of the same recipes. It was opened by Kham Vilaykeo, whose mom Noy Vilaykeo is the owner of Magic Thailand.

Annie used to work as server at Magic Thailand for many years and then after came to work with Kham when he opened up Sabai. At the time, Annie’s brother Alex also had started to work at Magic Thailand, so needless to say, in the words of Annie, “us and Magic Thailand have always been close family friends.”

Summer rolls (PCG)

Summer rolls (PCG)

Long story short, Kham and his wife ended up having young kids (which can obviously be time-consuming when you are running a restaurant) while Vilayphone had been joking with him that if he ever wanted to sell Sabai, then she would love to buy it — as long as her daughter Annie would help out.

That all happened in May of 2013, and the place has continued to get even busier — and it was already very busy under Kham.

It’s so busy that Annie was saying they’ve pretty much maxed out with what they can do with the space, in that the restaurant is usually quite full for dinner while the take-out orders don’t stop. (Don’t bother looking for them on Skip the Dishes as Annie says they’ve been asked several times and they say no way, they are already at capacity in this kitchen). They’ve also got to the point that Vilayphone is seriously considering opening up a second location in another part of the city.

The reason I’m compelled to do a story on them is it’s the place I order take-out from the most.

Sabai Thai ranks in my top Thai restaurants in the city — the other’s would be Laos Thai and Magic Thailand, of course.

(Full disclosure: I was debating Thai food in Winnipeg with a buddy of mine last night — who has also lived in Thailand like me — and he is adamant that Sukhothai has the best soups, while a reader from Thailand has tweeted me to state that Siam Thai is the most authentic in the city. So there you have it #themoreyouknow☆).

According to Annie, the most-popular orders are the pad thai (no ketchup in that sauce, all tamarind my friend), summer rolls ($7, made with organic vegetables and rice noodles wrapped in rice paper), and spring rolls ($7, which I rate as some of the best in the city, along with the accompanying peanut sauce).

My favourite two dishes are the Chiang Mai Noodles (Khao Saway, pictured at top of article) and the Three Mushroom Panang Curry, which I feel is more wholesome than Mr. Rogers’ cardigans (well, maybe a bit spicer than that).

The Khao Saway features vermicelli noodles tossed in a creamy yellow curry broth, with a roasted chili jam and a pile of julienned carrots and red cabbage, along with some cilantro, scallions and fried chow mein noodles.

Three Mushroom Panang Curry (PCG)

Three Mushroom Panang Curry (PCG)

In this, you get that fun interactive bowl of goodness element where you get to smash all the elements together with your chopsticks. The results hit all those hallmark Thai notes — you have a jaunty balance of tanginess (from the lime and fish sauce), sweetness and spice from the broth, along with layers of texture between the chewy vermicelli, the fried noodles, and the crunchy vegetables. It’s simply a real pleasure to tackle.

As to the Three Mushroom Panang Curry, like I said it just feels good, like putting on sweat pants right out of the dryer. The curry itself is quite luscious: the coconut milk is heavily reduced while the flavours of peanut, lemongrass, coriander, and chilis run throughout. You get chewy textures and woodsy flavours from the assorted mushrooms, while Thai basil, green beans, and red peppers add some sweet, aromatic elements.

When you order, they’ll ask you what level for spice, and I’d say that Sabai Thai cooks on the lighter side in that regard, so if you want to feel the burn (which I’ve never really understood) go with a 9 or 10. (FYI, I’m totally cool with a 7, and I’m not huge on torching my tastebuds).

Sabai Thai is open 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 to 9 p.m. Monday to Friday. On Saturday, they only do dinner from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Closed on Sundays. 
For take out call 204.888.6508.

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New & Notable: Bisita goes all out with Filipino hospitality and flavour

“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.”

Lumpia Shanghai (PCG)

Lumpia Shanghai (PCG)

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.

Adobo wings (PCG)

Adobo wings (PCG)

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.

Kitchen door at Bisita (PCG)

Kitchen door at Bisita (PCG)

“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.

Kare Kare (PCG)

Lechon kawali (PCG)

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.

Kare kare (Lauren Harvey)

Kare kare (Lauren Harvey)

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.

Bisita's dining room (PCG)

Bisita’s dining room (PCG)

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.
Top image is of Roddy Seradilla by PCG

Chef Adam

Where Chefs Eat Vol. 4: Segovia and Clementine’s Adam Donnelly

Chef Adam Donnelly, along with his wife and business partner Carolina Konrad, are responsible for Winnipeg’s two hottest restaurants, Segovia Tapas Bar in Osborne Village, and the brunch-centric spot Clementine, which the couple has created with long-time Segovia chef Chris Gama and Raya Konrad (read the glowing review here).

With two extremely busy restaurants — neither of which take reservations, so get there early or late or be prepared to wait a bit (which, believe me, will be worth it) — along with two young kids at home, it’s pretty rare for Adam and Carolina to get out for a meal.

But when they do, they go with the familiar, as in the words of Adam, “the places that I like to eat at the most are all owned by friends.”

Enoteca (1670 Corydon Avenue)
I love Scott [Bagshaw] & his food, it’s refined and always amazing. I know all the staff there and most of the patrons when I go, so it puts me at ease and makes me feel like I’m at an awesome dinner party. From the service, to the food and the ambiance, I always leave happy.

Beef tartare at Enoteca (photo by Dan Clapson/Eat North)

Beef tartare at Enoteca (photo by Dan Clapson/Eat North)

For full reviews of Scott Baghshaw’s restaurant’s Enoteca and Máquè click on the links. He also owns the acclaimed Deseo Bistro

deer + almond (85 Princess Street)
Well I love going to Deer and Almond to see Mandel [Hitzer, chef and owner] first and foremost. I don’t get out too much anymore and I love to get to hang out with him; he’s always got some crazy stories. The food of course is also amazing and he uses tons of local produce which makes the food taste clean and refreshing.

While diner at deer + almond often gets all the accolades, their lunch is also top notch (PCG)

While diner at deer + almond often gets all the accolades, their lunch is also top notch (PCG)

For more on chef Mandel Hitzer click here and here, where you’ll find an article on best meals from 2015 which also features Segovia and Enoteca. 

Vera Pizzeria e Bevande (670 Osborne Street)
This is another place that really makes me feel at home. I love taking my wife and kids here — it’s so chill. Terick is a really cool, genuine person and it’s always a pleasure to eat his food and enjoy his hospitality. There food is so simple and so tasty and that’s the kind of food I will never get sick of and always want to eat on my days off.

Vera's staff from left: Mathew Ramsay, Sean Davids, Terik Cabildo, Chris Cabildo, and Kelsea Cassell (PCG)

Vera’s amazing staff from left: Mathew Ramsay, Sean Davids, Terik Cabildo, Chris Cabildo, and Kelsea Cassell (PCG)

For a full review of Vera’s click here.