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St. Albert’s first Filipino restaurant a dream come true for owners

Couple Florence and Rhoneil Palas spent years in fast food as temporary foreign workers, and now they finally have a restaurant all their own.

Foodies Filipino restaurant is the culmination of a decades-long dream for owners Florence and Rhoneil Palas.

Opened in May, the restaurant serves authentic Filipino dishes from across the Southeast Asian country, but it specializes in food from the city of Batangas, where Rhoneil was born and raised. He said the Batangas area is renowned in the Philippines for its cooking, and the recipes come from his grandmother, who taught him to cook.

Lomi Batangas, the restaurant’s signature dish, is a hearty stew loaded with thick noodles, chunks of pork sausage, pork adobo, pork liver, pork rind, eggs, spring rolls and fish balls. Served in an oversized bowl and enought to feed two or three people, the stew is topped off with the diner’s choice of soy sauce, vinegar, onions and chilli peppers.

“Filipinos say they’re looking for vegetables, but they really love meat,” Florence Palas said. 

And the menu is heavy on meat. 

Silog — a type of Filipino breakfast dish with fried garlic rice and fried egg and the second-most popular item at the restaurant — comes with portions of a sweet, sour beef (tapsilog); a thin-sliced pork marinated in sugar (tosilog); milkfish marinated in vinegar, garlic and adobo sauce (bangsilog); a red, Filipino-stye hotdog (hatsilog) and more. 

“Even the Canadians love tapsilog,” Florence said.

The Palas duo have well-defined roles: Rhoneil works in the kitchen, while Florence tends to the business side of things and prepares Filipino deserts like buko pandan, a sweet, rich, green-coloured pudding made with pandan-leaf extract, cubed jellies and evaporated milk. 

Currently, the majority of the restaurant’s customer base consists of Filipino people coming from Edmonton.

According to Statistics Canada’s 2017 census data for the St. Albert-Edmonton federal electoral riding, Filipinos dwarf other immigrant populations in the area, with (at the time) 1,480 recent immigrants. That’s 51 per cent of recent immigrants from Asia and 30 per cent of all recent immigrants to the area. 

Many come as part of Canada’s temporary foreign worker program. Immigrants in the program account for 10 per cent of accommodation and food services workers, according to 2022 data from Statistics Canada

The temporary foreign worker program has been the subject of ongoing criticism. Earlier this month a United Nations envoy to Canada remarked that it was "breeding ground for contemporary forms of slavery." Last year Jamaican workers from Ontario penned a letter to Ontario’s ministry of labour that described their work conditions as “systematic slavery.”

Florence and Rhoneil know the temporary foreign worker program well.

Their young family split apart in 2012 so Florence could come to Canada in the hopes of making a more secure life for herself, Rhoneil and their three boys.

She got a job through the temporary foreign worker program, working in Leduc at a Wendy’s and eventually as a manager at a St. Albert McDonald's.

While Florence was away in Canada, Rhoneil opened a restaurant in Manila serving his Batangas-style stews.

In 2014, Florence successfully applied for a spousal permit so Rhoneil could join her in Canada. He worked as a crew member at Tim Hortons, a supervisor at an Arby’s and eventually a chef at the Crown & Tower Neighbourhood Pub in St. Albert.

But their lives were disrupted when in 2015 when Florence’s work permit ended.

A temporary setback, the couple returned in 2017, this time with their children. Not long after, the Palas’s began working towards opening their restaurant.

“Our goal, me and my husband, is to have a business — that’s our dream ever since we came to Canada,” Florence Palas said. “We don’t want to be employees forever…. It’s not about money; it’s about pursing what’s going to make us happy. And business is our passion. Food is our passion.”

Achieving that dream wasn’t easy.

“We didn’t have enough money to open a restaurant,” Florence said. “I just presented a business plan, a good business plan, for us to have the bank approve us. And our experiences in restaurants, that’s one of the qualifications we have — that, and our determination.

“I told them it’s not easy to build a restaurant. It takes patience and lots of courage. But my goal is, never give up.”

 Florence said she’s happy to finally feel settled in Canada, with all her family here and a business of her own.

 “My husband really loves to cook, and I love running a business and seeing people enjoying themselves,” she said. “We’re really happy when someone comes here, and they eat and love the food.”