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Diners enjoy the kamayan feast, a group meal from Vancouver’s Kulinarya Filipino Eatery on May 16, 2018.

DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

  • Kulinarya Filipino Eatery
  • Locations: 1134 Commercial Dr., Vancouver, 604-255-4155; 114-2922 Glen Dr., Coquitlam, 778-285-6577
  • Website:  kulinarya.ca
  • Cuisine: Filipino
  • Additional information: Open Tuesday to Sunday for lunch and dinner, hours vary. Reservations recommended for large parties and are essential for the kamayan feast, which must also be prepaid ($25 to $30 a person, six-person minimum) 48 hours in advance.
  • Rating system: Cheap eats

Whoa! Kulinarya’s kamayan feast makes a smashing first impression. When we arrive at the new Commercial Drive eatery (there is a second location in Coquitlam), the vibrant Filipino buffet has already been spread across a table-length cover of green banana leaves, looking like a tropical cornucopia that’s been charred over a fire pit, rolled out of a beach hut and greased with pork-infused coconut oil.

The actual preparation is a little less exotic (it all happens in the tiny back kitchen with gas ranges and deep fryers). But if you squint past the faux-brick wallpaper, get comfy in your tightly squeezed wooden chair and tune out the sidewalk hustle-and-bustle, this is a meal that will transport you to a white-sand beach where a glowing sun sets over turquoise waters.

Fried tilapia is part of the kamayan feast.

DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

Plentiful enough to feed a small village, our smorgasbord for six comes with crispy lechon kawali pork belly, tangy chicken adobo and meltingly tender kare-kare beef with chewy slivers of tripe that have been simmered for hours in a creamy peanut-based sauce. There is also succulent whole grilled squid (inihaw na pusit) stuffed with tomato-onion salsa and sliced like a folding concertina. And there are pinakbet vegetables, including a few shockingly astringent slices of bitter melon, stir-fried in fermented shrimp paste.

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It’s hard to determine where our five preselected dishes begin and end, what with so much food overflowing into a river of regular fixings – grilled corn, sweet plantains, fried yams, fresh cherry tomatoes, shatteringly crunchy spring rolls and soft, ruby-red longganisa sausage – all neatly heaped over a mound of garlic-steamed rice with several types of dipping sauces on the side. (The price for all this is just $30 a head.)

We hurriedly wash up at the sink (conveniently located in an open dining-room alcove) sit down and dig in. There are no forks, spoons or knives; this is a feast that you eat with your hands. Let the boodle fight begin.

Here is everything you need to know about it.

Why is it called a boodle fight?

Boodle fights, hand-eaten banquets with enough food to feed a small army, are becoming increasing popular around the world.

DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

This mess-hall-style free-for-all is a recent tradition in the Filipino military. It’s a bonding ritual, in which everyone eats together regardless of rank, using their hands as utensils and banana leaves for plates, as some people still do in the provinces. The term could be derived from “the whole kit and caboodle” – “kit” is a bag that holds a soldier’s equipment, while “boodle” is the U.S. military slang for contraband sweets.

Truth is, no really knows the exact etymology. Kulinarya’s co-owner Rose Samaniego says she had never even heard the term “boodle fight” when she began serving her kamayan feasts (kamay being the Tagalog word for doing something with your hands) when she began serving them at her original Coquitlam restaurant in 2010, a year after it opened. She named them after Dads Saisaki Kamayan in her hometown of Manila, the restaurant widely credited for popularizing the feasts.

Whatever you call it, these hand-eaten banquets with enough food to feed a small army are becoming increasing popular around the world (there are boodle-fight restaurants in Dubai, London, Toronto and even Winnipeg) and you are bound to hear much more about them.

Do I have to eat with my hands?

No, not at Kulinarya (either location). Cutlery is provided without judgement to anyone who asks. Interestingly, Ms. Samaniego says it is mostly her Filipino clients who refuse to eat with their hands. She says it’s a class issue.

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Where else can I find a boodle fight?

In Metro Vancouver, Kulinarya is the only Filipino restaurant that currently offers it. There was a small restaurant in Surrey called Grandt Kitchen that served boodle fights in the evening, but it recently closed and has yet to announce its new location. There is also a restaurant called Siga Siga on East Broadway that offers smaller version on platters, but it’s not quite the same.

Honestly, is it any good?

I was pleasantly surprised. Although the food is spread across the table, a small sampling of each dish is neatly portioned in front of diners so you don’t have to reach too far or duke it out with your tablemates. The dishes maintain their integrity without collapsing into mush or getting too muddled. The rice underneath was still hot nearly an hour after we began eating. The feast feels celebratory, not vulgar.

That said, this isn’t the best Filipino cooking I’ve ever tasted. The grilled items are all flavoured with gas; the deep-fried items are slightly overdone; the adobo is heavy on vinegar, short on soy; and the lechon sauce doesn’t give off the slightest whiff of liver.

Do they offer à la carte?

If you can tune out the sidewalk hustle and bustle, Kulinarya Filipino Eatery will transport you to a white-sand beach where a glowing sun sets over turquoise waters.

DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

Yes. The kamayan feasts are for special occasions and large parties (six diners minimum). There is an entire menu of smaller dishes, although they are also hit and miss.

Skip the pork-head sisig, no matter what Anthony Bourdain might say about this dish being the next big thing. The Kulinarya rendition isn’t sliced thin enough and the ratio is off, so the egg cracked overtop a sizzling platter turns everything into a sloppy frittata.

But do try the crispy pata. While often gelatinous, these deep-fried trotters are beautifully rendered so the fat melts into the meat, making it pull-apart tender. And definitely order the batil patong noodles, made with thick, yolk-yellow noodles and rich beef broth.

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Do they cater to vegans?

Yes! At the Commercial Drive location, they do, which is very unusual for such a meat-centric cuisine. Don’t bother with the tofu sisig (too dry), but the ginataang kalabasa is an amazing squash dish simmered in coconut cream grounded with oodles of deep, earthy umami flavour thanks to a dark-mushroom broth and a housemade fish sauce made with pineapple.

Anything else?

Order a cup of coffee. Well, maybe buy some beans and make it at home. It’s barako, a rare, wine-flavoured varietal only grown in the Philippines and on the verge of extinction. Unfortunately, the restaurant brews their drip coffee too weak. And it’s typical of the overall Kulinarya experience – really interesting, but could be fantastic if it tried just a little harder.

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