Filipino food hasn’t quite permeated Canberra’s culinary scene in the same way as, say, Vietnamese or Korean. But it’s a cuisine that is definitely worth searching out if you’re looking for a new favourite, and Papa J’s is a great place to start.
The Naboya family started Papa J’s as a food stall at the 2015 Pasko sa Canberra Christmas event run by the Philippine Embassy. Customers loved their food and kept asking, “When will you open a restaurant?”
Now situated in Dickson, Papa J’s Resto Bar is still a family affair. Joemel Naboya – the eponymous Papa J – runs the kitchen and his daughter Keena Naboya manages front of house. With a riot of colourful murals and an upbeat pop soundtrack in the background, it’s a fun setting to have a culinary adventure.
Keena explained that the flavours on the menu come from the country’s rich history.
“Filipino food is fusion! We’ve got a lot of food from the Chinese and Thai influences and we’ve got a little bit of the Spanish as well,” she told Region.
“We have noodles, dumplings … and popular dishes like adobo chicken.”
The menu at Papa J’s is heavy on the meat – Keena tells me that Filipinos love their pork! – and there’s a mix of barbecue meats, bao snacks, noodles, rice and soups. But something that really sets Filipino food apart is the boodle feast, which is why I’ve come to Papa J’s.
A boodle feast, Keena explains, is a style of communal eating where banana leaves are laid down and all the food is piled in the centre of the table and eaten with your hands.
“You’ve got rice in the middle and then you’ve got your seafood, you’ve got your grilled pork belly and barbecued meats … and then you’ve always got a mix of salsas and sauce to kind of cut through the fat.”
The boodle feast is usually for a minimum of four people, but Keena and Papa J have kindly offered a two-person version for myself and a friend. The banana leaves are spread on the table and then Papa J comes from the kitchen with a large tray. First, the rice goes onto the banana leaf and then some spring rolls, and crispy fried chicken skin. Papa J tells us that he’s removed the bones from the whole fried milkfish. Two pieces of grilled chicken and a bowlful of noodles also go on the banana leaves before different sauces are placed around the table.
To be honest we’re a little awestruck at the feast before us but we dig into the spring rolls and crispy pieces of chicharon chicken skin, which are dangerously moreish and perfect when dunked in the accompanying vinegar.
The milkfish is a standout of the feast: soft flaky flesh and crispy fried skin. A spoonful of mango and coriander salsa makes it feel light and zesty. We also really enjoy the grilled chicken thigh with lemongrass and ginger, served on the bone to keep the meat juicy and flavourful.
Despite happily using our hands for the rest of the feast we sensibly opt for forks to tackle the rice noodles with vegetables, chicken seasoned with salty soy sauce.
It’s a mountain of food for just two of us – there’s a reason they recommend a minimum of four! – but we make a solid dent, and manage to squeeze in some room for slices of watermelon and orange quarters which are added to the table for a refreshing finish.
I drank a punyeta cocktail made with Filipino spiced rum, iced tea, lemon and pineapple juice. It’s a delicious tropical drink that’s not too sweet and works really well with the meal. Papa J’s has a selection of imported Filipino beers and spirits, which you might need for courage on karaoke night! Karaoke is a hugely popular pastime in the Philippines and Papa J’s runs regular open-mic karaoke sessions.
The boodle feast was a great way to try lots of different things and was also honestly a lot of fun! I’d definitely return to try some other dishes on their menu like the crispy adobo chicken bao, or the palabok noodles.
Whether you sing your heart out at karaoke or visit on a quiet night, eat with your hands or stick to cutlery, Papa J’s cooking will surely add Filipino food to your favourite cuisines.
Papa J’s is located at 21 Challis St Dickson, entry from the rear of the building.
They are open for dinner seven days a week, and for lunch on Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 12 to 3 pm.
Karaoke Night is Friday night from 6:30 pm: bookings essential.
Follow Papa J’s on Facebook or Instagram, and find out more details about catering on their website.