Wednesday, 3.30pm. Kids, teens and young families pour in. Twenty minutes later the tables are adorned with sundae glasses of halo halo (a cold dessert made from crushed ice, condensed milk and fruit) so textured and colourful each vessel looks like a snow globe depicting an alien landscape.

Saturday, midday. Wednesday afternoon’s tables form one long tabletop. It’s covered with banana leaves and surrounded by people. A chef and a helper layer it with rice, fried fish, salted eggs, barbequed pork, steamed okra, deep-fried pork knuckle, fruit and pickles. Everyone eats with their hands.

Sunday, 10am. A few solo Filipino diners hunch over noodle soups that smell like garlic, pork and barbequed meat.

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All of this in a small Kogarah grocer that’s just a few months old. It’s called Filipino Fiesta, and it has fewer than 30 seats set between a wall of imported Filo snacks and cooking essentials and a wall of shiny tiles. There’s no menu, just a rotating bain-marie selection and customers asking “Can you make this?” It serves dishes such as roast pork (served from the bain-marie); kare-kare (a thick peanut and ox-tail stew); and dinuguan (a dark-purple blood- and pork-based stew). But it’s best known for its boodle fights.

Boodle fights are a celebratory Filipino tradition that likely originated in the military. How do you feed a large number of troops efficiently, regardless of location? Lay banana leaves out on a table, set a long mound of rice down the middle, then place everything else (meat, fish, veggies, fruit, salted eggs and spring rolls) on top. All the soldiers, or in this case Filipino Fiesta diners, tuck in with their hands. No need for cutlery, plates or formality. Then wrap up the banana leaves and hurl them into the bin. Efficient and festive.

Cristina Bontjer runs it all. She had been working as a cleaner when her friend convinced her to chase her dream.

“I wanted to change my life,” she tells Broadsheet. “I am proud to be a cleaner, I need to pay my mortgage, I am not ashamed. I just want to change my life and be the owner of a Filipino restaurant in Australia. That was my dream.”

It had been her plan since she started cooking with her mum as a teen in Iloilo City, on Panay Island. Her mum owned a stall serving barbeque and local dishes, and Bontjer would help out after school.

“It’s in the provinces, here we call it ‘woop woop’. It’s a very different life to the big city. Our food is quite different; we are Ilonggo people, we cook Ilonggo food,” she says.

But after Bontjer married and came to Sydney in 1997, she never had the courage or finances to launch her own diner until a friend suggested they go into business together. That friend is no longer around, so Bontjer is hustling to maintain a restaurant, a grocer and her two day jobs. “It’s crazy. It’s hard for me coming after work but I hope one day it will all work.”

The restaurant has been a success thanks to its popularity among Filipinos who come for its boodle fights but also for the range of dishes Bontjer offers. The bain-marie is often flush with recipes you won’t often find in Sydney (look out for crispy ulo ng baboy, which is similar to crispy pata, a deep-fried pork-knuckle dish served with a vinegar-heavy dip, but made with pig’s head). She also makes batchoy, an egg-noodle chicken soup that’s typical in Iloilo. It has (a lot of) fried garlic, bone marrow, crispy pork skins and pork innards.

Filipino Fiesta’s also been a winner because it’s good value. “It’s important to me. I am the same as a customer, it needs to be affordable.”

If you go on a weekend, try karaoke under the restaurant’s disco lights. And if you’re keen on a boodle fight, call ahead. Prices start at $25.

Filipino Fiesta
9 Regents Street, Kogarah
(02) 9553 6921

Mon to Fri 9.30am–8pm
Sat & Sun 9.30am–9pm

This is another edition of Broadsheet’s Local Knowledge series, where Nick Jordan explores the eateries at the heart of Sydney’s different cultural communities. Read more here.