If you know little or nothing about Filipino food, you’re not alone— Filipino restaurants are rare in Chicago and the US in general. But this unique cuisine, influenced by Spanish and Chinese traditions, may be due for a big surge in popularity as more Americans give it a try. And the best place give it a try in Chicago is Isla Pilipina, whose website proclaims “You are at the home of the Filipino Culinary Movement."
A small, independent business in a strip-mall store-front, Isla Pillipina is one of those easy-to-miss places that often have the best ethnic cuisine. Drinks are BYOB, and there’s a liquor store next door. It’s a local favorite, and seating is limited, so reservations are a good idea.
If you’re unsure about the unfamiliar menu, just keep this in mind: there are certain taste sensations that transcend ethnicity and just about everything else. My favorite example, of course, is sausage. At Isla Pillipina you can try longanisa, a Spanish pork sausage (similar to chorizo or Portuguese linguica) that is beloved, in various forms, throughout the Spanish-speaking world. But perhaps no one takes it more seriously than the Filipinos, who have created hundreds of regional variations, featuring pork or other meats with indigenous spices.
Another global crowd-pleaser is the pork belly, better know in American as the place where bacon comes from. One of my favorite treats at Isla Pilipina is Lechon Kawali, a perfectly deep-fried pork belly cut into strips and served with a gravy-like dipping sauce— a simple and delicious approach to a simply delicious ingredient.
If you are already a fan of Filipino food, or a Filipino missing home, this is your new favorite place. It’s inspired glowing online reviews from Filipino and non-Filipino guests alike, and both seem to particularly love the Lumpia Shanghai, tiny deep-fried egg-rolls served with sweet and sour sauce. Whether you consider it an adventure or comfort food, you’re not likely to be disappointed.
Cover photo: islapilipina via Instagram.
After 17 years in Lincoln Square, Isla Pilipina closed its Lincoln Square location in April 2020 and plans to reopen in a new downtown location in May, depending on the COVID-19 situation.