News & Features

Foodie Faves: Isla Pilipina

February 17 2015 - 9:00 AM

Once in a while, we come across a hidden gem worth talking about. To make sure we got it right, we’ll get a second opinion before bringing it to you. This is part of a new series we’re calling Foodie Finds. Our first is a spot unknown to most, with the exception of the loyal Yelp following. We bring you La Isla Pilipina.


The Space
Marly Schuman:
Isla Pilipina isn’t exactly a place you’d wander into off the street. It’s literally in a strip mall. The place is small and surprisingly crowded, so I’d recommend making a reservation even on a week night.

M. Sheppard: The strip mall which houses Isla sits across the street from a Burger King, and the restaurant itself is adjacent to a Little Caesars and a convenience store.  Need I say “no frills”? Indeed, to call Isla’s interior simple and compact borders on embellishment.

Isla’s limited seating – it perhaps seats 20 – is usually full or nearly so, and for good reasons.  Their focus is on quality and they deliver in spades.  The relatively dim lighting provides a soothing mellowness.


The Food and Drinks
M. Schuman:
Where do I start…BYOB! There’s a liquor store next door, and no limit to bottles or corkage fee. Dishes are incredibly flavorful and reasonably priced. You must get the garlic rice and the egg rolls. I’d also highly recommend the Bicol Express, which features the freshest squid and mussels, along with a flavorful coconut sauce.

The food to me definitely has a Thai flair, full of unique spices and sauces I couldn’t get enough of. I’ve heard it is extremely authentic for Filipino food – although I’m not sure I’m sold on their spaghetti dish with cut up hot dogs mixed in. In my opinion, skip the halo halo dessert (one of my least faves) and instead opt for the ube ice cream, a purple yam ice cream I couldn’t get enough of.

M. Sheppard: At a place with food this delicious and authentic, the liberal BYOB policy is simply, shall I say, gravy.  Many beverages would easily pair with Isla’s wide array of dishes and flavors.  As for appetizers, I immediately fell for the chewy pork BBQ skewers, which have an irresistible spicy and tangy flavor and an inviting, saucy red appearance.  Lately I’m in love with the lumpia Shanghai, which are crispy mini egg rolls with either pork or vegetables, served with a sweet-and-sour sauce (they pair nicely with spicy German mustard if you opt for takeout).

If I’m dining in then it’s hard not to order the red snapper (pictured above).  During my first visit my friends and I ripped into fish’s crispy skin and tender meat, leaving few visible remains.  Perhaps my favorite comfort food this winter is Isla’s tinolang manok soup.  Isla serves a variety of soups, but the tinolang (“manok” is Filipino for chicken) comes in a medium-dense, savory broth which is lively with ginger and loaded with cabbage and onions.


Bicol ExpressThe Service

M. Schuman: If you’ve never had Filipino food, this is a great place to try it out. Most servers are extremely helpful and will offer suggestions on what to order if you’re overwhelmed.

M. Sheppard: I love the staff!  They’re young, hip, super relaxed, and are well versed on the menu’s intricacies.  If you have questions about a menu item they will happily give you a detailed and accurate explanation.  Food turnaround times are quite rapid. I love, too, that the staff usually has Spotify cranking out some of the coolest, funkiest music, but it’s never too loud.


The Verdict

M. Schuman: This is a place I would return to (and I have), and I don’t say that often. It’s almost so cheap it’s scary. Appetizers, your own entree and a shared dessert will run you only about $20. Come with a group so you can share a bunch of dishes, and you won’t be disappointed. Be prepared for leftovers and a stomach full of garlic rice.

M. Sheppard: Every winter I have that one moment, usually right after I slip and fall on the ice.  I’ll ask myself why I live in Chicago.  But thanks to diverse, unique places like Isla, winters here are sufferable.  Isla feels authentic and the food certainly tastes so.  Plus it’s relatively cheap and you can stuff yourself silly on various meat, fish and vegetable dishes for around $20.  It’s perfect for groups but your date will consider you an insider for knowing about the little Filipino restaurant that could (and does).

La Isla Pilipina
2501 W. Lawrence
Chicago, IL 60625