Asia is one of the most interesting continents when it comes to cuisine. You might be asking yourself, “Uh, what’s so special about sushi, korean barbecue, and orange chicken?” Well, hate to break it to you that there is much more to Asian cuisine than that given the sheer size of the continent and number of different cultures that inhabit its regions spanning from Turkey to Japan. This geographic spread contributes to the variety found in this corner of the world, but some country’s cuisines are more popular than others in the US. For example, the food items I previously mentioned are probably the first cuisines that come to peoples’ minds when you say “Asian food”, i.e. Japanese, Chinese, and Korean food. Vietnamese and Thai food are more recent entries to the public consciousness due to increased immigration from South/Southeast Asia, and they all have their own special place in the ever expanding American palate. However, one country that doesn’t get the foodie hype that its other neighbors receive but really should is Filipino food. Janice and I got well acquainted with many island delights in Chicago at Lincoln Square’s Isla Pilipina Restaurant.
We’ve walked past this place all the time around dinnertime, and it has been packed without fail. Naturally, when we went it was no different. After waiting for a table to open in the funky fresh interior that was bumping an odd mix of rap and oldies out of the overhead speakers, we finally managed to take a seat amidst the madness of the waitstaff toward the back of the restaurant. Looking over the menu, I could see the influences of a number of cultures including Chinese, Vietnamese, and Spanish. That last one might come as a surprise to some, but Spain unified the roughly 7,000 islands into the country of the Philippines back in the 1600s. The name of the country even comes from the name of the king of Spain at the time, Felipe (Phillip) II. During Spanish colonial rule, the Spanish and Filipino cultures intermingled through marriage and food which still can be seen today in the names of the dishes offered at Isla Pilipina like pata, adobo, and guisado. It’s a byob restaurant as well if you’re interested in knocking a few back with your meal. We started the meal with a plate of 20 lumpia Shanghai ($5/ $3 for 10). The name of this dish comes from the Hokkien (Southern Chinese) word lunpia, and they are clearly carry-overs from the mainland. They’re basically deep fried mini-egg rolls that according to the menu are filled with pork, egg, jicama, green onions, carrots, soy sauce, and love. I could especially taste the love above all of the other ingredients. Seriously though, I quickly learned that there’s a reason why they sell them in a plate of 10 or 20 rolls. The fried dough that envelops all of the fresh and savory meat and veggies is the best part. These golden brown, crunchy, and flaky nuggets of heaven are paired with a semi-watery sweet and sour sauce that has some chili flakes floating in it to add a little pep to these pipsqueak poppers. I highly recommend starting off with them and get a 20 roll plate because they go down way too easily especially if you’re sharing with others. As for our main courses, Janice got the pancit bihon ($8) with a side of the garlic rice ($6) that apparently everyone on Yelp was raving about. Pancit, like lumpia, comes from the Hokkien language. It is derived from “pian i sit” which means “convenient food”. I could see why since it was basically pan fried rice noodles with sauteed chicken and mixed vegetables. A simple meal to be whipped together at a moment’s notice if necessary. I helped myself to a couple forkfuls, and personally, I found it to be quite bland. The ingredients were fresh and all that good stuff, but it didn’t really taste like much. Even with the addition of lemon juice from the lemon slices that were provided on the side, I couldn’t really get into the pancit since I was more focusing on the citric tang than the actual noodles. The same could be said about the garlic rice. I don’t understand why everyone thought it the be all end all of side dishes. True, nothing smells better than cooked garlic, but it basically was plain Jasmine rice that was superficially pan fried with garlic. In essence, it was like long grain white rice with some garlic salt on it. It’s better when combined with other food if anything, but it’s not rave worthy or even worth your time, in my opinion. My entree, the lechon kawali ($11), was the opposite of these blander dishes. This deep fried pork belly is a remnant of both Chinese and Spanish cuisine, including the Spanish name, and it was anything but a shrinking violet in this garden of eatin’. It was a giant piece of pork that spanned my dinner plate, and it was even pre-cut which was piece de resistance! Each piece of the lechon was a layer cake of different pork elements. While the upper portions consisted more of the crunchy, salty pork skin and firm white meat, the lower echelons of the belly was where the money was. I hit the jackpot every time when I reached the thin layer of fat that gave way to the most succulent and flavorful part of the pig. Mixing these pieces with the garlic rice was a tasty combo, but the Filipino gravy was a bit of a mystery to me. While part of it tasted like a sweet steak sauce, it had this hint of musty funk that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. It didn’t ruin the meal at all though. I was definitely more satisfied with my entree than Janice’s. If you like bacon or any type of pork product, I highly recommend the lechon, and I’ve heard good things about their pata as well. Even though it was a lot of food for a reasonable amount of money, I still wanted to try one of the most iconic Filipino desserts: halo halo ($6). Meaning “mix-mix” in Tagalog, not me stuttering the name of a Beyonce song, this classic and wildly popular dessert has become quite famous outside of the Philippines thanks to Filipino migration to the USA to typical hubs like Los Angeles and Chicago. Even Anthony Bourdain has succumbed to its wildly colorful grasp. It’s a ridiculous melange of crushed ice, red bean paste, white beans, lychee jelly, coconut shavings, coconut milk, and it was all topped off with a scoop of taro root ice cream, a slice of flan, and a cherry. Nothing too complicated. Now, if you’ve read any of my other blogs, you know that my relationship with red bean paste is one of revulsion almost on par with my dislike of pasta, so I naturally approached this dessert with a wariness similar to an unexploded ordinance, just ready to blow up in my mouth even though I’m a veteran of trying the gross red bean paste. Yet, it also had one of my favorite Asian dessert ingredients as well: taro. This purple root vegetable may look like a sweet potato, but it is the bomb (a good one) when it comes to taste. I normally get it in bubble tea, but the ice cream on top of the halo halo tasted just the same. I don’t know what they do to this tuber, but it literally tastes like vanilla cookies. It’s like making potatoes taste like chocolate bars. Mind. Blown. Plus, the addition of the Spanish flan, that was quickly picked up by my girlfriend, was a nice touch. After picking at the parts I knew I liked, I dove into it spoon first. Luckily, all of the other sweet elements like the coconut and lychee covered up the red bean flavor, and it was like a super diverse slushy. I ended up mixing the taro ice cream in with the rest of the ingredients, and it was like a purple vanilla milk shake with ice chunks and the occasional sweet jelly piece. I would definitely go for another halo-halo, but I couldn’t finish it all because it was pretty big as well for the price.