In my enduring quest to become more Filipino, I’ve concluded that success depends on two crucial factors: 1) consuming twice my bodyweight in pancit, and 2) hanging out with as many Filipinos as possible. One strategy for locating Filipinos in Chicago (and in general) involves hitting up every Catholic church in the city, but as the mere sight of rosary beads fills me with dread, I decided to follow the food route. Luckily, it only took a phone call and the promise of good conversation to hang out with Ray Espiritu, owner of Isla Pilipina (IS-LAH FIL-LAH-PEENAH) in Lincoln Square.
I agree to share a late Sunday dinner with Ray and fellow manager/ lifelong friend, Nicole, and I arrive just as the last diners polish off their lumpias and don on their winter coats. The kitchen’s closed for the night, but our food is already prepared, sitting on a counter of scattered event flyers. Indie music softly emanates through the small dining space as Nicole grabs a couple of PBRs for the gigantic feast:
Pork BBQ skewers, Spaghetti Delight (ground beef, pork, hot dog, parmesan cheese in tomato sauce over Spaghetti noodles) with fried chicken, crispy pata (deep fried pork knuckle), bicol express (spicy combination of meat , shrimp, squid, and mussels in coconut milk), mixed Adobo (chicken and pork in a sauce of garlic, vinegar, and black peppercorn)
As I viciously gnaw away at the pork skewers, I ask Ray how Isla got started. “I stumbled upon the restaurant when it was a small buffet that my parents owned. They eventually moved on to bigger and better things, and the restaurant was not part of that transition, so I came along with fingers-crossed and here I am 6 years later.” Instead of continuing with the buffet concept, Ray decided to make food to order. Nicole says, “A lot of people think that at Filipino restaurants, you gotta have mountainous Filipino style. But there’s a contemporary style.” Ray adds that his cooking philosophy utilizes traditional cooking techniques and ingredients but maintains relevance to their community and social environment. He says, “People who come from the Philippines just want [food] fast and now and they don’t care if it is presented on nice plate. We still get calls and people coming in here wondering where the buffet is.”
So what is Filipino food, I ask. “Adobo is Filipino Food 101. You can adobo shrimp, adobo frog legs, you can adobo anything,” Nicole tells me. Asian soul food, the bastard son of Indonesian cuisine, Ray adds. And like all good soul food, excess is the expected standard. Nicole recalls one of her first trips to the Philippines with her parents:
“I was maybe 10 years old, and we were at a party. So they bought out a tray of spaghetti, and I was like, sweet, lunch is here! I stuffed myself full with spaghetti and hot dogs, and then I was super full. 15 minutes later, they started bringing out the pata, lechon, and adobo. I was like—wait, I thought that was lunch. No, no, that was merienda, they said. That means snack.”
Nicole and Ray remind me of messenger-bag, Jack Kerouac-loving hipsters. Ray belongs in a band and plays the bass and triangle. Nicole volunteers for an organization that teaches kids how to farm. “When I grow up, I’m going to be a rock star,” Ray tells me, popping open his second can of PBR. I find Ray surprisingly reserved and soft-spoken, though his sarcastic humor quickly shines through. When I ask to photograph the back kitchen, he yells to his staff: “Hey, is it clean in there? Or are you guys still naked?” He turns back to me with a serious expression and says, “We do a lot of role play after hours.” Nicole says, “We’re all friends here, so even the cook is our friend. His name is Mario. And we have two other chefs, but we don’t even call them that. They’re in charge of their portion of the menu and have their own responsibilities and preparation.”
In fact, the camaraderie within Isla extends beyond the restaurant—Ray and Nicole are passionate supporters of their local community. For its past fundraisers, Isla has collaborated with Chicago artists, brewers, and restaurants, including Monti’s just a few blocks down. “[Monti’s] is so down to earth. Jennifer [owner] helped us out with our non-profit event because she’s an event planner and totally knows what she’s doing,” Nicole says. Rays also adds, “I love the restaurants in [our] neighborhood: Rockwell’s Neighborhood Grill, Monti’s or Fountainhead for the weeknights, Gather for the weekends. We love their food and everything their energies produce beyond it.”
As we continue to chat, I find that Ray and Nicole are just as passionate about social activism as they are about Isla. “What’s important to us is not necessarily becoming really rich and successful. For us, we just want to work together with other people. One of our priorities is empathy and being above having a huge chain of restaurants,” Nicole tells me. “And reciprocating wisdom to people. To educate,” Ray adds. In fact, Ray suddenly becomes very talkative when I ask him about Isla’s non-profit work:
We’re all involved in different organizations, but we are primarily integrated with Artfully Gifted, which I chair . Nicole is on the board also, and everyone else at the restaurant has a huge hand in every project. It’s a collaborative effort with the students of the Illinois Center for Rehabilitation and Education. Basically Artfully Gifted is a retail store. The products are made by the students (who are high school aged kids that are physically/mentally disabled), and the store is run by the students. We kind of just show them how to operate the store, the finances involved, customer service, etc. The other aspect of Artfully Gifted is the ‘incubator system’, which provides support to those who actually make the products. They can develop a business behind their products and ideas. Right now, our current programs are the Middle Chamber Urban Garden, which we hope to turn into an operating CSA format, and a music program, where the students learn to make music with computers and collaborate with local artists. We plan to release a CD sometime in the next year. It’s fun but we’re pretty serious about it, and they are too. A lot of them have a difficult time finding a job after graduation, so it gives them the confidence to be their own boss. We think this is an extension of the philosophy behind the restaurant.
I ask Ray and Nicole why non-profit work is so integrated into the restaurant’s mission. “It’s just human responsibility; it’s what you’re supposed to do,” Ray responds, shrugging frankly.
So where does Isla go from here, I ask. Ray responds, “I’d like to see the cuisine evolve into something more adventurous, and the space (wherever it may be) to be a little more bizarre as far as aesthetics. We see the current menu as proof of our philosophy, and with that evolving, we would like the menu to progress with it, but anything is possible I suppose. Our collective spirits may guide us beyond food establishments…or burgers with fries.” He tells me that the hardest part for any restaurant is adapting to change, let alone spearheading change. “A Filipino restaurant in a city that does not get much exposure to the cuisine can be a wonderful challenge. The easiest part of running Isla can be the same reason. We explore different ends of that spectrum throughout the day,” he says.
It’s two hours into our dinner, and I’ve slowed down on the sweet spaghetti and curried shrimp. I hadn’t even touched the pata in fear another bite would cause my stomach to rip apart at the seams. Our conversation devolved from racial and economic inequalities into Filipino stereotypes and death row meals. “Every Filipino is a great singer, and all Filipino uncles are great karaoke singers,” Nicole tells me. After careful contemplation, Rays responds, “I think I would like to offer myself as a vessel for the McRib to enter the spirit world.” I suppose when you own a Filipino restaurant, the last thing you want before dying is a bit bowl of adobo.