Does Filipino cuisine have a publicity rep? Because if it does, he should be working overtime right now. At every hip gastropub in town — and certainly there is no shortage of those — the pig has been elevated to princely levels. It's a mathematical certainty that the menu will feature some kind of fatty slab of pork belly — deep-fried, braised for hours on end, charred over smoke-perfumed grills — or perhaps crunchy bits of pork skin, or fried pig ear, or sugar-glazed lardons, being passed around communal tables like movie popcorn. Yet as anyone who has tasted a sizzling piece of lechon kawali — cubes of deep-fried pork belly lashed with soy and citrus — can attest, this type of food is nothing new to Filipino palates.
Hard-core foodies had been predicting for years that Filipino food would be the next “ethnic” cuisine to blow up with the dining public, but it never really happened. Some suggested that many of its cherished dishes were too heavy and offal-centric for mainstream palates, while others lamented that too much of the Philippines' dining culture revolved around turo-turo, or point-point joints, which served prepared stews out of steam-table and heat-lamp set-ups — an aspect not conducive to a full-service restaurant. A few years ago, even the most formal Filipino restaurant in town wasn't much better than the bakery/deli down the street where you could swing by and pick up a pint of chicken adobo for a few bucks.
But when you enter Eagle Rock's Isla Cocina Pilipina, passing through automatic sliding doors into a dining room done over in handsome wood and dark curtains, there is a palpable sense that this is something far different from what you expected. Isla Cocina is the brainchild of brothers Nick and Martin Tolosa, motivated dudes who grew up in Eagle Rock and wanted to showcase their mother's recipes to a broader audience. The matriarch, Encarnación “Baby” Tolosa, works in the kitchen a few days a week, while the rest of the kitchen is staffed by recruits from the nearby Cordon Bleu. The space previously was Barrio Fiesta, one of the city's old-guard restaurants among the Manila expats; its transformation into its current form couldn't be a more fitting metaphor.
To start the meal, a small bowl filled with chicken skin chicharones appears along with a dish of spicy coconut vinegar — a homemade concoction that's sold in bottles near the front counter — tinted with ginger and a staggering amount of garlic. There's no alcohol license yet, but imagine how well those crunchy squares of skin would go with a glass of tapuy, a Filipino rice wine similar to sake, which the restaurant plans to stock.
Most of the menu is dedicated to a selection of bargain-priced small plates: mussels and water spinach steamed in a tangy tamarind broth; sweet chili sauce and the crispy pencil-length egg rolls stuffed with chicken known as lumpia; dinguguan, a traditional, midnight-black stew thickened with pork blood and bits of beef, which comes with spongy white rice cakes for dipping; sisigsilog, a heavily vinegared and peppered stir-fry of chopped pig scrapings, peppers, onions and a fried egg. (It's one of the Philippines' most beloved drunk foods, if you couldn't guess.)
There are sisig nachos, too, a crosscultural mixture of that same spicy, sizzling pork blended with salsa and queso fresco. The longanisa sliders, made on pan de leche rolls with crumbled sweet red sausage and a smear of tangy garlic aioli, are far superior to the slapdash mini-burgers that comprise so many happy hour specials.
Vegetarians should perk up too; kare-kare, traditionally made with oxtail and peanut butter soup and often tasting like someone dumped a jar of Skippy into a meaty stewpot, becomes a complex veggie curry here, with hints of nutmeg and annato, and loaded with tender seitan, string beans, eggplant and baby bok choy. It comes with a vegetarian version of the salty shrimp paste called bagooong, made with extra-funky fermented bean curd, which might be one of the most oddly astounding condiments in town.
It's the dish of grilled pork ribs slicked with a molasses-and-garlic glaze that will attract the most converts, though. Supple enough to put neighboring barbecue joints to shame, the plate comes with a mound of mashed sweet potatoes and laing, a coconut milk-simmered mixture of taro leaves and collard greens amped up with a barrage of spices — imagine a plate of really good soul food set adrift through the South Pacific.
There's soda pop from Galco's nearby and fresh young coconuts to drink (they'll even scrape out the tender inner meat afterwards if you ask). Dessert is a caramel-drizzled egg roll stuffed with ripe banana and jackfruit served with a scoop of Fosselman's ultra-rich ube ice cream, or halo-halo, a kind of creamy shaved ice mish-mash popular during the hot tropical summers.
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