Entertainment Restaurants Bars

Worth a trip: Lumpia Shanghai at Isla Pilipina

Worth a trip: Lumpia Shanghai at Isla Pilipina
2501 W. Lawrence Ave. Unit D 773-271-2988

It's not so much a restaurant as it is a movement. When Ray Espiritu took over the Lincoln Square restaurant Isla Pilipina from his parents six years ago, it was very traditional, serving mostly expat Filipinos. Fresh out of art school, Espiritu didn't just want to serve food; he wanted to elevate Filipino cuisine and culture in Chicago. He wanted to help the community and create something that was an extension of his personality. "Any business is a form of art," he said. "There's a vibration from our audience. We feed off that and want to serve them well."

Espiritu took what was a drab storefront sandwiched in between a Little Caesars and a tiny liquor store and brightened it up with seafoam green paint, installed shiny new wood floors and comfy banquettes and put up scads of local art. Espiritu hand-illustrated the menu with stylized doodles, including a picture of a Filipino mom who I always imagine is scolding me to eat my vegetables.

While some Filipino spots let their food molder away in steam tables, Espiritu insisted on serving made-to-order dishes such as pancit ($7), stir-fried noodles mixed with vegetables and often meat, and brontosaurus-sized crispy pata ($15), deep-fried pork shanks with a richness that's nicely foiled by a vinegar-tinged dipping sauce. He and his chef Mario Nunez incorporated ingredients from local farms in to the restaurant's fare.

Visit most nights and Isla buzzes with the energy of a hot late-night Chinatown restaurant. But, instead of young Chinese students from UIC sopping up liquor from a Friday night drinking binge, there are a diverse group of young Filipinos, intrepid foodies and Lincoln Square families dining together.

The cornerstone of the Isla menu is the lumpia Shanghai. Pork, from a small farm in Indiana, and minced vegetables are wrapped in an eggroll-like wrapper (Isla imports these from the Philippines) and deep-fried until they emerge as mahogany-colored oil-dappled crispy cigar-shaped dumplings. They're somehow more addictive than a traditional Chinese eggroll, and though you'll be tempted to get the small order (10 for $3), go for the large (20 for $5). You'll eat them all.

Isla makes catering portions of these beauties as well. "They should replace vegetable trays and ranch dip," said Espiritu. "They should have them at Super Bowl parties." The restaurant makes 3,000 lumpia a day to keep up with demand. A couple years ago when I went to pick up a tray of 200 of the tasty rolls for a holiday shindig, Espiritu handed over the batch and said, "Here's your order of a million lumpia." All I could think was, "I wish he wasn't joking." I guarantee if he had given me that many, they would not have gone to waste.

Michael Nagrant is a RedEye special contributor. Reporters visit restaurants unannounced and meals are paid for by RedEye. redeye@tribune.com | @redeyeeatdrink

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
Related Content
  • Oklahoma fraternity's racist chant learned on a cruise
    Oklahoma fraternity's racist chant learned on a cruise

    Members of a University of Oklahoma fraternity apparently learned a racist chant that recently got their chapter disbanded during a national leadership cruise four years ago that was sponsored by the fraternity's national administration, the university's president said Friday.

  • In NYC building collapse, mayor cites 'inappropriately' tapped gas line; 2 missing
    In NYC building collapse, mayor cites 'inappropriately' tapped gas line; 2 missing

    Someone may have improperly tapped a gas line before an explosion that leveled three apartment buildings and injured nearly two dozen people, Mayor Bill de Blasio said Friday as firefighters soaked the still-smoldering buildings and police searched for at least two missing people.

  • Construction ongoing at Wrigley Field
    Construction ongoing at Wrigley Field

    From bleachers to structural details, work to renovate Wrigley Field continues.

  • Emanuel uses borrowing to cope with Daley's debt burden
    Emanuel uses borrowing to cope with Daley's debt burden

    Mayor Rahm Emanuel has reduced spending and increased fines, fees and certain taxes to shrink the chronic budget deficits left over from his predecessor, Richard M. Daley.

  • Six Flags Great America's lost attractions
    Six Flags Great America's lost attractions

    Not every ride's the Willard's Whizzer. That iconic coaster debuted in 1976 when Marriott's Great America, now Six Flags Great America, in Gurnee, Ill., first opened. And it's still popular today. But for every Whizzer there's a Tidal Wave, Shockwave or Z-Force, rides existing only in memory.

  • Denim's just getting started
    Denim's just getting started

    Five years ago, denim-on-denim defied all of the dire warnings in the "Undateable" handbook: Instead of evoking John Denver or Britney Spears in her misstyled youth, chambray shirts paired with darker blue jeans became as cool as actor Johnny Depp and street-style heroine Alexa Chung.