Pilipino Cuisine Crash Course at Isla Restaurant

by Oct 4, 2017

My wife, Nadia and fly out of San Francisco Airport… again.
And my parents, drive us all the way up to the airport to see us off…. again.
As usual, we eat something before we go as apart of our goodbye rituals… again.

Isla Restaurant TL;DR

  • Pilipino Restaurant
  • Near San Francisco Airport
  • Known for Insanely Large Woven Basket Party Platters

My parents, Joey and Dolly, always ask Nadia and I where we would like to eat. Knowing her so well, I defer to Nadia’s preferences already agreeing with her predetermined choices. Since we don’t typically eat out for Pilipino cuisine and since there are a number of tasty Pilipino options in the the San Bruno area, it’s an opportunity we ever pass up.

This time around, they drive us down El Camino pulling off to a side road, parking right in front of this small unassuming building, with an awning that says “isla” on a street of small unassuming buildings.

Every time we go to a Pilipino restaurant, I feel it’s like I’m learning all about my culinary birthright all over again. It’s funny, the person who cooks Pilipino food at home is not me. Nadia will at times develop a yearning for stewed pork adobo and garlic rice. She will have me cook tortang talong (Pilipino eggplant omelet), something I only recently learned how to cook because she likes it so much. Perhaps we’ll bring Nadia’s parents here one day for an introduction to Pilipino cuisine.

I sit there watching Nadia and my parents go back and forth about what to order, taking it all in. The one thing they don’t need to discuss is whether or not to get dessert; there’s always room for Isla Restaurant halo halo (shaved ice dessert in a glass). As they pick and order our dishes, I get sentimental over moments like this.

These meals become more and more rare, especially more so in light of our move to Singapore. We talk at length about our immediate plans, whether we packed enough things, and what to do with our stateside affairs.

Beef Brisket Nilaga at Isla Restaurant San Bruno

Before I know it, the soup comes out. Honestly, I’m not too familiar with Pilipino food as much as everyone else at the table. Having grown up eating these dishes, I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve taken them for granted and never really learned their names or any other details as I typically would.

Like every other ethnic culinary venue, Isla Restaurant serves dishes with their own particular regional variation of Pilipino dishes. Their piping hot pot of, what I’m told is nilaga smells amazing (a beef brisket soup with carrots, bananas, and cabbage). After serving everyone a bowl, I finally got to dig into my own bowl. Slurping it down the rich beef broth, a soul warming cozy feeling radiated from the pit of my stomach. I don’t know if that’s normal or it’s just me but anymore would have filled me up before the main course arrived.

The soup is only a little more than half way eaten when Isla’s sulit bilao (value packed, large banana leaf covered, woven basket) is carried out of the kitchen nearly toppling over with all my favorite deep fried and grilled dishes (picture at the top of the post). This pulutan is basically every Pilipino finger food that I would associate with a night out at the bars, washing it all down with copious amounts of beer. Surrounding a steaming mountain of fluffy white rice are the usual suspects:

  • Chicharrón (deep fried pork rinds)
  • Lumpia Shanghai (little deep fried spring egg rolls)
  • Hard Boiled Eggs
  • Deep Fried Chicken Wings
  • Inihaw na Hipon (grilled shrimp)
  • Inihaw na Liempo (grilled pork belly)
  • Daing na Bangus (fried marinated milk fish)
  • Inihaw na Pusit (grilled squid)
  • Prawn Crackers (prawn flavored chips)
  • Crispy Pata (crispy deep fried pig trotter)
  • Longganisa (pork sausage)

It is more than enough to satiate our hunger and mildly fills the gap in the conversation with sounds of utensils and chewing. Actually, it’s much too much for simply a group of 4 but at least none of us leave hungry.

Ube Halo Halo with Leche Flan at Isla Restaurant San Bruno

It’s weird to say this but I don’t really like halo halo. Don’t get me wrong, I love the ice cream but everything else can be hit or miss for me. The same can’t be said for Nadia and my parents though. They love everything about the assorted jelly topped, evaporated milk drenched shaved ice.

Maybe it’s the varying textures, or the cloyingly sweetness of it all that overwhelms my delicate palate but maybe I simply just like ube (a naturally purple and uniquely Pilipino sweet yam) ice cream even more.

Yeah, I think I just like ice cream more.

Another meal, another flight, another goodbye. For me, it’s a poignant moment, replacing my future feelings of parental withdrawal with the fulfillment of my immediate hunger. This striking contrast of needs will probably haunt me the further I reflect on it. I put those thoughts aside and get on the plane. I figure the sooner I eat, the sooner I leave, then the sooner I can come back.

To say hello… again.

Isla Restaurant


What’s your favorite Pilipino dish?

You're going to eat, you might as well eat something tasty.
Please Share and Comment!
[wdi_feed id="6"]