Isla Pilipina is back — kind of — as the esteemed Filipino restaurant returns starting on Thursday for a street food pop-up called Pultan Chicago. Isla’s chefs Ray Espiritu and David Owoeye are collaborating with two chefs — Verlord Laguatan and Zubair Mohajir of Wazwan — a food stall at Politan Row that’s taken over the West Loop food hall’s outdoor space during the pandemic. This is another new idea from the Wazwan team that will serve up halal versions of well- and lesser-known Filipino dishes. It’s also a challenge for a cuisine that utilizes a lot of pork in dishes popular in America.
The pop-up will last from Friday to Sunday at Politan Row. Check out the menu. It took a pandemic for this collaboration to come together, but they’ve been talking it for two years. Laguatan and Mohajir were loyal customers at Isla Pilipina, the iconic Filipino restaurant that lasted 17 years before closing in 2020. For Espiritu, this is a chance to try something new. This isn’t research and development on a new incarnation of his restaurant. The pop-up will feature some old favorites from Isla Pilipina as well as new pulutan (small bites) dishes. For example, they’ll serve oxtail kare-kare. But this pop-up is also about expanding what Americans know about Filipino cuisine. They’ll serve a chicken adobo bun (siopao). But no lumpia: “It’s about more than lumpia,” jokes Mohajir, Wazwan’s founder.
For Laguatan, it’s a chance to explore his Filipino roots. He grew up in a small farm town in the Philippines. He and his family arrived in 2007 to Chicago. He studied to become an engineer before enrolling in culinary school. He would later meet Mohajir while working at the Pump Room in Gold Coast. He also worked for Michelin-starred Sepia.
There are more than 6 million Muslims living in the Philippines, which means halal Filipino isn’t unheard of, says Laguatan. There’s a certain challenge in finding solutions and tweaks to make a dish halal for the chefs. Laguatan says they spent many late nights brainstorming ideas. Take lechon, a dish with many variants. The pig is roasted for several hours for a signature crispy and crackling skin. Replicating that crunch is difficult without the pig, but the Wazwan crew found a substitute: duck. Mohajir, who has sourced halal brisket for American-style smoked barbecue, tracked down halal duck.
Chicken sothanghon soup is another dish Laguatan mentions. It’s just a matter of tweaking the process and making sure the smoked chicken bones for the broth are halal to properly build flavors. They’ll also have desserts like ube ice cream with a bubble waffle.
“The key is never losing sight of the fun,” Laguatan says.
Last month, Wazwan, which normally specializes in South Asian flavors, hosted a pop-up with halal ramen. They sold out in a few hours, as they were “bum-rushed” by customers. Mohajir is opening the door to many modern foods that Muslim who keep halal have never had a chance to try. The modern and creative approach excites Espiritu. This could be the start of a beautiful business relationship.
“The relationship is just starting to grow,” he says. “We haven’t started yet. But whatever form it takes, it’s a collaborative stream of creativity that will continue. One can only say how radical. Who knows?”
Pulatan Chicago, Politan Row, 111 N. Aberdeen Street, open 3 p.m. to 10 p.m. on Thursday and Friday; noon to 10 p.m. on Saturday; noon to 7 p.m. on Sunday.