When Alpana Singh, host of WTTW-Ch. 11’s popular “Check, Please!” program, came to eat at his restaurant, Ray Espiritu grew suspicious. Soon after, his hunch was confirmed when the call came from one of the show’s producers: Isla Pilipina would be featured in the 2010 fall season premiere.
In short order, a camera crew arrived to interview Espiritu, shoot a number of Isla’s signature dishes and film crowd shots. For this tiny BYOB joint, which occupies a storefront space in a nondescript strip mall on Lawrence Avenue near Western, the attention was unexpected, though well deserved.
Since taking over Isla Pilipina from his parents about four years ago, Espiritu, a 27-year-old art school grad, has wrought a gradual transformation.
“It had a small niche; I had bigger dreams,” he says of Isla, whose name customers frequently abbreviate due to confusion over whether to pronounce Pilipina with a “P” or an “F.” (For the record, Espiritu says both are correct.)
With his parents’ mixed blessing—“They said, ‘Do what you want’ but were shaking their heads”—he began putting his own stamp on the restaurant. As expected, given his artistic background, he changed the décor, lending this budget eatery a more upscale feel. And he brought in Mario Nunez to run the kitchen.
“I found him through family friends,” says Espiritu. “He was a head chef in the Philippines in the 1980s. He’s amazing. He knows how a restaurant operates.”
Initially, Espiritu had plenty of time to apprentice under Nunez, as they were slow to attract customers. “To begin with, it was just the two of us,” he says. “We were modest, but we knew we needed to pay the bills.”
As with most things these days, the Internet proved crucial to Isla’s eventual success. “I just threw a web site up there,” Espiritu recalls. “I guess it was like a blog for me.” He frequently posted unusual offers to whoever might be reading, like a free egg roll for customers who called within the next minute. “It built a personality,” he says.
Isla was chugging along on a steady stream of loyal fans when “Check, Please!” came calling. Now they’re like indie music darlings suddenly playing to sold-out stadiums crowds.
“The next day was just kind of insane,” Espiritu says of the post-“Check, Please!” effect. “I guess I underestimated the show.”
In fact, he hadn’t even had time to pay much attention to his own restaurant’s reviews—though his mother was watching and noted, “You should have combed your hair.”
“I was working that night,” Espiritu explains. “We watched on a laptop that we passed around the kitchen. I was just more relieved it wasn’t bad.”
Espiritu is being characteristically humble. “Fantastic,” “amazing” and “exceptional” were just a few of the words used to describe Isla’s food and service, the kind of words that have translated into diners lining up outside Isla’s doors on weekends.
“For the first few weeks it was just non-stop,” Espiritu says of business. “We were exposed to a variety of customers and saw a lot of new faces.”
Already well known within the Filipino community—diners come from as far away as Ohio and order everything on the menu to take home with them—Isla is now attracting a number of people unfamiliar with the cuisine.
“We treat each customer like a good friend who’s trying something new,” he says. Though it’s hard to define what exactly Filipino cooking is, Espiritu knows what it isn’t. “People think it’s Chinese and Spanish mixed. No it’s not.
“I would like to say we’re healthy,” he continues, “but we’re pork heavy, with a lot of vinegar, salt and soy sauce.” Hard-pressed to name a favorite dish, he allows, “Today I feel like the spaghetti. What sticks out is the hot dogs in it.” And the fried chicken on the side.
Now that the “Check, Please!” bounce is beginning to taper off, Espiritu has more time to spend in the front of the house, explaining dishes to newcomers and making them feel at home. Not one to bask in the glare of the spotlight, he welcomes the return to business as usual, albeit as a less well-kept secret.
“I like hiding here,” he says of Isla’s off-the-beaten-path address. “It’s like when you were younger and had your own little fort.”
Though Espiritu admits to harboring thoughts of a larger kitchen and perhaps opening a second Isla location, he doesn’t aspire to become Chicago’s next restaurant mogul. “We don’t want to be the popular kid in class, we’re the nerdy kid. I want to stay humble.”