In their quest for a new home for Filipino restaurant Isla, formerly sheltered at the late Fort Street Galley, JP Garcia and Jacqueline Joy Diño had their eyes set on Midtown Detroit. The walkable college neighborhood encompassing Wayne State University seemed ideal to the husband-and-wife chefs and co-owners, who were looking to capture diners seeking business lunches and evening dinners.
It would seem unexpected, then, to arrive at the restaurant’s new digs instead in a Macomb County strip mall with signage for Target and Lowe’s at the entrance.
The departure from the Detroit scene, however, is brilliantly intentional. Situated in Sterling Heights, adjacent to neighborhoods with dense Asian American populations — and therefore a thriving Asian dining scene — Isla’s new Metro Parkway eatery fits right in. And as the area’s first made-to-order, dine-in Filipino restaurant, it unequivocally stands out.
Among myriad Cantonese takeout joints, Thai restaurants, Japanese sushi bars, and Asian markets in neighboring Oakland County, Filipino cuisine is familiar enough to those who’ve developed a palate for noodle and rice dishes, yet eclectic enough to diversify the landscape with new flavors.
The Southeast Asian archipelago’s cultural influences show up in its colorful cuisine. Umami flavors from soy and fish sauces draw from neighboring Asian nations while Spanish terms and preparations typify the region’s European history. Tropical ingredients, such as coconut and papaya, and an abundance of seafood speak to its geographic setting surrounded by the Pacific Ocean.
Natives of Iloilo City, the capital of the Province of Iloilo on Panay Island, Garcia and Diño say dishes at Isla are reflective of the culinary traditions of their hometown. Annatto is used to punch up the color of Chicken Adobo, the unofficial dish of the Philippines, made hundreds of ways across the stretch of islands. And juicy, saccharine mangoes complement sweet and savory dishes as they would in the beach town.
Though running the risk of competition, the juxtaposition of Isla among other Asian restaurants proved to be a successful approach for Garcia and Diño during their time at Fort Street Galley. Alongside Pursue, a former Korean seafood stall at Fort Street Galley, and Maru Sushi and Grill, the Japanese spot just next door, Isla thrived. The stall drew herds of diners and consistently sold out of dishes daily. “Since we were really doing something unique in there, we were always the busiest stall,” Garcia says. “The experience led us to think we could do our own thing.”
The duo, both technically trained — Garcia at The Art Institute of Michigan in Novi and Diño at The French Pastry School in Chicago — excels at creating abstract versions of Filipino dishes in ways that appeal to discriminating palates. There’s Pinoy Baked Spaghetti and Wings inspired by a fast-food chain in the Philippines known for its crispy fried chicken and spaghetti pairing. “People love that,” Garcia says. “It’s something that’s different but approachable.” Desserts are imaginative, too. Now a ubiquitous ingredient showing up in places like Huddle Soft Serve’s creamy custards, ube, featured in a confection designed by Diño, wins the hearts of curious diners. The Tropical Ube Cake is moist — a dense moisture achieved by a blend of the purple yam and almond flour — mildly sweet, and tangy with its gelatinous layer of mango gelee. A thin coating of coconut mascarpone, three dollops of mango gelee resembling a trio of firm egg yolks, and a pair of vibrant violet flowers as a garnish make an artful presentation.
The COVID-19 pandemic forced Garcia and Diño to alter their methods. Though they continue to serve many of the same dishes that were introduced at Fort Street Galley, the presentation at the casual Sterling Heights location is decidedly more relaxed. Whereas dishes were once served atop poppy smears of jam and drizzles of sauce on glossy pure white ceramic plates, today, all dishes at Isla are served in takeout containers to create a less interactive, more disposable experience. “We’re taking the proper steps to make sure everyone is safe — and that we’re safe also,” Garcia says.
Safety is key for Garcia and Diño. They’re parents to four children ages 15, 12, 7, and 9 months — “We have a pandemic baby!” Diño laughs — and share their home with Garcia’s mother. Maintaining their health, for the sake of their family, is of utmost importance — as is their sanity. As the sole employees at Isla, Garcia and Diño are slowly rolling out offerings in ways that are manageable. They’ve held off on reintroducing the appetizer menu that was available at Fort Street Galley. Turns out their finger foods, such as Beef Lumpia, spring rolls filled with minced beef, can take eight hours to hand-roll individually — “and they sell like hot cakes,” Diño says. The new space, a former bakery that shuttered during the pandemic, accommodates space for a panaderia, where Diño will soon introduce Filipino breads and pastries in the mornings. Plush sweet bread rolls called pan de sal and Filipino brioche buns called ensaymada will be on the menu.
Sundays for Garcia and Diño are reserved for quality time with family. Brunch hours are limited to 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. — or as long as the bold purple ube waffles topped with ube butter, crunchy fried chicken, and rich coconut muscovado syrup last.