Fans of breakout hit, Isla, a Filipino restaurant that once resided inside the Fort Street Galley food hall, can now find the restaurant settling into some new digs in metro Detroit. Over the weekend the restaurant’s owners, JP Garcia and Jacqueline Diño open their restaurant for limited evening service in a former Lebon Sweets location on the border of Sterling Heights and Troy.
“The location fits well with the demographics we’re trying to target,” JP Garcia says of the move, noting the large populations of Asian and Filipino residents in the surrounding cities. The restaurant will offer counter service and eventually around 30 seats for casual indoor dining once that become a safe and legal option. For now, the restaurant is focusing its efforts on building its carryout business for dinner and, soon, lunch service too.
Isla, one of a small minority of establishments and pop-ups in Michigan devoted to Filipino cuisine, was a bright spot in the ill-fated Fort Street Galley food hall, which folded in February of 2020. The restaurant turned Filipino diaspora dishes out of its kitchen like lumpia, longsilog, and chicken wings with spaghetti. Diño brought her French pastry skills to the food stall with outstanding desserts like tropical ube cake. Despite attracting people from across the state, the financial structure of the food hall simply didn’t work. By the end of the experiment, Isla was the last remaining original stall standing in the complex.
Garcia tells Eater that he and Diño took what they learned from Fort Street as well as the challenges they’ve observed over the past 10 months of the COVID-19 pandemic and applied it to their new business model. “We did a pop up at Frame and we sold out for the five days that we were there, and that encouraged me and Jacqueline to pursue through the pandemic what we want to be doing, which is introducing Filipino cuisine to our local community here,” he says. Garcia says the space are ideal for Isla’s purposes, because it didn’t require much investment in a buildout and the rent was reasonable. “With our model, I believe with the size of the space and the amount of rent that we need to [pay], our to-go business can sustain like us,” he says, noting that restaurants with large footprints have faced more challenges during the pandemic.
Garcia sees more opportunities to expand the menu without having to consult a landlord about setting prices. “Because we were not getting 30 percent knocked off like when we were in Fort Street from every item we sold,” Garcia says, referring to the food hall’s percentage-based rent model, “now I have more freedom to do my chef specials that I want to do and introduce our cuisine even more.”
Currently, Isla’s menu features a mixture of rice bowls with toppings like chicken adobo and lechon kawali (crispy pork belly with dinuguan sauce) and noodle bowls such as Pinoy baked spaghetti and wings and batchoy (egg noodles with beef, pork, and broth). Once staffing and systems are running smoothly (the pair are currently the only ones working inside the restaurant), Garcia and Diño plan to offer family-style meals and catering as well as daily Filipino breads and pastries from cases at the front of the restaurant.
Isla is located at 2496 Metropolitan Parkway (make sure the address is correct or you may end up at a dead end); soft opening hours are 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday (closed Mondays). Website.